The art of baseball

Baseball (A5 sketchbook page/ ink/ 2018)

I have a theory about baseball: I don’t think it’s a sport at all, but rather a type of performance art.

At the risk of offending readers in the US, as a sport it’s pretty unexciting: there’s a lot of standing around, no-one ever seems to hit the ball and, if they do, it’s nearly always caught or they get run out.

Seen as performance art, however, it’s fascinating. The costumes, the many rituals, that weird rule that someone on first or second base can run unless the pitcher spots him, the movements of the individual players, the organ accompaniment that offers an ironic musical commentary on the action (or lack of it) – all of this adds up to a rather ritualistic type of performance.

Have you ever seen a field full of rabbits? It has a similar dynamic: the rabbits appear to move in a predestined way which might appear random at first but soon suggests a bigger pattern. Are they being controlled or do they know when it’s their turn in the game?

I’ve developed this theory after seeing one game. I was fortunate enough to be invited to a baseball game the last time I was in the US, and I expected to enjoy the hot-dogs and beer thing but be bored senseless by the actual play (I’d seen it on TV once and it made drying paint look edgy…). In fact the game was compelling: seeing the field as a whole, instead of just close-ups of the players as happens on TV, was what suggested performance art. What’s more, at one stage I went downstairs to the men’s room and hundreds of people were waiting in line for food and drink – it was like a parallel event down there: a festival of deep-fried food, perhaps?

I drew the two batters (never batsmen, I was informed) above from photographs I took at the game. I would like to thank Jim and Susie for introducing me to this new and unforgettable artform, masquerading as a sport.

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Circling around the truth

Jasper Johns web

Jasper Johns (pencil on A5 sketchbook page) 2018

In February, I sat on a friend’s couch in upstate New York and read an article on America’s most prominent artist, Jasper Johns.

Johns can’t be the easiest person to interview: he famously said the book about his work he most enjoyed was by a Japanese scholar – he couldn’t understand a word of it. His renowned flag paintings, which the MoMA was afraid to buy in the McCarthy shadowed 1950s, can be interpreted as either patriotic or subversive. Make up your own mind: all Johns will say is that the idea came to him in a dream. And he won’t even tell you about the dream.

According to Deborah Solomon, the author of the New York Times article, his flag paintings were revolutionary because they didn’t turn private feelings into public statements but claimed public symbols for the realm of inwardness and personal experience. His goal was not to convey a truth, but circle cryptically around it.

I love that idea about circling around the truth. I suppose that’s why I admire those artists who can keep a foot in the figurative but bring a sense of abstraction or mystery to their work. To me, seeing a painting of a vase of flowers that gives, say, their colours prominence over form allows us privileged insight into the artist’s view of the world – not just painting – more than would be the case with a deliberate representation of the subject. If you follow this link and look at the images before you read the bio, wouldn’t you already feel that the artist’s philosophy is something like “living is not just surviving”?

Raye, over at Jots from a Small Apartment, shared this quote from Jasper Johns:

I think that one wants from a painting a sense of life. The final suggestion, the final statement, has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement. It has to be what you can’t avoid saying.

That’s what makes some artists’ work so essential, I think. Not just Jasper Johns, but anyone making ‘helpless’ statements, statements that they ‘can’t avoid saying.’  I’ve written before about the compulsion to draw or paint, that feeling that it’s something that must be done and, more to the point, must be done in this way. It’s that creative vigour that separates art from picture making, artists from painters.

There is a truth in everything we see and perhaps the best way to tell it is to suggest it rather than say it, to circle around it instead of stating it directly. Just like Jasper Johns.

The great and the bad

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Life Drawing (Drawing of Blue King) (A2) 2018

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has indefinitely postponed a Chuck Close retrospective because of allegations of sexual harassment. The 77 year old paraplegic artist is alleged to have made inappropriate remarks about the bodies and sexual activities of women he invited to his studio to pose, allegations which he largely denies. Other museums, including the MoMA in NYC and the Tate Modern in London, are considering what to do about the works in their collections.

Recently, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston opened an exhibition of Egon Schiele’s work with new wall labels addressing the fact that Schiele was arrested for the kidnapping and statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl. He was acquitted but was eventually found guilty of “immorality” because the girl had seen some of his nude works in his studio. “Wall labels in the exhibition acknowledge that Schiele has been a part of the current conversation, and don’t shy away from these issues,” a representative for the museum told artnet News.

How far do we go with this? Picasso famously either adored women or treated them badly: one of his lovers hanged herself and his second wife shot herself. Caravaggio was a nasty piece of work by all accounts and we perhaps shouldn’t enquire too deeply what Gauguin got up to in Tahiti. Being a great artist doesn’t necessarily require you to be a nice person.

But should their work be taken down from the walls of the world’s museums? Before I get trolled out of existence let me stress that this is a serious question, and I struggle with the answer. It’s disappointing that Chuck Close, an artist I admire enormously, apparently felt the need to make smutty remarks to women he had invited to pose. The relationship between an artist and the model is a complex one that I’ve discussed before, but it doesn’t involve uninvited remarks about the latter’s sex life. But does that mean that we should never see his work again?

Schiele was acquitted and the immorality charge was allowed to stand, one feels, to teach the artist a lesson about the nature of his art.  I’m not sure therefore why the Boston museum needs to make Schiele “part of the current conversation” for a crime of which he was acquitted unless they feel that his sexually explicit drawings are somehow – what? – immoral or provocative in a bad way. A drawing by a man of a woman masturbating can be seen either as exploitative or a celebration of the woman’s control over her own sexuality.

This is a big and tricky topic that has been discussed in more detail elsewhere. However this is an art blog so I wanted to at least acknowledge it in passing. We hear so much now about the things that men in positions of power – whether running a movie production company or holding political office or celebrated as an artist – think they can do or say to women and it’s only right that they are brought to book for crossing over the line. In the end, however, we may need to separate the art from the artist otherwise our cultural landscape will start to look very barren indeed, especially if we include writers and composers as well as artists in the purge: surely we can still admire Chuck Close’s work while wishing he had more respect for the women he invited to his studio?

The drawing that heads this post is a recent charcoal drawing of the life model I’ve been drawing, both nude and clothed, for some years now. Personally, I find the relationship to be unique in its intimacy and its distance, and I would never dream of introducing any other element into that relationship. Allegedly, Mr Close felt no such qualms about blurring the lines but I’d still like to see his monumental pictures in our leading museums.

You say potato…

Things Americans Say

Things Americans Say (A4 Moleskine Storyboard Sketchbook spread) 2017 [Click to enlarge]

Recently I came across a book of American colloquial phrases and sayings from the 1940s. It made the perfect birthday present for one of my dearest friends, an American who – despite having lived in Paris for nearly forty years – still refers to ‘candy’ and ‘gas stations’. I drew a birthday card highlighting some of the differences in our common language (the meanings of ‘vest’ and ‘derby’) and included a couple of these superannuated phrases.

They were such fun that I carried on, not attempting to illustrate them in any way but simply drawing Richard Thompsonesque characters saying them to each other. I also added a contemporary one: the ubiquitous and deeply annoying ‘reach out’. The result was the drawing at the head of this post. It was meant as an affectionate hommage to our various Englishes, in case anyone is feeling overly teased.

A few days ago, I was drinking Californian Shiraz with some Americans, one of whom asked me the following question, inspired by The Great British Bake-Off: “If you British say ‘bluebriz’ for blueberries and ‘guzzbriz’ for gooseberries, why do you pronounce the cook’s name on Bake-Off Mary Berry rather than Mary ‘Bree’?” It’s a good question.

Last week I went to an American supermarket. A simple shop took the best part of an hour as I tried to translate my mental shopping list from British English into American: chicken stock was found to be broth, sweet potatoes appeared to be yams, not to mention the whole aubergine and courgette confusions (luckily peanut butter is the same in both languages so my breakfast was assured). Were matters of nomenclature not enough to confuse this Englishman abroad, you Americans contrive to store eggs in the refridgerated section. Is there no end to this?

I have nothing profound to say about all of this, except the obvious point that we’re different, you and I. Even if you don’t chill your eggs or talk about ‘razzbriz’, we’re still different. If you hate or fear those who are different, then you have to include members of your own family in all probability: my brother thinks it’s important to wash your car every week whereas I just leave mine out in the rain.

Ultimately such fears – perhaps even starting over something as trivial as the way we speak – leads to hatred, even civil war and genocide: to Rwandans who lived side by side for years suddenly turning on one another; to Bosnians who co-existed for decades in the same city, the same streets, being marched up into the hills outside Srebrenica.

The Germans have a saying – possibly the subject of a future series of drawings – that we’re all foreigners, almost everywhere. If we could only keep that thought in mind when someone walks into our local bar and talks funny. In the meantime our respective governments encourage us to point the finger and exploit the differences between us for their own ends. In that way at least, British and American people are alike.

The forest at dusk

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Olivia (A1 charcoal, pastel and graphite 2018) Drawn over an existing charcoal drawing which was partially rubbed out

Can you remember your childhood? Sometimes you’d rush into things – where angels might fear to tread, perhaps – without a second thought about the consequences of your actions. Yet I bet there is no child in the entire world who could be encouraged to enter a dark forest alone as dusk became night.

I feel like that on the morning of Seawhite Studios‘ workshops. Not because there’s anything scary about Katie Sollohub or Emily Ball, but because when you sign up for their courses you know you’re going to be encouraged to stray over boundaries, perhaps into the dark forest of your creative fears, and challenge your own preconceptions.

Earlier this week I was fortunate enough to attend Katie’s one-day workshop on drawing the human head. Katie and Emily work closely together, so anyone who was at all familiar with Emily’s wonderful book, Drawing and Painting People: A Fresh Approach, would know this wasn’t going to include a three-hour portrait session on the precise representation of the model in pencil.

We were guided through some liberating exercises – drawing our own faces with eyes closed, drawing the model without looking at the paper:

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(which resulted in the rather pleasing abstract above) – and producing a drawing by gently spreading crushed charcoal and coloured chalk over paper, completing it with a few lines. I’ve done this before – it’s discussed in Emily Ball’s book – but not with such a light touch, which made all the difference to the finished drawing:

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The image at the top of this post looks reasonably conventional. However it was one of two drawings that we were asked to do over existing ones. It was a pleasure to rub out a very dull drawing I’d done earlier in the day and concentrate on Olivia’s astonishing profile and her remarkable ear-rings. Little of the original drawing remains except for a few faint lines and the tint of the rubbed-out charcoal on the paper.

I’d had a rather difficult January, creatively: the lingering effect of flu over New Year and some demanding issues in my work life left me drained and uninspired. I’d done a bit of messing around with acrylic paint and sat in front of empty sheets of paper thinking, “I haven’t a single idea in my head…” The gentle explorations of Katie Sollohub’s workshop, however, cleared a path through the undergrowth as they have before – especially in that charmed space between the figurative and abstraction, which for me has all the wonder and terrors of the forest at dusk!

 

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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