The art of bliss

The Park (A5 sketchbook page collage and mixed media 2017)

In January 1946 a fire broke out in Arshile Gorky’s Connecticut studio, destroying two dozen paintings and many drawings. The following month, he was diagnosed with rectal cancer and endured debilitating surgery. A couple of years later, he broke his back and lost the use of his painting arm in a car accident; shortly afterwards, his wife moved out with their children, and so, heart and spirit broken, Gorky hanged himself in his barn after writing the words “Goodbye, my loveds” in chalk letters on a crate.

The tragedy of Gorky’s final years was mirrored by the hardships of his early life. Brought up among the persecuted Armenian community in Turkey, he and his family lived as hunted refugees: his beloved mother died of starvation in his arms before, still a teenager, he was able to escape to the United States.

Yet in between, he produced some of the most joyful art you could wish to see. Something of a father to the abstract expressionists, and an enormous influence on Willem de Kooning, he painted sensuous, organic forms, coloured with crayons or thin washes of oil paint. Titles such as Pastoral or Virginia Summer give some sense of his work’s roots in the natural world, as do the abstracted forms of seed-pods, fungi and bulbs that inhabit his paintings.

I was reminded of Gorky by an article by Holland Cotter in the New York Times, a review of an exhibition of his landscapes at Hauser & Wirth, “an exhibition as manic and tender as a Schubert song cycle.” He looms large in Mark Stevens’ and Annalyn Swan’s magnificent biography of De Kooning and his retrospective at the Tate Gallery some years ago was a revelation.

I wanted to do something in honour of Gorky that wasn’t intended to copy him so, being still engaged with collage as much as drawing or painting, I put together the piece that heads this post. The shapes are hard-edged and angular where Gorky’s are sensuous, their positions in the grid formal where his are abandoned, but the curling shapes owe something to his vision, confined as they are here to the background.

If you don’t know Gorky’s work and you’re lucky enough to live near New York City, I would urge you to visit the current exhibition. For the rest of us, there is an excellent biography by his son-in-law, Matthew Spender, and resources are plentiful online. Once seen as a somewhat derivative painter who put together elements of Cezanne, Picasso and the surrealists, he is now recognised as an important figure in the development of abstract art and a painter of subtle beauty. Once seen, his paintings and drawings, born out of his early suffering, can never be forgotten.

 

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A creative thanksgiving

Apples blog

Apples (A4 acrylic 2017)

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” Albert Schweitzer

Parker J Palmer opened his Thanksgiving Facebook post with this quotation. We don’t have Thanksgiving in England. We now have Black Friday, of course, another opportunity to acquire stuff we possibly don’t need, but we don’t have a formal occasion to sit and be grateful for what we already have.

Many times during this rather dismal year I’ve had cause to be grateful to friends and family who have helped me keep the flame alight. As I’ve mentioned before, there were times during the first half when that seemed an almost impossible task and I thank all of you who have helped with a well-timed spark. You know who you are.

But this is an art blog so let’s move over to that track.

There are times when you bump up against what might seem like an insurmountable obstacle to creativity. Over the past few months I’ve been struggling to consciously loosen up the way I paint and I have plenty of half-finished monstrosities to prove it. Yesterday evening I took three apples from the bowl, squeezed out some acrylics onto a palette and set about painting a simple still life. My ambition wasn’t to recreate what I saw in front of me but to intrepret those three apples with a complete freedom of execution. The result (above) is no masterpiece, but as with other experiments it got me over that hump.

There’s a fascinating blog post by artist Christopher Gallego entitled 5 unusual habits to keep you growing artistically that I urge you to read. His second piece of advice is ‘Do the impossible’ (the first, ‘Paint some crap’, is also worth trying): ‘Attack something, anything, that scares you to death’, he advises. So painting these apples with big, bright slabs of colour, buttered on with a square brush, was far from the usual way I paint. It was glorious. After an hour of that I felt exhausted and exhilerated, defeated and victorious in equal measure, and glad that I had just attacked the thing that scares me to death: looseness and spontenaiety. As Lorca described the Andalusian folk lyric, ‘a momentary burst of inspiration, the blush of all that is truly alive…the trembling of the moment’ – that’s what we should be aiming for!

So thank you, Christopher Gallego, for your timely spark. Thank you, Annabel Mednick, for making me look and draw what I see every week in my life drawing course. Thank you, Ingrid Christensen for showing us how to paint beautiful loose still lifes, and to you Stanley Bielen, John Button, Lisa Daria, Jennifer Pochinski, Karolina Gacke and many others who show what can be achieved just this side of abstraction.

That’s my creative Thanksgiving.

 

Collaboration

In his book The Undressed Art: Why We Draw, Peter Steinhart quotes a model called Molly Barrons: “I think it’s beautiful to see all these views of me. But I don’t think it’s me. It’s their perspective of me. It’s a very creative thing. And it’s collaborative.” Another model, Joan Carson adds, “What I’m hoping to do is get somebody connected with themselves through me.”

I’ve written before about the relationship between artist and model. It remains both fascinating and elusive: intense yet distant, tender but objective. Does it really matter? I think it does. It requires effort on both sides: whenever I draw Blue King in my Wednesday evening life class I’m aware not only of her physical exertion – an hour or more in a single position – but the fact that she is engaged in a partnership with our group. Molly puts her finger on it: it’s our perspective on the model, a collaborative exchange of pose and interpretation. Our teacher, Annabel Mednick, has often said that we’re not there to draw a portrait of the model, but to capture that light and shade, those planes, the solidity or otherwise of the human body in that position – all of which would seem to support Molly’s view of the process.

In recent weeks I’ve tried to almost sculpt the drawing out of roughly rendered swathes of charcoal, laid down to get the broad shape of the pose. Then it’s a matter of rubbing, drawing, smearing, even scratching to tease the figure out of that background. It’s a truly exhilarating way to draw.

Equally thrilling are the two or three minute poses we start with (some of them reproduced above). Spontaneity is everything: just draw, don’t think too much beyond capturing that arc of the body or turn of the head. Perhaps with this sort of work we – those of us drawing – are somehow connecting with ourselves through the model?

Simple Gifts

Autumn Leaf (A3) mixed media

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free…

I sometimes think that the Autumn, knowing what’s coming over the next few months, gives up little gifts as a kind of consolation. Winter’s coming, and where I live it’ll be grey and soupy. Sorry about that, sighs the Autumn, here’s a damaged quince, here’s a leaf containing more shades of red and green than you can name, here’s a late flowering rose.

Last Sunday – after a delightful, celebratory evening with a friend – I walked down to a nearby petrol station to buy a newspaper and a croissant (surprisingly good, believe me). On my way home, the wind blew a dried and twisted leaf in my path. The thing about following most creative journeys is that simple things can mean a great deal: the rotting fruit that I posted last week, for example, and now this leaf – a colour chart of Autumn shades. Almost anything can inspire, it seems.

I took it home and used it as a starting point, painting the colours much brighter than in nature and using broad brush strokes of watercolour. Only after the basic shape of the leaf was laid down did I draw the curling edges of the leaf in ink and add all the rest of the embellishments it now contains.

The leaf – my simple gift from a passing gust of wind – now sits on the table, growing ever more brittle and slowly losing shade after shade. If I had a German-speaking cleaner, no doubt (s)he would ask, “Ist das Kunst oder kann das weg (Is that art or can it be thrown away)?” The inspiration for this remark is said to be the famous incident around the Fettecke (Grease Corner) by Joseph Beuys. It consisted of 5 kg of butter installed in the corner of a room. On the day before a visit from a VIP, a janitor removed and disposed of it. As the result of a court case, the German state of North-Rhine Westphalia had to pay 40,000 DM in compensation to the owner.

So beware what you throw away. It might just be art after all.

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Quince, essential

Rotting Quince (A5 ink and coloured pencils) 2017

When an apple is past its best it becomes a weirdly wrinkled thing. A pear ages particularly badly, appearing to be whole but beneath that perfect skin lurks a mushy interior. Grapes shrivel, pomegranates go brown and foul-smelling when cut open, mangoes turn into ochre bruises.

Quinces, however, are altogether different. They rot dramatically, their agony written across their flesh like a medieval martyr. Sometimes they split and the edges turn inwards as they discolour, producing a dark blue chasm that reaches down to the heart of the fruit. There is a faint smell of early morning in Spain around your fruit bowl as the dying quince starts to decompose. That beautiful yellow skin acquires brown spots, the base seems to turn inwards and produce bulbous curves like babies’ fists.

Those of you who have followed this blog for a while will know of my adoration of the quince. This fine example – the only fruit from a tree in my ex-wife’s garden – was irresistable. Wearing its fatal wound nobly it nevertheless tried to last the season, ripening in the south German sunshine. I wanted to commemorate its will to survive.

I’m still out there trying to move my art practice on to a different path: my heart wants to explore but my hand wants to draw and paint like it has for the past few years. This drawing is a good example: I had intended it to be a semi-abstract acrylic, it came out as an ink and coloured pencil illustration.

Then again, any representation of this wonderful fruit is worth your time. At least, that’s my view.

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On the brink of everything

Mangosteens blog

Mangosteens (A4 acrylic 2017)

If you’d told me a few years ago that I’d eagerly await Facebook posts from a 78 year old Quaker educationalist I would have been, er – sceptical. However, I now do just that: I’ve yet to read a dull or uninspired post from Parker J. Palmer.

Last week he took us back to a piece he wrote for the On Being website in 2015 called On the Brink of Everything: An Early Morning Meditation. In it, he references another article on the site in which a mother writes about seeing the world through her toddler’s eyes, greeting everything with a sense of wonder and discovery. You don’t have to be a child to do that, PJP demonstrates:

It’s winter in Wisconsin, and the east-facing window was filigreed with ice. The horizon behind the bare trees was aglow with a crimson sunrise that, seen through the tracery of ice, turned the pane into stained glass. For several minutes I took in that scene as if I were admiring a great cathedral through a rose window.

Could anyone other than Mr Palmer write so eloquently about having an early-morning pee? I wondered.

The article ends like this. ‘I’m old enough to know that the world can delight me, so my expectation is not of the world but of myself: Delight in the gift of life and be grateful.’ Isn’t that superb? ‘My expectation is not of the world but of myself‘ – how often do we wait for something to happen, for things to improve, for someone to do something that will enable us to feel better about something else? And how often are we disappointed when the planets don’t align? Discovering one’s own delight in the world is a gift beyond riches, what the mindfulness gurus call ‘beginner’s mind’, I believe.

In the comments on PJP’s Facebook page someone quoted some lines from a Mary Oliver poem (not a writer I usually enjoy): ‘When it’s over, I want to say: all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement./ I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.’

The painting above grew out of a simple delight, finding a fruit I’d never seen before during a day out with a friend in Borough Market, London. It  was meant to be much bigger. It was going to have a table’s edge, a scrubbed out wall behind it. For weeks, on and off, I painted and re-painted, drew a cup and a vase and a cylinder and painted over them all. I was so pleased with the three mangosteens and how loosely I’d rendered them I was determined to finish the painting and not abandon it. Posting it as a work in progress on Instagram and sharing it on Facebook, the painter Karolina Gacke advised me that all it needed was some shadow on the tabletop and it was done.

Less is more…

 

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Another paradise

The Path to the Sea (A4 collage and acrylic on mounting board 2017)

There are a number of places which, when you’re there, you never want to leave. The cool marble and tinkling fountains of the Alhambra; Rome, where Henry James’ greatest heroine ‘dropped her secret sadness into the silence of lonely places where its very modern quality detached itself and grew objective’; New York City in winter, looking out at the snow-filled garden of the Frick mansion from a room hung with Rembrandts.

On a different scale, I’d now add Great Blasket Island off the western coast of Eire. Uninhabited since the early 1950s and dotted with tiny stone cottages in various states of disrepair, the island is a place of enormous beauty and a gentle melancholy. Surrounded by the Atlantic with its ever-changing blues and greens, Great Blasket is virtually cut off from the Dingle peninsula during the winter months when the ocean becomes a fierce adversary. It was the winter isolation with a tragic consequence that finally drove its tiny population from this unlikely paradise.

Some descendents of the Blasket Islanders are renovating and restoring the houses now. Walls are being rebuilt and roofs replaced and a hilltop cafe serves possibly the worst tea you’ll drink in Ireland. In the early years of the last century a number of inhabitants wrote books about their experiences living here which I’m sure are well worth reading, but you don’t really need to.

Just walk down to the beach with its pungent, lolling seals and look out across the ocean which, even on a peaceful summer’s day, peaks and troughs around the coastline. Between you and America there’s nothing but these temperamental waters, stretching away for over 6,000 kilometers. Put yourself in the shoes of those Islanders living on lobster and rabbit and burning peat for warmth; imagine writing your stories or tuning your fiddle by candlelight, a winter storm thrashing at your windows and around your thatched roof. Consider all of that and tell me this isn’t a paradise of sorts where things detach themselves and grow objective.

I’ve been involved in making collages lately, using cut-up pieces of unwanted paintings, as a sort of palate cleanser (apologies, there was no way to avoid the pun) before beginning the task of rethinking the way I paint. There’s something satisfying about finding those corners where a brush stroke takes on true character or a line of charcoal intersects a block of pigment in an exciting way. Building those pieces up into something new is such a thrill. This particular one tries to evoke that feeling of walking to the sea along a lonely cliff path.

More over on Instagram.

My heartfelt thanks to SO’R, PM, SB and IB for making it possible for me to visit Great Blasket last weekend.

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