13 August 2016

Picasso, the unprofessional. And why it wasn't such a bad idea.

It might come as a surprise that I write about Picasso when I might be explaining how my recent move to Vancouver went and what wonders of painterly inspiration I discovered in British Columbia.  Well, that will have to wait till I am ABLE to get to those places of inspiration since for all Vancouver's semi-adequate public transport, it is not enough to go out on a day trip to the lakes. In other words, One needs a car in order to reach what is truly unique in Canada (and the US for that matter) . 

 "Picasso, the painter and his muses" is on show at the City Gallery and I went to visit it. I am glad to report the show was well attended, crammed even. I had not thought much about it until I happened upon some lectures by Alan W. Watts that had nothing to do with Picasso but got me thinking...

Picasso. The name alone represents shorthand for twentieth century art much in the way Einstein represents “science”. And yet, Picasso carries so much baggage. Unlike Einstein’s theorems, anyone can have a go at his art and wonder about the odd position of eyes, perplexing or wanton disregard for classic draftsmanship (“But he used to paint so well…” people bemoan) and sexual exploits. Here is a  bit of what I love about Picasso: He got out of his way. He never called himself a ” professional artist”. He never “improved” except in the sense of being more himself, even if it meant changing. He embraced the material world as if it didn’t ‘matter’, a ture 'materialist'. He let being a artist happen to him and not the other way around. And to hell with nirvana.

The reason I find Picasso’s paintings liberating is precisely because nothing seems forced, sweaty, shoehorned or meant to impress. Pretty much the same reasons I love Sargent’s artwork except where Sargent swims in technical prowess, Picasso  revels in mischief.  Neither man really “worked” at it in the 'proletarian' sense of  getting their “chores” done both Marxists and capitalists love so much. They excelled at being themselves. 

Katherine Besiegel, curator,  at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

The Vancouver show basically showed how Picasso hopped from muse to muse like a sun crazed bumblebee,  had many fruitful marriages and love affairs, let the women influence his art or was led to the women that matched his ideal at the moment and produced many, many portraits. In return, he seems to have been loved by the women something fierce -despite his being a fickle companion. This is all well documented so there's no point in detailing his affairs of the heart any further. The details of his sexual behavior are of no interest to me except for the bigger picture they reveal: a creature unrestrained and lustful.  Not all artists are well suited to dance with their calling and be allowed to spread themselves so abundantly...even though he was hardly unique in that respect. Klimt and Augustus  John come to mind, (100 children, really?)

 Young Picasso painted very well. He even won several awards. But , honestly, nobody would remember his "Science and Charity" painting if it wasn't for the exploits of the "future" Pablito. Let's not get tangled into history either, the sentimental pink and blue periods, his classic and cubist  forays. Let's not talk about his styles - in plural- or try to explain his rise to stardom. Everyone knows that Picasso became an art beacon only comparable and - in my opinion much superior - to Matisse and Bacon. There is an enormous amount of bibliography on his art and life available and I claim no added knowledge whatsoever.

"Science and Charity" Pablo Picasso. 1897

Hold on,  the big picture:  Art is what artists do because they can't help it. Artists least and last  desire is to explain away their goals on trite artist statements and making lists of awards and collectors. Most can't even explain how they do what they do or conduct a proper workshop -  much less with the added burden of traveling to  Provence,  for a week, with lots of wine involved. And what about commissions, what a drag, really. Sargent gave up commissions the minute he could at age 50, the lucky geezer. Artists DO all those things of course, some of them even have blogs and want to be called "professional" artists as if  making a living from art or  painting 8 hours a day would make someone 'better' than some  bumpkin kid in Tennessee  that just happens to create one stunner after another in his basement -with  lots of sleep in between and a job at Home Depot. What we call genius, if it is genius, can't be taught and no amount of hours, degrees or "professionalism" will compensate for  good ol' mediocrity. Otherwise schools would overflow with Mozarts and Feynmans.

Ideally, people would go to school because  they are interested in something already and they want to find out more, share how others go about it,  get to hone the skills they know they can hone. In some cases, school is where people discover what they already knew that they should pursue and pursue it if they don't get knocked off or into drugs! Professional artists make professional paintings, correct and durable and well composed. That is a looong way away from a "good" painting.  Some even take refuge into following a school, obfuscating detail, and (gasp) photo-realism.  The great news is that we can all relax, there is no getting "better", just getting to be more in tune with yourself. Toss the self-improvement books aside. There is only good, or even just sufficient, management of what's there. 

I see this in Picasso.  He didn't seem to care much about trying to get "better", better at selling, better at marriage, better at drawing, better at waking up at six AM to prime canvases...No. Picasso never  tried to "stick with it" and "put the hours". He changed styles like coats, following his bliss as they say. He was constantly at work without even knowing it.  He was lucky to be paid enormous sums for painting/sculpting/making freakin' plates. (And that's another sticking point, isn't it? His art fetched great sums even though it doesn't look like it took him that much effort to put it out there).

Before I get too ying-yang and Zen in this matter, let's look at  some long-winded explanations and  far-fetched theories that  could justify "bad" drawings? Here are a couple of attempts:

Disruption of the Western canon:  It has often been said that the Western ideal is one of individuality: Each one is the architect of his/her destiny. We can always improve our station in life, steer our lives towards comedy or tragedy.  I would argue that the true legacy of Western thought is the dissatisfaction with what is established, what has come before. Progress may be a misguided idea but it is a distinctly Western one. This has manifested itself in Western art as well. We see how we have represented ourselves as bags of skin with little connection to the surrounding space. In Eastern art, for example, everything seems to float and live in an immaterial world where the space between things is just as relevant as the things themselves. African art is so embedded in the environment it can't be understood outside of it, on the painted bodies and the ritual masks.  Naturally, Western artist of note have intuitively grasped some of these ideas in different degrees and contemporary art has little use for these distinctions. We owe a lot of that disruption to Picasso and the artists that caught on to these ideas, there are many.

Science reveals more: Picasso was a man of his time. Scientists knew already that  there is nothing truly 'solid' and they knew it through experimental means, not just as an Heraclitean notion. Even the David of Michelangelo is just a mass of tightly vibrating atoms held together by powerful electric forces. If they stopped, it would vanish in a wisp of heavy dust. In other words, the most beautiful works of art are already disembodied. Very few of  them will survive a mere three thousand years, if at all.  Picasso might reflect the knowledge of his times but is that even relevant?  Turner might have done the same before atoms were discovered with equally disembodied canvases.

Mother and Child 1921

I share with many a traditional (traditionalist?)  artist my way of understanding art, I praise  the renewal of "atelier" training and  the proliferation of artists that express themselves  by using paint and knowing how to draw  instead of  offering obscure ideas and far-fetched agendas or splattering their  navel-gazing on the walls.  This is still a  minority position in the wider world of the "art market". However. I do not automatically condemn everything that came before. Picasso or otherwise.

Portrait of Francoise.

My take-away.  Ah, but why do I care. Here is why: Who says you have/deserve to make a living... as an artist? You have to make a living AND you are an artist. Two different things. Related as they are, they remain different.   You'll dance in the kitchen if you missed Dance School because you got pregnant at fifteen, you'll write amazing emails because you can't possibly spare the time to write a novel  and you'll  hum fabulous songs because you lost your voice in an accident. You like to eat so you work and make a living and work towards a goal knowing that the work is where you dwell as the artist.  But the artist just is, already. No stage, gallery or publisher can add or subtract, validate or deny. Mentors are a blessing, so are schools but to try to reach for someone to teach us how to be professional artists is like hiring a policeman to make sure you obey the law. They won't. The last thing they want is competition. Ridiculous, I know. You might be lucky and find a mentor or happen upon an opportunity or just decide it is too much effort and let go. Forgive yourself. Persistence tears mountains down but it also kills the fly hitting its head against the glass.  Attitude is everything until it isn't.

If you start a business to sell fertilizer because you want to make a living helping farmers, that's good and fun and necessary. But if in the process, money becomes the final goal, no matter what ecological disasters might ensue, you become Monsanto and start justifying your enslaving of farmers via your GMO crops and then you are scum. Most corporations, by virtue of their sole interest in the bottom line cut corners and produce nothing but short-term benefits while they pile up the disasters. If you decide to be a professional artist (a corporation, really) because you want to communicate wonder, do art and don't worry about the final goal, monetary success is not the measure of you, just the success of your corporation as a business. Being a professional artist is great for those who can make the business side float the same way that you'll save a lot in frames if you are skillful enough to make your own. But being an artist doe not require it. Aren't you glad Picasso taught you that? So start being.

P.S. Those who try to imitate Picasso are delusional. You can only imitate the voice that guides you, that "thing" that we might call a soul and that is the closest we'll ever come to a God. 

30 April 2016

E. Seago. Notes on an exhibition.

I have gone three times to the gorgeous Portland Gallery in London to see an Edward Seago exhibition. It must have sold well because it originally had 50 paintings but by the last day only 30 remained. I think the quality of the artwork granted the repeat trip. Seago is probably the painter that has best captured the English light.

One page of my notes.
I believe some close observation can yield a few clues as to what makes the paintings great so I came ready with notebook and all.  A broad glance is also interesting, many of Seago's paintings have more than a family resemblance. Is it a formula?  Is it a technique, a mere mannerism that just happens to be  perfectly suited for  turbulent skies, choppy waters and old farmhouses? Of course the answer is as elusive as always so, always ready to waste some valuable time in the pursuit of  such matters, I tried to jot down some of the clues.

The material aspects of the painting are simple enough. Seago always seems to paint on heavily primed  linen canvases. The priming is rough and the brush strokes are visible. The texture of the canvas is concealed by the strokes of the gesso or oil underpaint. The color of the priming, where visible. tends to be a light ocher but may be that's just aging and it was originally a creamy flake white. In one case only (the haystack, below)  the canvas had a very rough weave as if made with jute.  For the watercolors, similarly sized half sheets of cold press paper.

Haystack. Notice the very rough canvas weave on a surprisingly smooth sky.
Composition-wise,  some pieces were larger than I expected but he painted  in all sizes and formats.
Seago approached all kinds of subjects, including portraits and still life but he excelled at landscapes, specifically traditional English rural  landscapes and sea views.

More often than not, about two thirds of the canvas are covered in sky. This is one of the characteristics that make Seago such an English painter. The sky often offers more interest than anything below it, plenty of clouds and turbulence.  More about sky compositions later.
Sky brushed on the primed canvas. Thinly but forcefully glazed  paint.

Blue 'dragged' over a warm underpainting.The effect is of an evening warm glow.
A typical landscape, 2/3 sky.
One common feature in the landscape pieces is a very skillful use of 'bands'. Basically, if the viewer squints, there are distinct light/shadow bands or wedges. These are not closed but there is always a escape route between them with wisely placed element, a tree, chimney, masts...
The overall effect is that of passing clouds.

The painting above, "banded"

The compressed nature of the foreground allows for the artist to create a sense of perspective often enhanced with skillfully placed strokes indicating some roughness of terrain and vanishing lines. Subconsciously, these low lying  and casually applied strokes ground the painting enormously.  Al the paintings in this article have them so far.

Fishing village. Observe the great use of perspective grooves on the bottom.

 A great many of Seago's turbulent skies follow a sideways gradation where the darker tones gather on one side and dissolve into mass clouds as they travel to the other side of the picture.  His seascapes are greatest when the drama of the sky unfolds. Seago doesn't seem particularly concerned with reflections and water effects but his water is more than believable. As someone that has seen the Thames estuary, it can be quite accurate.  

Another left-to-right stormy sky.  Maximum contrast in the foamy bits against the hull.
 Seago doesn't do detail. There are rarely spelled-out minutiae in his paintings. His is a world of tonal virtuosity and brush handling magnificence. Many paintings do posses a 'center', a place where maximum contrast and harder edges coalesce. Curiously enough, the darkest darks and greater contrast happen on the mid-range distance, not the closest areas to the viewer. And everything else decreases in intensity around this center of attention. This does not mean there are no other contrast spots but there is clear hierarchy.
The detail of windows, branches, fences, etc is left to impressionistic brush strokes, knife scratches and impasto passages of great beauty.

Farmhouse group with maximum contrast in the center. Almost like a dark hole radiating outwards. (Detail)

Detail of a view of Venice

Detail of a view of Venice

Detail of a view of Venice

Look at the cows, just blobs but blobs so well placed and colored.
Seago's palette is quite sparse. Again, tonality reigns. In this respect he is also very "English". He does not push saturated colors or in-your-face complementaries . On the contrary, he modulates warms and cools within very narrow hue bands (closer to greys than the hues themselves). And yet, the light effects are rich and pleasing. I love how he orchestrates lights blending into shadow across one single surface, a roof, a wall. ...The effect, again, is that of passing clouds, the land subject to the skies.

I am not sure what colors Seago uses so these are some guesses from looking at the limited group of paintings: Some seem obvious, others are more mysterious. He uses an  earthy Indian red  or burnt sienna for the shadows. These are his warm reds so to speak. Also a very light ocher. Alizarin crimson is his cool red of choice. He often contrasts these  with a green.  I can't pinpoint what kind but it is close to viridian (an  quasi-turquoise cool green), may be emerald green mixed with white? (for grass highlights for example).   I would guess his purples are a mix of ultramarine and alizarin crimson. His blues evade me. A mix of black and ultramarine blue?  May be he is using a blue grey of some sort. He contrasts these grey blue with a warm dark grey that might be created using raw umber. One thing is clear, he is not shy about black.

Harbor scene with the center of interest in black and white.Also notice the blue grey and sepia cloud darks.
Seago was incredibly successful as a landscape painter and became a kind of favorite of the Royals who collected his works shunning other 'trendier' artists. His portraits are lacking sometimes. The exhibit also displayed one still life which I though was a near miss against all the master pieces. Here Seago seems to be using a landscape technique for a completely different subject. Frankly, it looks as if he was trying to get rid of some extra colors.  And the result, while not terrible, is quite jejune. This must have been a "rainy day" piece. The flowers show bravura and variety but the dull coloring obliterates the apparent profusion of blooms. Seago seems lost in the clumsy highlights on the stove , the  fussy details of the window sill, wall and cast shadow on the back wall. The crowded group of flowers has no room to breath and no volume.   Is it a bad painting? Well, for Seago, it is.

Still life, competent but no cigar.
But let's not end on that note. Seago is a master and I hope you clicked on the Portland Gallery link to see all the wonders in this exhibit. In my trip to Canada next week, his is the only catalogue  I will take with me as a reminder not only of Seago, but of the beauty of the English landscape.

Deatil. So much with so little.

13 April 2016

Farewell to London

         It's been almost two years we've managed to live in London. When my job ended here  I went into panic mode and made some rash decisions. One of them was to leave London altogether (where I could have stayed if only I had just sat tight for a bit longer). Armando, my husband,  loves his job here at Borough Market and he would have been glad to have stayed indefinitely. It is so rare to find a job you love that I wish I had payed more attention to -his- needs instead of being clouded by fear. I can't dwell on regrets and May 13th will see me  packing my bags and moving to Vancouver. Such an uphill battle to move to yet another country.

"Rises all Boats" Tower Bridge from Wapping. 8"x10" oil on canvas board.
       That said, what surprised me once I sat down to breathe,  were the 'artistic' reasons I came up for regretting my departure. I have loved painting here in England so much that I fear I am going to miss it. I've also met so many great friends and artists. Some of them I hope are for life.  During my time here, London has had a stream of art exhibitions that would make  any other place I've lived in  pale in comparison: Turner, Fechin, Sargent, Constable, Goya, Delacroix, Moroni...

"Spring Delayed" 8"x0" Battersea Park. Lonodn


"Morden Geese" 8"x10" oil on canvas board

 When I came to the UK and after only a few outings, I had the temerity of dispensing some advice in this blog for the plein air artist that arrives  for the first time.  I have a more nuanced knowledge of it now and I feel my last paintings reflect it. They have only a bit of the California artistic 'baggage' I brought here (I still don't care how many windows a building has or if I missed a lamp post).

Yes, it rains and the weather can't make up its mind. I've started  many a painting  in sunlight and  ended up  soaked, and  vice versa.  And yet,  the clouds are invariably glorious, the fogs, the mist, the sun, the greens, the greys, it is a display that makes everything  glow under any conditions, even inside London,  with the added bonus of historic buildings and shimmering modernity. I so wanted to paint the muscle-and-lace  majesty of  plantain trees and the daffodils crowding the parks. I've yet to see a cow though but I could go bonkers painting them. Next time, I'll come to paint, not to work endless hours and travel the underground.

"Selfridges" 8"x10" oil on canvas board
    I've mentioned how my palette changed almost without me noticing. Also how the luminous impressionism that aptly portrays the sunlit areas of the world tends to emphasize brilliant color and depends on light to drive the composition whereas the cooler light of England has the  effect of bringing out local color and detail against a damp veil of greys and greens. Summer here is an explosion of hard-earned brilliance after months of clouds.  For anyone who wants to master the English landscape, I recommend a thorough look at Seago's paintings with their bold 'break in the clouds' virtuosity and sense of fleeting light.

    For the painter determined to make a living here, that's another story. London is very expensive, competitive, hectic. Galleries are not searching to 'discover' anyone that has not stood out in some way or another either through the winning of prices or through strong recommendations. I wish I had had more time to explore the London art world, at least the part of the art world that doesn't involve dead sharks and unmade beds. On the other hand, the English have a very healthy attitude towards artists. The arts are a high-dividend paying industry  through fashion, film, illustration, etc so in the worst of cases they are not simply dismissed as a useless distraction.
And any type of art or artist has a place here, a meetup group, a sketchers group, a drink-and-draw-and-then-meditate-over-pizza group.  It's drenched in possibilities.

I regret leaving England . Nothing to do with the Queen or quaint cottages or tea at five or even red buses and handsomely dressed lads. Nothing to do with the fact that it has pushed me to the brink of collapse with its relentless crowds and the frantic pace of work and life.  I've lived in a rent-box more apt for the streets of a third world country than what one might imagine this city to stand for. -For that, we can just blame the immigrants as one so often does, and ignore the speculations of the Russian and Qatari oligarchs as well as the tax-thirsty councils that allow them to speculate away.

'Yumchaa Cafe. Goodge St' watercolor and ink


13 December 2015

The value of place. Work in winter.

'Brixton' 8"x10" oil on canvas board
Another year draws to a close and I can't shake thinking there is a parallel universe where I am making a living as an artist,  painting that is . From time to time I catch myself thinking things like 'Right about now I would be getting into portraiture' or 'What would happen if someone commissioned a mural? ' People always say I must feel fortunate but I don't because along with a modicum of talent, an artist must must must have an entrepreneurial risk-loving nature that I do not possess. It's a ballsy thing to be a professional artist.  I despise self-pity and yet, here I am. Full of it. 
So before I dig myself deeper let's switch to the good stuff, what have I learnt from landing my sorry self on these parts with their different kind of  weather and light. A sense of place. 

'Horse Guards Rd" 8"x10' oil on canvas
 A sense of place is important to me right now may because as a two-time immigrant, I am sick and tired of travel for work (no, not the leisure kind, that one is fun.) 

My palette has changed.  I have noticed Emerald Green creeping out of its shell a and making it into the walls of brick buildings while that lazy painter's friend, Mr. Sap Green, hasn't been seen for months.  Then Ivory Black slipped into  my box and I found myself often  reaching out for Payne's Grey in my watercolor set. Lemon yellow with its cool acid whisper seems to be gaining over hearty ol'  Cadmium. Alizarin camps on my skies instead of the brighter Indian Yellow of sunnier days. Ocher with its perfect grey tonal value buttresses many a passage. Some colors have even morphed into something else: I recall the days when Transparent Oxide Browns were my go-to for  creating transparent shadows and undefined corners. These days it just  lends its warmth to different flavors of gray.  In short, I am finally painting London.

'Knightsbridge' 8"x10' oil on canvas
 My few successes capturing  the luminosity of California were hard earned. I came to London  a bit apprehensive that I wouldn't find the landscape stimulating enough, that I had worked so hard at creating vibrant color and vivid light  just to see it discarded. But once in England clouds showed up with their incredible variety ...and then  it started raining.  I knew right away my fears were misplaced.  That was painting gold right there along with muscular trees, softer light and lots of interesting people and endless bouts of  the flu. So I carried on adjusting and adjusting to my new surroundings, letting the palette build itself.

 Other things started to happen besides the pigments reshuffle. In the bright Los Angeles light, I favored describing the volumes through saturated contrast often letting either the light or the shadow carry the weight of detail but never both. I'd let the  shade be transparent  and act as a breathing space while the sun-drenched areas lived apart letting the magic happen in the borders between light and shadow. Under the British light, the local colors become explicit, matter-of-fact, shade is a question of gradations and shape is described by a continuum of edges and transitions. 

'Harrods at Night" 8'x10' oil on canvas
 I've also learned quite a bit by observing what the native artists do. True, nowadays most art is universal, techniques could be a matter of taste rather than one of location but visiting some of the shows at The Mall galleries (a good place to see proper painting without any sad claims to be 'questioning issues of social transcendence, gender roles or inner turmoil ' or any such nonsense)   I have always been struck by the air of 'family' the art emanates. And not only because British artist overwhelmingly favor soft bright colored frames instead of dark or gold. It's hard to put the finger on one thing and I've mentioned this before but British art has a thing for accuracy and another thing for proper draftsmanship that is quite refreshing. On the other hand, a lot of the art lives in a low saturation content spectrum, aka a certain 'chalkiness', as if the painting hasn't left behind the reliance on the drawing. 

'Tottenham Ct' 12"x10" oil on canvas

'Whitechapel' 10"x8" oil on board.

  When I was about 19 years old, I used to think the Flemish masters like  Van Eyck,  Memling, etc.. were just odd fastidious painters with a very particular taste for thin trees, sad skies and  fish-eyed pale subjects. Then I traveled to Belgium  and I was shocked, shocked! that the landscape and the people looked exactly like the Flemish portraits I had studied in school.  The poplars were thin, the  skies and the streets of Brussels awash with cool light and pale alabaster people. Turns out the Flemish masters fitted right in and had been faithful to a fault. 

Paintings match the environment. It is logical of course. And it is a sign of a great talent that one might recognize the light from the flat application of pigments. Think  of  a  California Impressionists like Rose or Puhuff  versus a Wyeth or Hopper. Even within environments: I can see the candlelit nocturnal Rome in Caravaggio versus  the diaphanous Tuscan softness of Raphael.  Even cosmopolitan Sargent who traveled the world so  much and yet only seemed to able to capture the color of money... (I'm joking!). 

Now if I can only stay put in one place so that I can travel. That would be the bee's knees.  

27 September 2015

Where there's a will there's an Ai Wei Wei at the Royal Academy.

Entrance to the Royal Academy. Trees assembled from fragments by Ai Wei Wei.
 European and American artist have been loosing 'street-cred' for decades now, their protests more akin to a pout than a call to arms  Thanks to the likes of Tracy Emin,  Damien  Hirst and other luminaries, the whole art-as-commerce or art-as-selfie thing is as stale and bloated as it is fodder for tabloids. Look at Bansky, already fetching high sums at auction,  his graffiti  no more than  a highly choreographed event or a gift-shop staple.  We can go on and on with the list of artists desperate for a cause, itching for a fight or too keen on having their doodles printed on a necktie.

So, as a consequence,  the art world cabals have searched high and low to find someone that can replace their darlings.

Because art can't just simply be beautiful - I am aware that is another form of political statement so spare me-  its 'content'  has to be explained  through politics or personal tragedy, or something along those lines.  I am not saying depression,  domestic violence or the measles are not serious. I am not denying capitalism as we suffer it is a  true competitive arena subject to fair equitable rules. Far from it. But it helps when there is, in fact,  a government that beats you up,  puts you under surveillance and messes things up for you in various violent, dumb and uncreative ways. Walk in Ai Wei Wei, The People's Party is your bitch.
From S.A.C.R.E.D. a huge diorama depicting episodes of  his ordeal

The Chinese government has fucked up this man's life into the stratosphere ...of fame.  If anything, the exhibition at The Royal Academy demonstrates the amount of money and manpower  that Ai WeiWei can summon with a simple maxim in his famously sparse grunting.  He is a star and despite my diatribe, let me hurry to point out I loved the exhibition. More for the questions if creates than for the artwork itself. I even got tears in my eyes when confronted to the rebar pieces of "Straight", a massive 90 ton installation honoring the victims of the Seichuan earthquake and condemning the greed, corruption and  the criminal ineptitude of Chinese officials.

Ai WeiWei is a charismatic man, no doubt. When he ventured into New York as a younger man he really -really- absorbed the trends and ideas reigning in the Western art world. In a way, he has been doing what most  Saatchi pet wannabes and suck-ups  have been dreaming of for years. With a crew of skilful craftsmen no less.
"Stroller" carved in marble.

May be that is why so many of his pieces are accumulations:  3,000 porcelain crabs, 60 hand-chiseled marble pieces of grass, thousands of painstakingly straightened rebar pieces, etc... If you have been to an art gallery recently, it is very likely that you have experienced this tendency to pile up crap and then conjure a meaning: "Oh, my dad used to hit me with the slippers so here, a million slippers in a pile". Ai WeiWei does that. But he does it well, as if to preclude any more lame strewn piles of shit in the future. If you've seen one of Ai Wei Wei's gatherings of rubble, you will never find time for  another mindless heap of tuna cans or human hair balls  in your life.

"Chandelier' Glass and bycicle frames.

More interesting is the use -obsession really-  of recycling Quing dynasty furniture or rubble from China's destroyed past into a new life using armies of craftsmen. (How does he pay them? I wonder. In fact, how does he make money?)  Some of this recycling has been controversial as in his deliberate destruction of a Quing dynasty vase and the pulverization of neolithic ceramics into fine dust. I can come up with many different explanations for this acts, all very satisfying, but they all hurt a bit despite it all. Mostly it comes down to a lot more people aware of that shattered vase now than ever before.

Quing Dinasty Stools re-assembled.
May be his most successful dare -in my view- is the  chiseling and conjoining  of beautiful objects rendered useless. Ai WeiWei is Chinese through and through and the idea of beautiful uselessness is pervasive as in the stroller delicately carved in marble, the jade sex toys, the delicate porcelain human remains or the oddly assembled  antique furniture. The overwhelming impression is that of a man in an enormous factory with thousands of workers at his disposal dreaming up his poetic artworks because, to me, they are closer to poetry than to the visual arts. And with his poetry I have no qualms. However, it still feels a bit suspicious that such a persecuted man could muster this power in the land where the powers that be want him quiet. Could the PP really abide by popular opinion to such a large degree? As I said, more questions...

"Straight" rebar pieces recovered from Sichuan buildings destroyed in 2008

24 July 2015

Tattoos and Mr. Lopez. The BP Portrait Awards 2015.

'Sebastian' oil on canvas , by Czech painter  Jan Mikulka. 70x100cm

 Today was a very rainy day here in London. So after running a few errands I was on my way to make a few gallery visits. We visited the White Cube in Bermondsey with it's usual collection of massive art where the only mystery is how do they move it around and how much did it cost to build. Took us all of five minutes so back in the rain we went. Our last stop was at the BP Portrait Award  show currently displayed at the National Portrait Gallery. One thing I really like about this show is that it takes chances and  it selects a great variety of styles within a strict definition of painting. Moreover, it doesn't shun figurative artwork or traditional skill. What are they thinking!?

Like last year, why the first prize went to the painting it went to will remain a mystery to me. I thought it was a-ok, a bit uneven, miming photography and uninteresting despite the pretense that it was inspired by a biblical passage or something lofty like that. Oh well.

 My favorite piece was the beautiful portrait of a man in the forest by Jan Mikulka, pictured above. The visitors consistently vote him as a favorite but no prize this year. I think he already won one in a previous edition.

The second prize was the stunner below, very Dutch, timeless. Quite beautiful and executed with the precision required when one attempts to go for it and make things hyper-realistic... or bust. Moreover, it doesn't have the tired rendering of every nook and cranny so typical of hyper-realistic paintings, it leaves room to breathe despite accounting for every hair. 

 ' Eliza' by Michael Gaskell (b.1973)   370 x 270mm, acrylic on board. 2nd Prize.

"My mother and my brother on a Sunday evening". Borja Buces Renard (b. 1978) oil on canvas, 1500x2000mm
Every year there has been an increased presence of Spanish artists and some of them are excellent so it is quite natural that the Third Prize went to the one pictured above. It wasn't my favorite painting of the 'Spanish group', to give it a name, but it had nice dissolving edges and directness.

And now for the rant: Why so many portraits with tattoos? No, not that one. 

It seems to me that the abundant presence of Spanish painters and the clear ambition of many of their canvases indicates a lack, rather than an abundance, of venues and conduits in my native country. These painters are here in London because Madrid and Barcelona and every other town in between must  not be offering the market and the livelihood some of these artists would want and aspire to. Where is the Spanish National Portrait Gallery? Where are the monetary awards? True, Spain is going through a Greek-like financial debacle right now. Can it be that simple? I suppose it can but shouldn't there be  more Italians or Greeks as well?.

 It is great that these artists are seeking international exposure. Being myself a product of an art school in Madrid, either these gals and guys must have put great effort into surmounting the dismal quality of art schooling in Spain  or the schools have changed dramatically.  May be they were left with the only option: To look  at the masters they had around, quixotic as that may be. Except  in this case they all happened to pick the same one.

It's quite clear that the shadow of Antonio López looms large in current Spanish figurative painting, may be too large. Invariably, all the portraits from Spain had that bleak,  underwear-and-socks, asylum lighting and morbid look that López mastered. Don't get me wrong, I love love love Antonio López and he is himself following a  tradition of austere and matter-of-fact art that is oh-so-very Spanish but the portraits here presented could almost be authored interchangeably. That doesn't make them bad but it is hard to believe that some of these artists are really looking for a unique voice. Take a a look:

"Natalia" Jorge Abad-Jaime De Aragón. (oil on canvas)
"The Red Chair" Maria Carbonell. (b. 1980) oil on canvas.

"Back Portrait n8" Daniel Coves. Oil on canvas.
"Juanito" Jose Luis Corella.  Oil on board.

"Rocío, desnudo sobre alfombra" Eduardo Millán (oil on canvas)

Odd, isn't it ? They are not even from the same city and yet they all share an uncanny family resemblance. Of all the Spanish paintings, my favorite without a doubt had to be this one. There were many worthy pictures to be seen here and, as a visitor, you won't leave without some nifty ideas about where to place your next tattoo.

10 May 2015

Underground sketching, drawing at full speed.

Commuting in the underground is not always wonderful. It beats driving any day however. At the very least it is a chance to spend some time with yourself (granted, a very squeezed yourself enveloped in humanity with all that implies). I actually have come to look forward to the trip because I can sketch the immense diversity of London types. For anyone that wants to emulate this activity, here are some things I find useful:

Often, I add some marker shading at home, not in the train.

You will find a wide array of models to choose from in the tube: young, old, well dressed  or messy, black and white and everything in between. While there is a lot of variety, most people spend their trip staring at their phones which makes for strikingly similar demeanor.

The page format is irrelevant but it should be comfortable to carry discreetly.
Eye-contact in the London tube is tantamount to assault so I try to chose someone to draw who is not too close or  directly in front of me -no matter how tempting the beautiful guy with the turban might be. I haven't gotten into any serious trouble but I've had the occasional gal deliberately turn away and the random guy give me dirty looks. If the subject is a child,parents might  or might not like you  doodling. The London crowd is a vocal crowd so you'll know. For the most part, people are complimentary and curious. When drunk, they invariably want you to draw them so avoid drunks like the plague.

If tsubjects stay long enough, you can make elaborate compositions.
It goes without saying, there is no telling when your model will  move or simply bolt out with no regard for your beautiful rendering. Don't linger, this is an exercise in speed, gesture and memory. As in life, nobody is too precious and they all are.

so many races and outfits. So many cellphones and earphones as well.

Guess what else moves. The train. Modern trains are a whisper but drawing in the Bakerloo line will test your limits so don't wait for full careening down the tunnel to add that perfect nose line. This might be the time to work on a particularly wiry afro for example.

The morning commute, not a good time to pull out the pencils.

Weekends and evenings have more variety anyway.

Snoring, kissing, reading, eating and breaking into song, all in the tube.
Equipment simplicity: This is not the place to  pull out an easel and take measurements with extended arm. Backpacks and clipping boards are not efficient. A simple pencil box and a notebook that fits in your pocket are best. That's it, quick and to the point. Add an eraser and pencil sharpener for emergencies.
Stations themselves have some unique features and depth.

 You learn to draw the figure through gesture, its pose and the pose of clothes. You also learn to reduce the figure to its most salient features and details without time for perfect outlines, shading or intricate skirt patterns. I try to make little portraits, not generic ones. A casual observer should be able to pick each character individually.  You'll discover that being selective with detail is much more important than adding every detail.

so many faces, so little time.

Don't sweat the wrong stuff.  Go for the next victim...er model.

Compose the page. Make the whole page look interesting to look at. This is actually fun. Leave some blank space, play with negative shapes, use contrasting figures and groups. Incorporate a bit of the environment if it helps to break the monotony or move from faces to feet to dogs  to suitcases. 

More than anything, tell a story, be tender, humorous, grotesque, nobody is paying you, so feel free to add, subtract and exaggerate. Give in to your inner cartoonist (carefully) or your inner novelist. Make notes, add stains, you are making art no documenting immigrants or taking the census. Have fun.
Can you find the dog?