Monday, December 15, 2008
Here's what I've been furiously trying to finish before the holiday- I made this painting much faster without the same under-painting as the others, and it's also the first one that isn't a rectangle. The square is pretty simple- I'm 100% sure that I'll push the shapes of my canvases next semester. Cheers-
Sunday, December 7, 2008
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
have learned much about the cultural identity of the 1950s. In the studio,
I've had moments of great creativity and moments of unbearable frustration.
The most difficult task for me has been incorporating the feedback I received
from last semester's work into my new paintings. It took me three months to
discover that I was making work to fulfill those suggestions, and in doing so
had lost the joy in making the work I wanted to make. Ultimately, this
difficulty has made me stronger, and though I am not 100% satisfied with the
body of work as a whole, I feel I'm moving in the right direction.
When I left the last residency in June, I had a lot of great feedback to work
with. Sorting through such a wide range of suggestions was hard because they
concerned so many different aspects to my work. The first aspect was the
content itself. My work from the first semester was scattered, using reference
imagery from both advertisement and candid family photos. I knew that the new
work would need more focus, so I made the decision to avoid advertisement and
posed photographs all together. From an idea standpoint, this forced me to
consider the deeper meaning of my subject and to seek images that were
I started by working exclusively from old family photos. At first, I found it
freeing to work in a way that was at least partially autobiographical, since
these photos depict my extended family in the 50s. However, after a month of
working with them I started to get tired of seeing the same people and feeling
a sense of attachment to them. I felt constricted to the photo and found
myself worried that my family would see them merely as portraits. Through
this, I've discovered that its much more beneficial for me to work from an
unknown source, one which can be altered if needed. I've discovered that much
of my work is about the unknown story behind the characters in my paintings.
Knowing the story somehow takes the fun out of making them.
I worked hard to make improvements to the technical application of paint and
surface. My first semester work was very thin and far too transparent. At the
time, I was painting on store-bought stretchers and using a wet on wet
technique my previous mentor suggested. I liked painting with thinned paint.
It allowed me to work quickly and capture energy in my brush strokes. The
finished product though, was very flat and I knew that I had to use much more
paint and add greater texture. I was encouraged to work on gessoed birch
plywood panels, which I did at the beginning of the semester.
As for my palette, my 1st semester paintings relied heavily on ochre to imply
faded color photos and tie the pieces together. I was challenged at the June
residency to avoid the color this time and look closer at the true palettes of
old photographs. This has turned out to be a great suggestion, as my palette
has become dustier and also more vibrant.
My mentor, Patricia Canney, had some good early suggestions. She agreed that
the ochre in my previous work was too strong and that I needed to use much
more paint. She also echoed a lot of what was said at the residency, namely
that my study works from semester 1 were a lot more interesting than my
paintings on canvas. She felt that the under painting on these studies made
the difference, especially the little bits of rough color that show through
I decided early on to paint the surface with shapes of color before adding
thicker paint. On my first 2 paintings, I filled in the surface with layers of
underpainting and then used a palette knife to add textured paint. While I was
pleased with the colors I was achieving and the compositions I was making, I
found that working thick changed everything. My natural tendency with thick
paint is to overwork areas of contrast and detail. The problem is that I just
haven't had enough experience with thick paint to know what to do. My mentor
and I came to the same conclusion: I just needed to paint a lot more to learn
how to do it.
After almost 2 months of work, I found myself very frustrated. Among many
failures, I had two 18" x24" paintings that I found mildly successful. The
rest were stiff and simply didn't work at all. My frustration took a toll on
my creativity, and for a while I felt completely lost. I didn't know what I
wanted to do or how to do it- all I knew was that applying all the new
suggestions to my old ways of working wasn't coming together at all.
In the 2 or 3 weeks that I felt unable to work, I went back to notes from the
residency and pondered a roadmap to my thesis. While the thesis is still not
set in stone, this helped me to see what wasn't working and focus on a new
direction. To start with, the birch plywood panels were a source of
frustration. While far superior to pre-made stretchers, they were heavy and
time consuming to prepare. I was spending a lot of time making them, only to
make bad paintings. I decided to use gesso board panels. Though pricey, they
are a beautiful surface and they saved me a lot of time. The birch wood panels
will eventually get reused.
I also decided to approach scale differently. After the June residency, I was
set on the idea of working at least 18" x 24" if not larger. I agree with
others who have noted that my images would work differently if they could be
huge, and I still see this as a possible direction. After feeling blocked in
my work, I realized that the larger scale would have to wait. Larger paintings
aren't any better if the work is poor. Instead, I went smaller, which I
anticipate will bring a strong reaction in January. The new work is 16" x 20",
and one painting is 9" x 12". I fully expect to work larger down the road, but
for now, I need to paint and advance my ideas, and working smaller has allowed
me to do that. I don't regret the decision in the least.
I talked extensively with my mentor about cropping and composing images. She
is quite good at identifying great composition, and she gave me some great
suggestions for zooming in and out to make the images more interesting. I
searched for new images, and from thousands of stock pictures on the internet
and in old books found interesting compositions that worked. Finally, I looked
at a lot of working artists for inspiration. I discovered a painter who primes
his canvas in bright red before painting cityscapes. When he is finished, the
red is almost completely gone, except for small bits that remain in the
outline of shapes. These miniscule areas of red, though almost unnoticeable,
make a big difference.
With these new ideas, I started work on 6 new paintings simultaneously. In the
past, I have often worked each piece to completion before moving on. This
time, I bounced from one to the other, which allowed me to avoid much of the
frustration I had been feeling. A huge discovery from my mentor along the way
has been Galkyd Gel, which increases the lucidity of the paint while allowing
it to retain texture. It also dries much faster than adding oil. Using the gel
allows me make larger easier strokes. This is where my studio work is
currently at. I am enjoying the process of making new work, and had to fail a
few times along the way to understand what I didn't want to do.
In addition to all the work I've been doing in my studio, I've also been
reading and writing for the academic component. I spent most of my first
semester researching contemporary artists that were new to me. This semester,
I was anxious to look at artists I really admire, including Hopper, Beckmann,
Wood, N.C. Wyeth and Rockwell. While I enjoyed reading books and looking
deeper into these artists, it was tough and a little bit of a stretch to apply
their ideas to my work. I learned the most about Rockwell and his way of story
The best insight came from reading selective essays on 1950's American
consumerism and watching the TV series "Mad Men". Reading "The Man in the Gray
Flannel Suit" was also most helpful. These sources helped me to see the
disconnect of the period; the way consumerism changed people's priorities. All
of a sudden, people in post-war America had money and access to whatever they
wanted. This led to an outward display of contentment and pleasantness that
was at odds with much of life. This disconnect is something I'm very
interested in, not just as part of the American 50s but in how it relates to
our world today. This has added a fresh perspective to my work. I hope that in
some way my future work can speak to this idea in more significant ways.
My work addresses the American myth of the nostalgic 1950s. I'm interested in
comparing reality to that myth and exploring how it appeals to people. I am
not interested in criticism of the period or politics in relation to the idea,
but rather in presenting an image in an appealing yet vague way that begs
viewer interaction. The difficulties I faced in working these last months
have taught me much about the creative process and helped me to further refine
my ideas. I cannot wait to get feedback on these new paintings and start the
process again with a greater understanding of my abilities and intentions.
Monday, November 24, 2008
Here's another new one just finished- I know it's tough to tell from the photo, but I am most pleased with the texture and thickness of the paint here. My mentor has suggested extending my paint with Galkid Gel, which she uses to achieve lucid paint that covers and maintains texture but isn't chunky. This is the first time I've tried it, and it definitely allowed me to paint in a way that's more natural to my style. It does speed up drying time, so it also forced me to mix all the colors in an area and paint them quickly. It's a fun way to work and a step in the right direction I think. It's way to easy for me to over-work things to death. As for the image, it gave me an opportunity to push the vintage color palette and experiment with some busy-ness in the patterns. I also got some better flesh tones out of it. I'm pretty pleased- it's my favorite painting so far this semester. I have 2 more at about 50% done and another 2 to make by January-
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Here's a painting that I've been working on for 2 months and just finished. I'm not super happy with it, but at this point I'm moving on. The image is from an old family photo and I found it pretty funny. The people were obviously posed to show the ocean but its such an unflattering photo. They seem almost disinterested, and the scenery isn't much at all- just a bar of color across the back and wooden boards. This is a poor photo, but shows a little bit of the new color palette I've been using; almost no ochre and instead dustier colors inspired by old color film. I still have 5 paintings in various stages of completion- more to come.
Saturday, November 8, 2008
After ditching a few total failures I've reevaluated some things and set a course. I have about 6 paintings at 50% complete, so my goal is to finish 1 a week into December. This carnival image was one that I made a study painting of back in February. Based on feedback both at the residency and on my blog it was one of the more successfull images. What the study painting has is an energy and gestural quality that changes everything. It's something that gets lost when I paint bigger and with thicker paint. I tend to over work things until they become a huge mess. That's been on my brain in finishing this painting. It isn't quite there for me yet, but getting it to this point feels good. Comments are appreciated.......
Saturday, November 1, 2008
THE DISCONNECT OF 50s AMERICA
My aim as an artist through my recent work is to view American nostalgia through a 21st century lens and present my images in a way that provokes greater thought and challenges modern perception. For this reason, I am looking deeper into the cultural history of the American 50s in search of a greater understanding of the period. The 50s represent an unprecedented time in history were the idealization of the family and the pursuit of the American Dream were at odds with the reality of daily life. It was a decade of great disconnection, where positive perception of the good life existed in conjunction with the Cold War, McCarthyism, racism, and sexism. It was also a time of insecurity for an America in the midst of enormous changes. The goal of this writing is to examine the relationship between advertising and the ideal 50s in hopes of further defining my work and answering the question, why use 50s images?
Post War America was an era of unparalleled growth and consumption. Personality and the self became commodified products to be bought and sold during the 1950s. America immerged from WWII the richest nation on earth, with 24 Billion dollars worth of new factories and millions of workers to fill them. All at once, the majority of Americans had the money to buy whatever they wanted. All they had to do was switch from making tanks and airplanes to cars and refrigerators. In his memoir about growing up in the 50s, Bill Bryson recalls how his neighbors would sit around for hours discussing new appliances. “There was a wonderful simplicity of desire. It was the last time that people would be thrilled to own a toaster or a waffle iron” (Bryson 6). The rise of consumer capitalism gave birth to modern advertising, which looked for ways to separate the buyer from reality and make them believe there was more to a product.
The American dream is itself already a commercial aspiration. Americans are led to believe there is always more and always better and if they can afford it, and they deserve to have it. In the 50s advertising had a profound affect upon domestic life. The focus on the housewife in advertising wasn’t on the elderly housewife; it was on the young glamorous housewife and all the products that would bring about that kind of idealized world. Adds often featured happy well-dressed women cooking and cleaning. Many housewives at that time were young. Advertisers realized that these women were mainly at home and some not so happy about their lot in life, so by glamorizing products used in the home they were able to infuse mundane household tasks with purpose. The message was buy our product, have a great household, make the man in your life happy, and you will be a very proud and accomplished housewife. “It was all meant to convince women that the role of housewife was natural and fulfilling, and that to step beyond these normative roles was in some way abnormal, even deviant” (Abrams 128).
It’s no surprise, notes Bill Osgerby, that the central figure of Hollywood films in the 1950s was the white, middle-class breadwinner. In his article entitled “Muscular manhood and salacious sleaze: the singular world of the 50s macho pulps”, Osgerby explores the roles of men and women as defined by advertising and products, particularly men’s adventure magazines. “During wartime, entry into the labor force or living it alone as a wife or mother had been an empowering experience for many women. In peacetime, however, such independence was seen as a threat to the stability of the traditional sexual order, and government and industry united in a campaign to return women to the home and the secure confines of the nuclear family” (Abrams 127). The macho pulps constructed a hard-boiled and aggressively masculine universe where wholesome white American men bravely saved scantily clothed white American women, often from Nazis or wild animals.
Osgerby believes the macho pulps were about regaining a position of dominance for traditional American manhood, and were a reaction to a declining patriarchal structure. Conformity was also seen as a challenge to manhood. In his book “The Lonely Crowd”, David Reisman saw conformity as an “emasculation, post-war America seeing the rise of an ‘other-directed’ man who followed blindly the lead of those around him in a desperate search to belong” (Reisman 26). It was this fear of conformity that was seen as a threat to individualism. Indeed, though the 50s were a period of great prosperity there was a deep seeded feeling of insecurity on multiple fronts.
In his book “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit”, Sloan Wilson captured the mood of the generation. The main character, Tom Rath, is a typical ‘other-directed’ New York businessman with a home and young family in the suburbs. In a defining chapter in the book, Tom wrestles to make sense of the society he feels stuck in while suppressing the horrible memories he has of his experience in WWII.
“The trick is to learn to believe that it’s a disconnected world, Tom thought; a lunatic world, where what is true now was not true then; where Thou Shalt Not Kill and the fact that one has killed a great many men mean nothing, absolutely nothing, for now is the time to raise legitimate children, and make money, and dress properly, and be kind to one’s wife, and admire one’s boss, and learn not to worry, and think of oneself as what? That makes no difference, he thought- I’m just a man in a gray flannel suit. I must keep my suit neatly pressed like anyone else, for I am a very respectable young man” (Wilson 98).
Sloan Wilson’s novel was most useful in understanding the heart behind the 50s. There is no idealism to “Flannel Suit”. The characters fit into a world where pleasantness is the norm and wrestle with real life. It was refreshing for me to read a work that while fictional, sheds light on the real disconnect between advancing 50s culture and the day to day lives of people. Tom Rath struggles to appear as if everything in his life fits into the realm of happiness, but in reality, his life is messy just like everyone else.
Bill Bryson talks humorously about the 50s disconnect on the most basic of levels. As a child, he learned to read by reading the Dick and Jane books, which in simple words portray the absurdity of idealized America. In the Dick and Jane books, Father is always called father, never Dad or Daddy, and always wears a suit. Mother is always Mother. She is always on top of things, nicely groomed in a clean frilly apron. “The family has no last name. They live in a pretty house with a picket fence on a pleasant street, but they have no radio or TV and their bathroom has no toilet. The children- Dick, Jane and little Sally- have only the simplest and most timeless of toys. No one ever shouts or bleeds or weeps helplessly. No meals ever burn. No dust ever accumulates. The sun always shines. The dog never shits on the lawn. There are no atomic bombs. Everyone is at all times clean, healthy, strong, reliable, hardworking, American and white. Every Dick and Jane story provided some simple but important lesson- respect your parents, share your possessions, be polite, be honest, be helpful, and above all work hard” (Bryson 146).
In terms of my own personal work, understanding the disconnect of the 50s is enormously helpful. In my previous body of work, several of my sources were from posed photographs used in advertising, while others were candid shots of families. At the time, I almost saw them as one and the same in representing the time period. The posed photos, while not realistic, do speak to the nature of advertising and the idealized view of the 50s. I’ve since changed my photo reference to personal images that reflect a real snapshot of 50s time. I’ve also embraced those images that have a sense of ambiguity or vagueness about them, so that I am not making a personal statement or advocating a specific issue in comparing the past to the present. I am more interested in the open-ended functions of painting. If anything, understanding the disconnect present in every aspect of 50s life brings an entirely new element to depictions of housewives and breadwinners.
In my research, I’m reminded not just of how different things are today but also how in many ways they remain the same. It has been estimated that we are exposed on average to 3,000 advertisements every day. Perhaps we are more aware of the ads, but we still are drawn to those products we feel a personal connection to. Advertising has even turned presidential politics into a visual media, a commercial game of who comes across best and who identifies the most with people as a product. Even now we are living with the consequences of an American Dream where we can have all that we want because we deserve it, even if we can’t afford it. The disconnect is still there for many people in American society, and will remain for as long as people find their identity in products and in denying the reality of life. I hope in my paintings I can address this disconnect as it was in the past and still in some ways is today. I’d like to think that perhaps we are starting to wake up from that dream.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
As for my work, I havn't posted in a while because I have about 6 paintings going at the same time now. I've decided to spend a lot more time building the paintings up through layers of glazing rather than working 1 from start to finish. I'll post some in progress pictures shortly. My ideas are the same, but my approach has changed a lot.
Friday, October 3, 2008
After hearing from dozens of people that I should watch it, I have finally seen a few episodes of "Mad Men", which is the big TV show right now- it just won best series at the emmys. The show centers around the high profile world of advertising executives in 1960 New York. There's all sorts of great stuff about advertising, but the real story of the series is that point in history where all the optimism and idealization of the 50s started to change. The characters know how to put on a front, but they are all messed up and wrestling with who they really are versus what they are supposed to be. There are many moments of shocking political incorrectness, especially in regards to the role of women in society. Elements of the story can be a downer, but all in all I am really enjoying watching it. Most of all, it is beautifully produced and shot, and every character is smoking constantly so there are amazing photographic shots. It's all about nostalgia vs. real life, and its convincing.
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
Rockwell and Beckmann
“If you want to reproduce an object, two elements are required. First, the identification with the object must be perfect; and second- it should contain, in addition, something quite different. This second element is difficult to explain. Almost as difficult as to discover one’s self. In fact, it is just this element of your own self that we are all in search of." –Max Beckmann
When I think about the ideas of artists closest to my work, Norman Rockwell is an obvious choice. His beautifully rendered paintings of children and families speak to idealized American nostalgia like no other. As I am working with 50s imagery, I find his ideas unavoidable. I have recently looked much deeper into his work. I am amazed at his abilities as a painter and storyteller, but often feel put off by the accessibility to his images. Max Beckmann remains among my favorite artists for his raw approach to subject matter and paint. He is the anti-Rockwell: Rockwell allows the viewer to look from a safe distance, while Beckmann’s works ensnare the viewer in a world of chaos. In this writing I will attempt to compare and contrast the styles of these two vastly different influential artists, and dissect 2 paintings from each to get to the core of what their art means to me.
Max Beckmann’s art is undeniably powerful. I am most drawn to his early work made shortly after WWI, where he served a medical orderly and witnessed daily the worst of humanity. This experience forever changed the way he saw space in his paintings. Beckmann “had experienced his own weakness and the irrationality of life. He could not make sense of it, but he could use his art to live within its horrors and to find a way through.” (Beckett 34). His early work is chaotic and pulsing with dark energy. Objects seem dislocated and contorted, and the space appears buckled and illogical.
Beckmann “Descent from the Cross” 1917
Beckmann’s take on the traditional theme of Christ’s decent from the cross is a direct reference to the twisted bodies seen in late Gothic paintings and the carnage of WW1. I am most attracted to Beckmann’s use of line and space in his work. He outlines his figures with strong black line, which gives them an angular quality. He uses the lines to play with the space of the picture. There’s an absence of unifying depth in the background of the work, which leaves the figures as the only reference for space. Beckmann elongates hands and limbs, unnaturally contorts specific parts and dramatically foreshortens the dead Christ’s bloody feet.
His figures are simple and defined by line, but somehow he keeps them from becoming cartoons. There is a confrontational weight to the dead Christ and pained grief on the face of his mother Mary. Even though the painting is chaotic and strangely composed, Beckmann conveys violence and loss through the use of paint. There are portions of the picture where the paint has been hastily applied to fill in the negative areas, and others where Beckmann adds detail to faces and hands. Upon closer look, there are small strokes of bright yellow, blue and red against the black outline of Christ’s body. From a distance this gives the skin a sickly color of death while further accentuating the movement of the line. I am equally drawn to the ways negative shapes are affected by the positive shapes.
Beckmann’s “The Night” 1918-19
“The Night” is a chaotic and brutal painting, depicting the scene of an atrocity. A mother has been tied and raped, her husband strangled, and her daughter kidnapped. Once again, line defines every part of the painting and parts of the figures are foreshortened, but this time the figures are mashed very close together in a tight space where every limb, object and fold of cloth carries the eye across the piece to another point. There are no dead zones in the painting. Beckmann makes the viewer a willing participant in the violence rather than a distant viewer. Extra emphasis is again given to key areas, specifically the horrified face of the strangled man gasping for air and the goofy pipe- smoking man to the right, who seems unaffected by the pain he is inflicting by twisting his arm. Beckman even articulates the veins bulging out of the tortured mans legs. With all the movement in the piece, you cannot help but be drawn into the violence of the situation. I envy Beckmann for the power he brings to painting. His work does not hinge upon the realistic depiction of figures, but rather upon the motion he attains through lines and shapes in the work. I appreciate Beckmann for the way his painting style conveys his views. This has to be the highest goal for a painter- to discover that perfect method in paint of getting your idea across. I think Beckmann’s methods are among the most gripping.
The works of Norman Rockwell are everything that Max Beckmann is not. His paintings are safe, warm and cozy. They are meticulously rendered and tell a self-contained story. Both artists approach space in a unique way. Beckmann allows space to disintegrate to madness- a point where figures become contorted or weightless. Rockwell sometimes flattens the space around his figures, but he always uses the space as a means to tell a story. Most importantly to Rockwell, scenes are idealized and play upon the nostalgic tendencies people have for simpler times. Beckmann presents the truth of human evil, while Rockwell presents an idealized view of perfect human happiness. Rockwell stated, “Commonplaces never become tiresome. It is we who become tired when we cease to be curious and appreciative… We find that it is not a new scene which is needed, but a new viewpoint” (Hennessey 33). It’s the new viewpoint on a commonplace theme that draws me to Rockwell.
Rockwell’s “Going and Coming” 1947
In a career that spanned over 60 years, Norman Rockwell almost never painted a picture that wasn’t intended to be an ad or magazine cover. “That is the essential paradox of Rockwell’s life: he was America’s best-loved and most famous artist but, according to the gatekeepers of the institutional world of art, he wasn’t an artist at all” (Marling 7). Today his works are appreciated for the works of art that they are. What I appreciate most about Rockwell is the way he stages his compositions with expressive figures and unique viewpoints.
One of my favorite Rockwell images is “Going and Coming”. The painting is equally divided into two panoramic scenes depicting the same family of 7 people and their dog going on and coming back from vacation. Between the two scenes the work is all about observing the changing expressions on their faces, with happy excitement above contrasted by fatigue below. Only grandma in the back seat remains unchanged. Around the family are objects that give clues as to what the family did. What makes the work particularly engaging is the obsessive attention to detail. I am particularly drawn to the piece for the way Rockwell frames his figures within the geometric shapes of the car windows. His choice to crop in on the car is unconventional, which catches the viewer off guard at first before inviting them to piece together the story of the picture.
“Christmas Homecoming” is an example of Rockwell at his most nostalgic. In the center, a man with his back to us is welcomed by a large group of elated family members young and old. Only the presents under the man’s arm and a small glimpse of a Christmas tree in the upper right corner speak to the title. So strong is Rockwell’s ability to tell a story, that we instantly know this homecoming was a complete surprise to the family. The look on their faces is pure joy. Rockwell arranges the composition with the man dead center. Every other figure fits within this space, even if it means that their heads are cropped off at the top of the picture. It brings the viewer to the center of the happy reunion.
I really admire Rockwell for way he communicates through paint. However I find myself tired by the sentimentality of his work. There’s only so much Rockwell I can take. There are works of his that force you dig deeper for details in the story, and then there are straightforward images like the “Christmas Homecoming”. At times, I almost feel insulted by them.
For my work, Rockwell is an essential example of paintings ability to provoke nostalgia and longing. I like to think that I reject sentimentality in my work in favor of vagueness to make things more open ended than Rockwell. Still, I have much to learn about composing an image to tell a story, even if I wish to leave that story open-ended. Beckmann truly inspires me, not so much in the violence and darkness of his subject matter, but in the way that his style allows him to bypass realism in his figures in favor of paintings that have a life of their own. This strange coupling of two such different artists begs an interesting question. Could there ever be a Beckmann painted by Rockwell, or a Rockwell painted by Beckmann?
I don’t believe Max Beckmann ever had the capacity for nostalgia or sentimentality. Everything about his work is dark and brooding, so I cannot picture a Beckmann Rockwell. However, Norman Rockwell did work with disturbing and violent imagery towards the end of his career. Paintings such as “The Problem We All Live With” (1964) and “Southern Justice” (1965) depict the violence and madness of civil-rights era injustice in the classic Rockwell way. They too tell stories, but also confront the viewer with the madness of humanity. So perhaps, Rockwell made his Beckmann after all.
Beckett, Wendy. “Max Beckmann and the Self” Prestel, New York/Munich. 2003.
Hennessey, Maureen Hart and Anne Knutson. “Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People”. Harry N. Abrams, New York. 1999.
Hughes, Robert. “American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America”. Alfred A. Knopf. New York. 1999.
Lackner, Stephan. “Beckmann.” Harry N. Abrams, New York. 1999.
Marling, Karal Ann. “Rockwell: Americas Most Loved Painter”. Taschen, Köln, 2005.
Rainbird, Sean. “Max Beckmann/Museum of Modern Art”. MoMA, New York. 2003.
Rockwell, Norman. “My Adventures as an Illustrator”. Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1988.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Sunday, August 31, 2008
Painting Reality: Influential Artists and Movements
In my first semester research, I focused on working artists using the human figure in order to understand current trends in painting. I learned a lot about modern approaches to the figure and representation, which challenged my thinking and my work. It also inspired me to revisit the work of influential past artists in search of helpful concepts and ideas. I’ve decided to set aside an entire paper for the work of Max Beckmann and Norman Rockwell, so I will not discuss them here. Instead, I’ll discuss a group of influential artists working in roughly the same 20 year period: the New Objectivity painters of Weimar Germany in the 1920s, and the work of N.C. Wyeth, Grant Wood and Edward Hopper. These artists all manage to capture a sense of nostalgia and longing in their work through their uniqueness of vision and use of stylization.
The painters of the New Objectivity movement never set out to explore nostalgia and longing. Instead, they were participants in an exciting decade where art and culture boomed in Germany. It all came to an abrupt end with the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, when nearly all of the artists fled the country or were killed. Today, their paintings remain as relics of an era distant from a post WWII world. New Objectivity was a return to representational art, and arose to counter the emotional color-driven works of expressionism. Most of these painters had fought in WWI, and carried deep emotional scars. They had seen hell with their own eyes in the trenches, and in a fragile Germany after the war had great distaste for false optimism.
Artists such as George Grosz, Otto Dix and Christian Schad set out to portray “real life” as literally as possible. For Grosz and Dix, their paintings became the grotesque caricatures of the high-class German elite. Schad explored themes of loneliness and uncertainty through his quiet portraits of German nightlife. “His sociality is that of private and semi-private relationships governed by sexuality, even if the public content sometimes appears to conceal this” (Michalski 46). One thing all of these painters have in common is a stylization that extends beyond reality and yet somehow captures more of it. I find this work fascinating. Though often brutal in content, these works manage to capture the human condition in a way that still speaks today. Knowing the outcome of Germany certainly changes the way these pieces are viewed. They become romanticized reminders of an era lost forever.
N.C. Wyeth was an artist who made his career portraying idealistic views of the past. Well known for his many paintings reproduced in classic children’s books, advertisements and government war posters, Wyeth was a giant in American illustration who knew how to tell a story better than anyone. He based all of his paintings in what he perceived as reality, tirelessly researching each image for historical accuracy and painting outside in nature to capture vibrant colors and atmospheric effects. He was a master at projecting himself into the scenes he was painting, giving them truthfulness and accuracy that few others would accomplish. “There is a romanticism and idealism to most of his works: the heroes are strong and virile, the flags wave majestically, victory is always at hand” (Smith 26).
Despite his enormous success, he was unhappy as an artist because people in the art establishment looked down on him as being too commercial. He once wrote, “There is a very depressing belief in artistic circles, particularly among the painters themselves, that illustration is not art but a craft, that it is not conceived from inspirational sources- The painters opinion of the illustrators profession as compared to his own, if often very near that of contempt” (Allen 179). Wyeth spent his entire career trying to gain artistic recognition as a painter, and didn’t receive a one-man show until 1939. He had been painting mass-produced illustrations loved by millions for almost 40 years. Today, there is a renewed interest in the illustrative paintings of N.C. Wyeth. When I saw a show of the paintings he created for the classic book series, I was amazed at the power of his figures and his use of color. They speak to an idealized/romanticized past filled with great adventure. It’s easy to be completely drawn in by them.
Another artist I have come to greatly admire is Grant Wood. He was a painter who had great understanding of subtle stylization and humor in his figures. He was also the driving figure in the American Regionalist movement, which began rather suddenly when Kansas City art dealer Maynard Walker coined the term and introduced Wood (along with Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry) to the art establishment in 1933. Said Walker, “Here is a real American art, an indigenous art expression, which really springs from American soil and seeks to interpret American life” (Jennings 26). At the time, there was a great desire in American art to break away from European traditions.
Said Wood: “Because of this new emphasis upon native materials, the artist no longer finds it necessary to migrate even to New York, or to seek any great metropolis. No longer is it necessary for him to suffer the confusing cosmopolitanism, the noise, the too intimate gregariousness of the large city” (Wood 131). It’s clear from Wood’s writings that he is objecting not only the physical act of traveling to Europe or New York, but more importantly the journey through popular artistic trends centered in those places. Instead, Wood believed that the artist should draw upon their home to find inspiration. It was this uncommon rural perspective, he believed, that was needed in places like New York.
These were big ideas in America during the Great Depression when Americans were nostalgic for a rural Eden were life was good and morals were strong. The only problem was that there was no real rural Eden. “It was the kind of image that one looks back on with the nostalgia and yearning that, in times of stress, became confused with a sense of history- rather as the wholesome, un-conflicted image of America generated by network TV in the 1950s became a “real” but lost America for right-wing fantasists like Newt Gengrich in the mid-1990s” (Hughes 439). Grant Wood’s work appeals to me for this reason. There really isn’t anything special about his subject matter, but his images of awkward and rather plain people and landscapes speak to a simpler time and a sense of longing for something now unreachable. This approach to art is counter-cultural in an art world always looking to a future and an art that is cutting edge.
It’s now known that Grant Wood was closeted homosexual. Knowing this ads a whole new element to works like “American Gothic”. In the strange posing and composition of the painting, was he trying to take a subtle jab at the people who didn’t understand him or was he praising idwestern virtues? Either way, this duality is what makes the works of Grant Wood intriguing to me. In using 50s imagery in my paintings, I’m attempting to create an art that does more than mock the subject or praise a virtue; one that suggests both but also completely relies on the sensibilities of the viewer.
Like Grant Wood, Edward Hopper became well known as a symbol of an original American art. Hopper had a long career stretching into the 1960s, and was openly resistant to the abstract trends of modernism. He later became something of an outsider to the art world as a has-been representational painter. His work has been very influential to me. Hopper uses light, shape and color in his work to bring ordinary objects and surroundings to life in a most unusual way. Not unlike the other artists I’ve discussed, there’s an illusiveness to Hopper’s work that makes it appealing. “Hopper offered a brand of realism not bound by reality. His work appears at once traditional and modern; his women both erotic and puritanical; and the places he depicted are familiar and foreign, comfortable and disquieting. While Hopper insisted that it was himself he was after in his painting, a part of all of us resides in these quiet spaces” (Barter 11).
Hopper paints each picture with a sense of detachment; he leaves the scenes open ended. Each composition possesses a “self-contained autonomous reality” (Kransfelder 44). The ability of painting to show reality was something that Hopper constantly wrestled with: “I was never able to paint what I set out to paint”, he once wrote. Instead, he presented what he saw in a completely original way. He altered his scenes by removing the unnecessary details and people, and simplified forms to shapes of color and light. It gives his work a stillness and serenity unlike any other. These moments of frozen time also make the strangeness of Hopper’s paintings acceptable. For example, his female figures are often awkward, but their placement in the picture turns the role of inadvertent voyeur onto the viewer. Through all of his work, there is a sense of timelessness and an appreciation for the simple beauty of surroundings.
What draws me to these artists is the way their images engage the viewer. New Objectivity paintings transport the viewer to a bygone era, while the works of Grant Wood and N.C. Wyeth speak of an idealized historical past. Edward Hopper managed to freeze time all together in his works. Ultimately, I feel that my work is about time as it relates to viewer perspective. Working with images from the 50s is a way for me to do this, but I’m aware that this idea is much more complex than images from one decade. I hope to progress to the point in my work were the time period is less noticeable, so the works become more about memory in general than a specific point in the past. The works and ideas of these artists have been invaluable and will continue to be the basis for my paintings.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Friday, August 22, 2008
Thursday, August 14, 2008
Thursday, August 7, 2008
Monday, August 4, 2008
Hannah Barrett commented that stylistically my work is stuck between being a social critique of the 50s and participating in it. How do I make a 50s images mine in 2008? What’s the distance from the period and does that visually translate to a change in surface or a more graphic image? These are good questions that I’ll be asking myself. I also need to cater more to my strengths to a painter. Tony Apesos correctly pointed out that I am better at painting objects and surroundings than faces. I realized that while I have embraced the role of a figure painter, I have much more skill and interest in painting areas of stuff. Some people asked if I intended to paint the faces awkwardly or if I just wasn’t there yet as a painter, and I think the answer is yes and yes. I had no intention of painting photorealistic faces and I am still learning a lot about painting flesh. This was an important realization for me. It opened my mind to many ideas aside from the figure.
I also realized that I need to advance the image much more. The works either need to be more realistic or more stylized, and now they are somewhere in between. I can safely say that I do not want to make them realistic, so I plan on experimenting with different levels of stylization. Hannah went so far as to suggest the work of John Baldisari, who removes faces all together with colored dots. While some level of simplification might come into play, I do not plan on going this far. Still, it’s helpful to understand that an image can speak through what is left out as much as what is depicted.
Hannah noted that my paintings are unpredictable because they don’t play to viewer expectation. She encouraged me to capitalize on that, or take that as a cue to radically crop, fragment areas and make the composition go off the page. I am very interested in this idea. I have worked hard to avoid obvious meaning and interpretation in my work, so this came as a great compliment. I am very interested in the idea of cropping and will certainly approach reference imagery differently. As a photographer rather than a painter, I found Oliver Wasow’s take on my work very insightful. He asked me how I engage nostalgia without going down the slippery slope of kitsch. To him, that’s an interesting question and he feels that so far I’m doing it successfully.
This is an essential question to my work. Because the imagery predates my life and thus can never be my personal experience, I am re-representing a corporate American nostalgia. It’s a subject matter that can turn kitsch very easily. Oliver noted that I could throw the 1940s, 60s and 70s at this idea because it’s about period as defined by photography and media. What I’m saying through a family portrait is that family is family, not a specific family. That means the works are generic, and I find great interest in the idea that a work can speak to a wide range of viewer sensibility.
Another option is to turn autobiographical in my work. John Kramer called me on my use of the imagery, and tried to get at the heart of my interest in it. Because I absolutely see a connection with the 50s through my family and the continued questioning of domestic roles, these images do have the potential to be much more personal through the use of family photographs. Currently I’m wresting with this idea. I am open to the use of any image that will make an interesting painting, and until now have not looked to create meaning through the subject matter. I would rather, as Oliver noted, explore American nostalgia from a distance and let the viewer derive meaning.
I received a lot of feedback and suggestion concerning the technical aspects to my work. My work from semester 1 was in large part experimental. I played around with areas of flat color vs. rendered objects in my compositions, and I made the backgrounds simple and complex across the work to see how it would change the figure. The only variable that stayed the same was my palette, which contains a lot of yellow ochre. The palette came out of my desire to find a group of colors resembling faded color film. Hannah and Tony found the ochre overwhelming and encouraged me to change the palette. Both John and Oliver said that they didn’t pick up on the colors of faded film at all, but Oliver added that the brightness of the palette made it something else, which he found interesting. This semester I will look to scale back the brightness of my work through including more subtle browns, but I won’t all together banish the ochre. I consider my palette as a work in progress.
As for the surface of my paintings, comments across the critiques were more or less the same. I need to use a lot more paint and take more time preparing the surface with layers of gesso. I also need to paint on portrait linen or birch plywood. I’m considering now how to make the best use of my time this semester. I plan on using panel, but will probably make many more compositional and color studies on paper for each image. Some professors suggested working on a much larger scale, even life size. Having done large murals, I am intrigued with the idea. I think that my paintings would be much more effective on a large scale, but for logistical reasons I am pushing that idea to the back burner for now. Perhaps I’ll concentrate on making a large work for my thesis. Right now I still have too many other questions to resolve in my work.
My biggest challenge for future work will be finding a level of stylization to the figures and composing my images with detail and flatness. These were areas of extensive discussion in critiques, and while the comments I received contradicted each other, I have a better idea now of where I need to go with things. In trying to make my work more painterly, I’ve discovered a fondness for negative shape and areas of flat color. In my canvases from semester 1, these negative shapes became areas of ochre. Hannah noted those areas of great detail and areas of flatness. She suggested that I go either way with it or do both and push the contrast much further. This is what I want to do, and I think it will be an ongoing issue in my work for some time.
As for the level of stylization, I have many ideas. There are many artists that work with stylized figure, and I will be looking closer at their methods. I was often asked in crits about the artists I wish to emulate. I’ve long been fascinated with the work of the German New Objectivity painters and specifically the work of Max Beckmann. The professors agreed that these would be great artists to look at, and suggested others. Among them, a closer look at the work of Norman Rockwell was a common suggestion. Rockwell’s work encapsulates American nostalgia better than anyone. He has often been dismissed as being an illustrator over a fine artist, but his use of storytelling and figure stylization is remarkable. I certainly don’t wish to create Rockwells, but I will absolutely look closer at his work this semester. Tony suggested that I compare and contrast the form and content of Rockwell and Beckmann. To me, this sounds like a fascinating paper topic.
The broad range of comments I received from my second residency called into question my intentions for everything in my work. I left the residency with a lot more questions than answers, and many possible and often conflicting directions to take my idea. Having sorted through that, I have a renewed understanding that everything I do has to be intentional and thought out. It’s easy for me to feel stressed by the huge task of creating this next work. Tony asked me, “What do you want to see? If you went into a gallery and wanted to see something that speaks to your vision, what would it be?” This encourages me to think less about the process and more about the end, and makes me want to get back to work. This semester will be about progressing the idea of American nostalgia while trying to arrive at a look of stylization that compliments the idea.