2020. Acrylic on canvas, 8 x 10 in.
Small canvas finished last week. Brushed black over rolled white and yellow ochre.
The renowned abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell, whose work I much admire, was eloquent on the role of feeling in art:
The aesthetic is the sine qua non for art: if a work is not aesthetic, it is not art by definition. But in this stage of the creative process, the strictly aesthetic — which is the sensuous aspect of the world — ceases to be the chief end in view. The function of the aesthetic instead becomes that of a medium, a means for getting at the infinite background of feeling in order to condense it into an object of perception. We feel through the senses, and everyone knows that the content of art is feeling; it is the creation of an object for sensing that is the artist’s task; and it is the qualities of this object that constitute its felt content. Feelings are just how things feel to us; in the old-fashioned sense of these words, feelings are neither “objective” nor “subjective,” but both, since all “objects” or “things” are the result of an interaction between the body-mind and the external world. “Body-mind” and “external world” are themselves sharp concepts only for the purposes of critical discourse, and from the standpoint of a stone are perhaps valid but certainly unimportant distinctions. It is natural to rearrange or invent in order to bring about states of feeling that we like, just as a new tenant refurnishes a house.
…[The artist’s] task is to find a complex of qualities whose feeling is just right — veering toward the unknown and chaos, yet ordered and related in order to be apprehended. — Beyond the Aesthetic (1946)
Cleopatra’s Complicated Flotilla
2019 Acrylic on paper, 9 x 12 in.
So it’s complicated, Life. These days. Hard. So let’s not talk about that, for just a moment.
Instead, here’s a favorite painting that’s not hard. Two winters ago I was trying out some new brushes on some cheap watercolor paper, and the results amused me. Things just kept happening and in the end I was quite fond of it, so much so that it actually hangs in my studio. Partly to remind me of things I can do when I’m stuck, and partly just because it makes me feel good, which is always handy when you’re working on stuff.
In these cursed days of dread and sorrow let’s remember that the rich and powerful Cleopatra had her hard times, too, rather famously. As has Egypt, though it still endures, after a fashion. And, of course, the Nile is the very definition of endurance, Aswan Dam notwithstanding. The long view is very helpful these days, I find. It may not tell you better times are ahead, but at least it reminds you that bad times have always been part of the deal.
November 2018 (Paradise)
2018. Acrylic on canvas, 12 x 16 in.
Unlike for so many in the far-western states right now, our air here in the Joshua Tree area today is clear, the skies blue, the mountains in view – all swept clean by a wind from the north last night. The smoke from the El Dorado fire, which had made our air dark and thick the last few days, is now just visible on the horizon far to the west. I don’t expect this to last. But I’m grateful for it, and wish I could share it with so many around our states right now who are covered in smoke or running from fire, anxious at visions of the apocalypse.
The town of Paradise, California, has been evacuated again ahead of the North Complex fire in Butte County. In November two years ago, during those days of shock, horror, and grief over the terrible Camp Fire that killed 85 people in Paradise, I created this work. It was hard at that time not to feel a dread-filled presentiment about the future for all of us in California. I am so grateful to our state, local, regional, and, yes, federal agencies that plan year-round and work so hard fighting fires to keep us safe. The job gets tougher every season.
Pursuit of the Sun
2020. Acrylic on canvas, 10 x 20 in.
From late July, before I went away. Another of the “bell poems”. I’ve developed several of these works now, but I’m still not sure if they constitute a collection. At the same time I’m also working on some square canvases with the same large black calligraphic gestures, but those seem to be going in a different direction. So…still in exploration mode.
2020. Acrylic on canvas, 14 x 11 in.
The work informs the work. I started the “Granite” series this spring not long after concluding “Plague Faces”. The crossover in technique is easy to see:
Plague Faces No. 17
2020. Acrylic on canvas, 12 x 16 in.
I start by creating a complex surface (in both these examples largely with rollers), then use a single color to paint away everything that’s not the shape I’m foregrounding. “Negative shape” painting, a common technique. It can bring the work to a magical conclusion, but you have to have faith that it’s going to come together because in the meantime it doesn’t look like much. I liked “No. 17” a lot, and found a way very soon to go there again in “Granite I”, a totally different subject.