Sunday, August 31, 2008

New Paper: Influential Artists

     Christian Schad, N.C. Wyeth, Grant Wood, Edward Hopper

Here is my most recent paper on influential artists- more new images to be posted shortly...

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

what about diptychs?

I won't lie- I can't remember the last time I've felt so blocked. Through my frustration I somehow managed to finish 2 paintings, but I'm having mixed feelings about them. I think they look okay but I had zero fun making them and I think I'm thinking too hard. I'm also trying to follow every suggestion from June which means these paintings are turning into something else entirely. Tonight I sat and stared at an empty
white panel for 2 hours before searching for more source material. I managed to find some obscure websites where people scan old photos. One of the photographers arranges his photos in diptychs like this one....

This really stands out to me, not only for the great lines between the 2 photos but for the fragmentation of time that it shows. It also somehow tells a story between the characters or speaks to 2 separate memories in one image. I'm going to make a few studies in the next few days and see if I can't combine an image this way. 

Friday, August 22, 2008

Finally- some new images

Here are 2 pieces I've been working on for a month now.... I've been making lots of studies as well. I'll include a picture of the studies here so that you can see my thought process a little better. It's hard to tell by the photos, but I've been using much more paint- these are quite thick and almost sloppy in areas. I'm still pushing the stylization of the figures, and to be honest, I'm not there yet. I've been as blocked as I've ever been and I'm hoping these are the start of something. I'm trying to stick with old family photos instead of those from advertisement. Notice too that with the advice of professors, I've banished ochre completely. I must say I do miss it, but its absence has forced me to make all of my colors dustier and think about colors in a very deliberate way. The palette is still progressing. I'm still playing with large shapes of flat color, only now the red and green are taking place of the ochre. I've got 2 new ones to start this weekend and many more studies to make. 

Thursday, August 14, 2008

"Marty" and "The Wild One"

I just finished watching 2 iconic 50's films, both of which show a 1950s perspective in characterization that makes you ponder how much things have changed. 
"Marty" won the Oscar for best picture in 1955 and was the most popular picture in America. It's a very simple love story about a lovable 34 year old loser finally finding love. It's filled with old-fashioned politeness, and you can't help but pull for Marty. It's great to watch the way the characters relate and socialize, so different than today. It's such a simple movie- but it works really well. 

I also watched "The Wild One" with Marlon Brando from 
1953. This movie was highly controversial at the time for depicting the antics of an outlaw biker gang. It was even banished in the UK. I found the movie hilarious. These bikers are supposed to be dangerous (in 1953 they were), yet they joke around and use phrases like daddy-o. They wear silly leather jackets and act juvenile. It's impossible to watch the film and not see the absurdity in it. Still, it shows what "outlaw" meant to the 1950s. The film was so popular that Brando started the fashion trend of black biker jackets and created an iconic image of the "rebel without a cause", even though the movie by that name was made 2 years later. 

I have 2 paintings at about 80% complete- I will post those images soon (hopefully).

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Plays adapted to Film

I've been using these last few weeks until I resume teaching to work as much as possible. I've also resumed my viewing of films from the 50s. I recently watched 2 classic films adapted from popular stage plays: "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" with Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor and Alfred Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder". The staging of the actors is very theatrical, and the scenes of dialogue are often long and uncut. Both stand out as quite counter-cultural in 2008. "Cat" takes place on a southern plantation with happy black servants, while "Dial M" portrays female characters as week and needy. Still- these were good films to watch....

Both movies have a great 50s look to them in the costuming and sets. "Dial M" is a far superior film with some great Hitchcockian suspense and some great camera angles. "Cat" is interesting as a 50s film because its all about a disfunctional family coming to grips with the their problems. New images to be posted soon...

Monday, August 4, 2008

Residency Summary

Here's my residency summary paper from Aug. 1st. I should have new images to post soon.

My second residency at AIB was a very informative time. I received a lot of great feedback and criticism, and left with many possible ideas for artistic direction. Those ideas are scattered across the spectrum of possibility, so my current challenge lies in determining a route towards my thesis work a year from now. In general, most suggestions I received concerned one common question: what is my personal take on the subject matter and imagery? I need to push that issue further to take my work to the next level.

 My first semester work derives from photographic reference from the 1950s. I presented 2 bodies of work. The first was a series of smaller study paintings on paper, and the second was a group of 5 larger oils on canvas. The consensus from critiques seemed to be that there was an energy and an awkwardness to the study paintings that advanced the image, whereas the oil paintings looked too refined and smoothed. John Kramer told me that the oils were dead to him, and suggested that I refer back to the studies as I make my next work. Instantly I knew he was correct. The oils are more polished, and they do loose something that the studies have.


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.