Friday, December 20, 2013

December Studio Notes Part 2

During my two months in Paris, I came to appreciate a different, or more diverse, French visual culture than the AM radio version: the Impressionist cliche.

Just walking around offers a hand-lettering bonanza.

I gained a fuller appreciation of the heritage of the French poster (ironically, in part through an exhibition catalogue from the Milwaukee Museum of Art). Which also exploits the possibility of hand-drawn type.

I got to explore hard copy of this pioneering entry in tabloid journalism, hand-drawn no less, that is Le Petit Journal illustree, launched toward the end of 1890–offers yet another example from that crazy decade in world visual culture. More about this publication to come.

With the help of my new friend Daniel Fisher, a contemporary French plein-air painter, I explored the Museum of the 1930s, and an alternate reading of 20th century French art. I discovered an artist with whom I had not previously been familiar, Yves Brayer.

Another Brayer.

More about the 30s museum and M. Fisher for another day. For now, one of Daniel's watercolors, in Paris.

Another name I had never heard: the oddball Bernard Buffet, an illustrator in painter's clothing (or vice versa). A fascinating case study, a celebrated-then-despised French painter introduced to me by a German, Alexander Roob in Dusseldorf. Of Mr. Roob I will have more to say as well...

Amid the grandiosity of the French painting galleries in the Louvre, I found myself in the sure hands of Camille Corot. (This reproduction is florid compared to the sobriety of the original.)

Those several rooms of modestly-sized landscapes, especially, were a tremendous relief, and a gift.

Finally, that nameless expertise, spot illustrations for textbooks (in this case, a French language text picked up in a used bookstore here in St. Louis). For connoisseurs of French informational illustration–an admittedly small group, perhaps–check out the indispensable Mondorama 2000, one of my favorite oddball visual culture blogs.

Images: Leonetto Cappiello, Le Frou-Frou, an advertisement for the humor magazine Le Frou-Frou, 1899; various photographs, hand-lettered signs, Paris; Jules Cheret, Folies Bergere, La Charmeuse du serpents, a poster promoting a snake charmer at the Folies Bergere, 1875; illustrator uncredited, La Catastrophe du Faradet (a submarine that sank accidentally, killing at 14 aboard), cover illustration for Le Petit Journal illustree, July 23, 1905; Yves Brayer, La Montagne Rouge Aux Baux, 1948; Brayer, La Place des Seigneurs, Verona, 1937; Daniel Fisher, Roofs of Paris, watercolor, 2006; Bernard Buffet, Range Rover, 1984; Camille Corot, Vue de Ville d'Avray, 1835-40; Corot, Pont de Narni, 1826-27; illustrator uncredited, vocabulary spot illustrations, cours de Lange et de Civilization Francaise I, published by the Alliance Francaise and the Librairie Hachette, Paris, 1953.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

December Studio Notes Part 1

I am done with academics for the calendar year. Over the past few weeks, as my courses have wound down, I’ve been working up to jumping into work on Spartan Holiday No. 3., devoted to my Paris sojourn. Utah, the subject of the promised “Canyonland,” is being pushed back a few issues; I have chosen to work with the French material while still fresh. 

We bug our students about printing out work they find themselves responding to at a given moment, or during a given episode. There is a temporal element to what moves us: it shifts over time. Over the long haul there’s a macro continuity. But it’s too early for undergraduates–that is, to sense the macro. Even so, there’s nothing like attentiveness in the here and now. And early loves often stick. 

My studio pin-up wall gets refreshed every time I start a new round of sustained work. I’ve been working on it. I don’t think it’s done. Done being a slightly suspect construction. It’s always in flux, to a degree. But it does settle in for stretches. And I’m getting close.

My go-to sources have remained consistent, but have also expanded.

Not everything makes the wall, which is predominantly formal/visual and partly experiential. 

As I begin to get comfortable in the batter’s box, as it were, I thought I’d share a few things I’m looking at. (Looking at is incorrect and vulgar-sounding, but “at which I am looking” seems so ponderous. Better erroneous than gaseous.) I do so partly to back up my recommendations to students with practice, and partly to tease a few things out, which always happens when I write about what I’m seeing or making. 

Philip Guston remains an important source for me, including the extended molting from social realist to abstract expressionist (late 30s to early 50s) 

and back again, from ab-ex pro to clumpy, bizarrely refined cartoonist (early 60s to late 70s). 

I remain preoccupied with the tension between depiction and abstraction, which I have come to see as the formal problem that drives my work. Seen below, in much the same palette as Guston’s Ancient Wall (1976), a Navajo rug, a symbolic abstraction.

Another emblematic American abstractionist, Stuart Davis, occupies a (nearly) fixed position in my artistic heavens.

The Place des Vosges No. 2 has interested me for years; in Paris I saw what Davis saw, to my surprise. (He spent time in Paris in the late 20s, and was stimulated by it.) Davis’ Gloucester landscape gouache Shapes of Landscape Space (1938) is up on the wall now. Shapes is at the very top of this post.

Ivan Brunetti has slowly worked his way into my lineup. Such economy, and such range within it! Lovely color, too. I have become a fan of Brunetti's writing, as well. His Cartooning: Theory and Practice is a gift to readers. (Yale University Press, 2011, a reprint from the slightly smaller version published by Comic Art in 2009.)

Part 2 will cover Parisian sources and discoveries.

Images: Stuart Davis, Shapes of Landscape Space, probably Gloucester, gouache on paper, 1938; N. Glaise, Lettres a Boule Fantaisie, detail from chromolithograph lettering sheet, a loose Plate (X) from (what I think is) Bibliotheque Du Peintre En Batiment, Modeles De Lettres Sur Vingt Tons De Fonds Differents, published by Emile Thezard, Paris, 1901; Stuart Davis, a cityscape, also probably from Gloucester, circa 1940; Philip Guston, untitled drawing, 1950; Guston, The Light, oil on canvas, 1964; Guston, Ancient Wall, oil on canvas, 1976; Designer Uncredited, Navajo rug from Teec Nos Pos, Apache County, Arizona. George H.H. Huey, photographer. Issued as a postcard in a set published under the title Navajo Rugs of the Southwest, undated (which I bought at the Denver Art Museum in 2008, I think); a Stuart Davis not pinned up now, but on my wall in Paris last July and August, Place des Vosges No. 2, 1928 (the actual place in Paris being worthy of comment, but not here and now); Ivan Brunetti, Goings On Around Town, New Yorker cover, September 23, 2013; detail of same.

Monday, December 16, 2013

A Tale of Two (Dissimilar!) Birthdays

Above, an Adoration of the Magi, finished last weekend. For holiday distribution. Story below...

It's a cliche to observe that Chartres Cathedral is an overwhelming experience. During my Parisian stretch last summer I went there twice: once with Lori, and once with Andrew.

Perhaps I will write about it at greater length, but suffice to say for now that the most striking thing about it for me was its ambition. Not only architecturally, but conceptually. That structure and its decorative program in glass and sculpture seek nothing less than to contain the known world of the 12th/13th centuries. Every bit of it, as revealed in observable Creation and Holy Scripture. (Photo of Chartres facade above by Tim Rawls, flickr set here; the other photos are mine.)

The embrace of revelation and learning is unmistakable. For the know-nothing Christianity of the 21st century, there's a lesson there. But so much more than that: if the world were poised to be vaporized tomorrow, and we had to box up and ship off the best that humans ever aspired to be and make, Chartres would be at the top of my list.

We were fortunate to hear the legendary tour guide Malcolm Miller, which was really a treat.

The stained glass is lovely, to understate the case. And encyclopedic. But I was also quite moved by the carved choir screen, created during the 16th and 17th centuries. Not medieval, but soberly magnificent. (Sober now, because only the color of the stone; it might well have been painted in polychrome. I do not know.) There are 40 scenes that begin along the right side of nave just past the transept, wrap around the curve of the apse and run along the left side of the choir, back to the transept.

Meanwhile: I'm a sucker for Christmas. I'm also a big fan of the homemade Christmas-slash-holiday card. On July 31 I settled in to draw the Adoration of the Magi (number 12), as well as the Massacre of the Innocents (number 14)–the latter for other purposes. I sat on the base of a giant pier to draw. The Magi drawing took about an hour. I roughed the Massacre group very quickly, less than usefully, except to anticipate another session, later. A more successful Massacre drawing was worked up on the second visit with Andrew, in mid-August.

I have not yet done the digging to establish the sculptor and the precise date of these figurative groups.

A blurry reference photo, intended to provide a double check on my pencil, later. Note that the onsite drawing is after something different than the photograph. I am constructing a tableau for two dimensions, not three. And since I can't see everything at once, in the manner of a camera, my focus is variable. My picture is more fragmentary. So the photograph is of very limited utility. But that's not nothing, either. The pencil simplified a few things unhelpfully, because uninformedly. So I did use it.

Unfortunately, I forgot to scan the pencil. Oops. Above is the inked (painted in black gouache and corrected in white, so not literally inked, but that's how I think of it) sketchbook spread, with the page break removed. The pencil included a botched version of the left figure, which appeared in the space left blank. I chopped the picture down to fit in a 5 x 7 format, then refitted the pieces a little.

I had a vision in my head of a very graphic striped visual field in conversation with the key drawing. Here's what it looks like on its own. It started as stripes; I improvised some (admittedly arbitrary) light to add some richness.

Details from the final.

And the quick, very preliminary pencil of the Massacre, complete with eraser remnants in the gutter. The proportions and the rate of the drawing are awkward. A warm up; the first drawing I did that day; really the first drawing I did in France, I think–not counting handmade maps. 

A version of the more complete, later Massacre drawing may appear in the as-yet-untitled Spartan Holiday No. 3. I think it fits the argument of the issue, which I am beginning work on this week.

I confess that I'm really happy with and uncomplicatedly excited about the Magi image, which is quite rare.

So I'm posting it on my 53rd birthday, to celebrate!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

StoryTrack Holiday Video Contest

From time to time I do creative direction and editorial work for StoryTrack, the video marketing agency that my wife Lori created and leads. The team at StoryTrack does very smart, beautiful work, using cinematic tools to tell clients' stories.

They do plenty of client work, but Lori has always worked with nonprofits.

In October she won her first regional Emmy award in the short format category, for a mini-documentary about Meds and Food for Kids (MFK), prosaically-named social entrepreneurs who work in Haiti fighting malnutrition while simultaneously doing economic development with Haitian peanut farmers. Lori has been to Haiti about five times over the past 8 years. (The Emmy winning short can be seen here.)


Anyway, the point of that intro is this: this video announces a Facebook campaign to award a free 90 second professional video production to the nonprofit group that scores the most votes. It's a fun little thing, and the contest will net somebody a very useful tool. Here's the link to the vimeo page.

The redhead in the plaid shirt is our son Andrew, who just finished interning at the company for the fall (and is headed to New York in January, reel in hand).

Friday, December 13, 2013

Ignorance and Indiana

I have read The New Republic for years. I have become a better writer for the experience. I've long admired the film criticism of Stanley Kauffmann, and read the stuff in "the back of the book," or the cultural writing, especially avidly. (I blow hot and cold on Jed Perl, the art critic, and frigidly just now; his take on Balthus as a "mystic" in the current issue I find particularly unpersuasive.)

But a December 11 item on "The Plank" (the TNR the group blog) by Kevin Mahnken provides a window into a too-clever "elite" perspective, in a discussion of the phenomenon of "carpet-bagging" American electoral politics (and the unhappy tale of Dick Lugar, the former senior senator from Indiana):
There is a great deal that is silly about the politics in the United States, but nothing more fatuous and bizarre than the widely-held belief that an elected representative must somehow form a lasting relationship with a place, or embody its character and traditions, to ably work on behalf of its people. This expectation forced ex-senator Richard Lugar to go to extreme lengths to prove his residency in Indiana—a state that, in normal circumstances, no sane person would willingly claim as their home—and allowed his primary opponent to successfully paint him as absent and out of touch, costing him reelection and millions of Hoosiers a skilled and popular lawmaker.
Leave aside the apparent disdain for representative democracy, or Lincoln's government "of the the people."

For facile cultural knowingness, it's tough to beat "Indiana–a state that, in normal circumstances, no sane person would willingly claim as their home." I cannot guess whether Mahnken has ever traveled to Indiana, which includes such diverse locales as rusted Gary, college-town Bloomington, modern architectural mecca Columbus, and Notre Dame/South Bend, not to mention countless John Mellancampish small towns and the capital, Indianapolis, a surprisingly rich and pleasant place. I hold no particular brief for Indiana, other than to say that it's of interest in exactly the way that humans-in-community are of interest everywhere. And the Indy 500 is cool.

To test the laziness of that construction, insert some other place, like "Syria." Let's assume that Mahnken believes it a hardship to live in Indiana. Such might be said of Syria in 2013. Shall the desperation of contemporary Syrians who love their homeland be blamed on lunacy? Subtract civil war: should life in Damascus "in normal circumstances" be forsworn by sane persons–even be seen as a source of shame? What about isolated indigenous peoples in the Amazon? 

Ugandans? Uzbeks? Utahns? 

No one who has ever thought hard about the relationship between humans and place, or about conceptions of home could have written such a sentence, even flippantly.

Images: historic Indianapolis 500 cars photographed by Steve Zautke.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Spartan Holiday Meets Pecha Kucha

It's been a busy year, to say the least, and my blogging output has suffered as a result. Here in the last few weeks of December I hope to remedy that, at least in part, by circling back to things I meant to report on at the time.

Last April, after publishing "The Five Pagodas," Spartan Holiday No. 2, Scott Gericke and I gave a Pecha Kucha talk at Mad Art Gallery in St. Louis. For the uninitiated, Pecha Kucha (pronounced pehKOO-kaCHA) is a sort of powerpoint-meets-performance-art format created in Japan.You create 20 slides for projection, each of which appears for 20 seconds.

Within those parameters, you construct a streamlined presentation designed to tell a focused story. In 400 seconds, or 6 minutes and 20 seconds. You stand up front, they click play, and off it goes. It's a little nerve-wracking, but it's a hoot, too. We had fun.
Scott and I created a presentation to introduce the magazine to a new audience and also to tell the story of our ongoing collaboration on the publication. I don't seem to be able to embed the video here, so click on this link to access the YouTube file.

My painting of a painted box turtle from the MySci project (2005-06) meets Glenn Beck. (The rhetorical set-up.)

The timing is a little off, as the intro title slate with our names was up as we began to speak.

Our talk was a more formal than many such presentations, but given the amount of content it made sense to write the copy in advance.

We were the first act of the night. It felt great to be done so soon! All downhill from there. It was really a great evening. (That's my lovely and talented wife Lori on the left.)

The St. Louis Pecha Kucha group has done a great job recruiting presenters and building an audience for these events. Ours was event #11, and a twelfth has occurred since.

All the (excellent) event photos are by Jarred Gastreich. You can see other presenters here

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Revived december Magazine

Yes, that capitalization is correct. december, a celebrated literary mag started in Iowa City in 1958, later published in Chicago, then three decades' defunct, has been revived by editor/publisher Gianna Jacobson in St. Louis. Sez the website:

After a 32-year hibernation, december magazine returns to publication, honoring the spirit of the forward-thinking writers, editors, and artists who made it a literary legacy. Picking up (almost) where it left off, Volume 24 — the Revival Issue — features new poems and prose from many of december’s “original” contributors, including Marvin Bell, Stephen Berg, Grace Cavalieri, Gary Gildner, Albert Goldbarth, Lawson Inada, Robert Mezey, Linda Pastan, Marge Piercy, Robley Wilson, and more, as well as some of today’s freshest voices, such as Kelly Cherry, Ricardo Pau-Llosa, James Tolan, and Sally Van Doren.
My College Dean (Intertextuality moment: an echo of Merle Haggard in Okie from Muskogee, as in who "the kids still respect") Buzz Spector has accepted a role as art editor of the new old mag, working with Gianna, the driving force behind today's december. I was flattered to be commissioned to produce a cover illustration for the revival issue. I enjoyed working with Gianna and Buzz, and also with art director Diann Cage

I spent July and August in Paris. There is much to say about this, of course. But more to the point, as I walked along the Left Bank, I was struck by the famous statue of Henry the 4th against a backdrop of construction cranes. (I saw this just before stumbling upon the Charvin store, where I bought some gouache.) 

Henry looks back from the prow, as it were, of the Ile de la Cite. (I don't know how to do proper accents in blogger). Near the Place Dauphine, between the two halves of Pont Neuf. 

Which, as it turns out, seems to have been a favored landscape subject in Paris, viewed 90 degrees from my vantage point, looking downriver, into Henry's face. Multiple versions in the Musee de Carnavalet, the museum of the history of Paris. The credit read, Pont-Neuf viewed from Place Dauphine, French School, 17th century.  That's the (impossibly large) Louvre on the right. 

At first I was fixated on the statue and the cranes; somehow they suggested a revival image. The first sketch reflects this. 

A week or so later I saw a girl sitting on the edge of a fountain at St. Sulpice, sort of cradling her bike with her legs in just this way, and the idea made a big leap. (She was, of course, looking at her phone, not reading a book. Even in Paris...) 

When I sat down to work on the final art, it became clear that the opposition of the two figures was the real story. Plus I had a more square format to work with than I'd previously thought. So the girl grew. And I glued the fountain base onto the pedestal, so she'd have a proper place to sit.

The image is built in layers; this is the key drawing in black. 

More about Paris to come...