Category Archives: why

Genie

"Genie" - Carraher 2021

Genie
January 2021.  Acrylic on canvas. 18 x 18 in.

I post this image aware that no one may perceive its charm besides myself. The painting began in the vein of Pause Point and Urchin, with an earth pigment gestured on a white-on-dark ground and the intention of following this up with Mars black.  I did come back in with white, several times, to remove some areas of umber I didn’t need; you can see the ghosts of the strokes in the upper portion.  But when I got to this stage, I just wouldn’t go further.  This painting sat in the studio for months as I waited for permission to continue.  But I never got it.  I simply was satisfied with this “Genie” (the name came to me almost immediately).  I debated with myself about the messiness in those upper areas, which are not clean or well-painted, frankly.  But repeatedly I came to the conclusion that I didn’t want to change them.  I liked the messiness, for perverse reasons.  I like all the grubby ghosts in there.  

This canvas is larger, 18 by 18 inches.  Once again I was re-purposing an old painting, done maybe a year ago but that had never felt quite right.  It was good that it kicked me into the larger format.  I have several going at this size now.  I like the physical impact as the format scales up.  And I like the physical feel of painting it.  Fits me better.

You’re Only As Good As Your Last Picture

"Carbon 2" - Carraher 2020

Carbon 2
December 2020.  Acrylic on canvas. 16 x 12 in.

Things have moved to a new level in the studio the last few months.  A subtle graduation has occurred.  I seem to have gained my footing with the acrylics.  I have enough skills now that I am better able to achieve what I’m trying to do, to match the execution to the vision and the impulse.  And when I encounter a challenge, I’m more likely to know a solution, or at least in which direction to turn.  And because of this, I am more patient.  I’m willing to set a work aside for months, if need be, and feel confident that the solution or direction will become apparent to me with time.  The flailing has lessened; the Hail Mary passes are fewer.  And I’m less likely to fall into an abyss of hopelessness and self-condemnation when several works in a row seem unsuccessful. 

I’m also fully focused now on several series of works and have lost patience with my long-time practice of giving myself “assignments” to help me learn.  There’s a growing pile of such pieces that I’ve simply lost interest in.  And I’ve become better at distinguishing between works on which I’m just unsure how to proceed, and those that just actually don’t mean anything to me.  This is a change from the past.  The curiosity of trying to learn something or the challenge of solving them technically is not enough to carry me through to completion.  I keep wandering off to the works that compel me.  

This is a good thing.   

The works I’m doing now may or may not be “good” – I’m not in the best position to judge – but they are what I want to be doing.  I’m achieving my visions, and through the prompts of the medium and process itself I’m discovering  new visions, visions that surprise me. 

“Carbon 2”, above, is from a small but growing series that surprises me, and keeps pulling me forward in an unhurried way.  There are four completed works now, and I know more are coming.  I posted the first here (it was an “Untitled” then, but I’ve since realized it was “Carbon 1”).   I’ve been working increasingly with black and white, or minor variations on B&W such as the grayed white in the Carbon paintings, or just small amounts of other hues as in Urchin and Pause Point.  And, for those who are curious about such things, the black pigment in the Carbon paintings is carbon black; it is Mars black in the other two just mentioned.   

Man as Subject

Number 10, (1950) by Mark Rothko

Number 10, 1950 by Mark Rothko, 1950.
Oil on canvas, 90-3/8 x 57-1/8 in.
(Museum of Modern Art, New York)

I love drawing from life.  Perhaps my most revelatory art-making experience came in my first figure-drawing course, when we were introduced to gesture drawing, the super-short (like, 20-second) poses that force one to try to capture the essential energy of the stance in a simple, rapid action.  I quickly realized that I loved the bold attack that was required, and that it generated my best work – strong, fluid, fresh, honest.  I also learned that long poses bored me – often I’d said most of what I wanted to say in that first attack, and prolonged development did not usually improve on it.

But the human figure is rarely a subject in my work.  Nor is the drama and urge for story-making that accompanies it.  I experience almost a visceral rejection of narrative and drama as subject.  I view excising unnecessary drama from our lives as a step on the path to transcendence; portraying it in my art only reinforces it.

But is it necessary for the figure to be the subject for our work to be humanistic?  As we are ourselves human, cannot humanity help but be present in our work?

William C. Seitz, in his early classic Abstract Expressionist Painting in America, explores subject matter and content as used in the work of several fellow artists of the New York School, including the subject of “man”:

The subject of man, however, divides between an objective outer conception and inner expression.  God, in the traditional sense in which He was imaged on the Sistine ceiling, is seldom represented today.  Yet the personal quest for a transcendental reality, and for an absolute, has in no sense abated.  Recognition must be give to this all-important distinction between more or less objectively stated, often representational, subject matter and an inner existential, or transcendental, content. “

And further on:

A rationalized attempt to solve the dilemma of subject, means, and technique, if such it is, theoretically splits into two possible solutions:  first, and more conservative, a reciprocal modification of contemporary abstract form and the autonomy of the human body; second, the more daring solution which accepts the challenge of abstraction and seeks to contain and communicate human meaning without representation.  It is characteristic of the Abstract Expressionists to find plastic solutions in which contradiction is sustained.

…Let us direct our attention to the [first] solution.  In regarding the content we call “human” as synonymous with figuration, are we not in tacit agreement with the opponents of modern style?  Are we not committing ourselves to a philosophy of art which is, to say the least, a bit beefy?

The notably cantankerous Mark Rothko was achieving his classic style (as in “Number 10”, at the top of this post) in the early 1950s, the years when Seitz was interviewing him and observing his work.  But a decade and a half before his style was quite different:

Underground Fantasy, c.1940 - Mark Rothko

Subway (Subterranean Fantasy) by Mark Rothko, ca. 1936
Oil on canvas, 33-3/4 x 46 in.
(The Mark Rothko Foundation, New York)

Seitz considers Rothko’s development “especially instructive” in his examination of man as subject:

[Rothko’s] compositions of the thirties represent human figures in rooms and subways and streets.  Some of the reasons for his change in forms may be reflected in later observations:  “But the solitary figure could not raise its limbs in a single gesture that might indicate its concern with the fact of mortality and an insatiable appetite for ubiquitous experience in the face of this fact.  Nor could the solitude be overcome.  It could gather on beaches and streets and in parks only through coincidence, and, with its companions, for a tableau vivant of human incommunicability.”  Seen in relation to his verbal statements and conversation, the abandonment of traditional figuration in Rothko’s work appears to have been a breakthrough from the hampering representation of everyday situations to meanings hidden behind compromises which, though they must make up practical living, mask the inner drives, desires, and fears which form the core of experience:  “The presentation of this drama in the familiar world was never possible . . . The familiar identity of things has to be pulverized in order to destroy the finite associations with which our society increasingly enshrouds every aspect of our environment.”

This is the challenge that interests me.  Seitz’ second “possible solution”.

Ollas

"Olla #7 (for Juana leaving)" - Carraher 2019

Olla #7 (for Juana leaving)
2019.  Acrylic on canvas. 10 x 8 in.

My sister spent years living and traveling in Mexico.  She was a dancer and musician especially focused on fandango and son jarocho, the folk forms of the Veracruz region.  Mexican arts and culture were central to her life.   She collected artisanal works as she traveled, both because of her personal love of the historical forms and also as a way to support and promote indigenous artists.

When she died, my brother and I sorted through her belongings which included many ceramics, especially those of that ancient form, the round, humble olla,  She had examples of the colorful colonial talavera style, as well as a range of black or earth-colored pots of more Native origin.

Some of these ollas made their way home with me.

Around this same time I started experimenting with acrylics.

"Olla #4" - Carraher 2018

Olla #4
2018.  Acrylic on foamboard. 8 x 6 in.

The ollas made a good, simple subject for still lifes, but I’m never able to stick with that form for long and after just a couple I was free-handing and abstracting them.  These two small studies were done on scraps of foamboard I had sitting around the studio, and involved palette knife as well as brush.

"Olla #5" = Carraher 2018

Olla #5
2018.  Acrylic on foamboard. 6 x 8 in.

A year after my sister’s passing I began a small series of ollas on canvas in her memory; the first of them is at the top of this post.  They all used essentially the same palette and technique.  After laying down an orange ground I made a loose free-hand drawing, surrounding it with the blue and incising with the back end of the brush.

"Olla #8 (for Juana leaving)" - Carraher 2019

Olla #8 (for Juana leaving)
2019.  Acrylic on canvas.  10 x 8 in.

While she was in hospice my brother and I took turns staying with her during the night, sleeping on the floor of her one room.  Above me the shelves were full of ceramics and books about the art and history of Mexico.  And next to me on the floor, her favorite jarana in its case and, in a basket, several other jaranas that she would lend to her students – all instruments made by compadres in Mexico.

She was silent that last week, in a morphine dream, far away, her body getting lighter and lighter.  The daffodils she had planted were blooming all around the garden, and I would bring them into the room.  The daffodil yellow found its way into the last of the ollas I painted, for the day after her leaving:

"Olla #11 (for Juana leaving)" - Carraher 2019

Olla #11 (for Juana leaving)
2019.  Acrylic on canvas.  10 x 8 in.

Vaya con dios, mi hermana.

Satisfactions

"Untitled (1 5 21)" - Carraher 2021

Untitled (1 5 21)
January 2021.  Acrylic on canvas. 11 x 14 in.

I really love this painting.  I finished it maybe five weeks ago, but I began it months before that, in 2020.  It started with just the scaffolding of the black line, as my pieces so often do, and that part went quickly.  But I looked at it for a long time before deciding on my next moves.  It then fell into place just click-click-click, with no fussing.

I actually started three canvases in almost the same way at that same time, and they all resolved quite differently; I’ll post the other two sometime soon.

Anyway, the straight-ahead orange and yellow with the pastel turquoise please me, as does the handling of the small yellow figure at the bottom right and its connection to its uncolored echo in the upper mid left.  Simple elements in balanced yet restless relation.  Altogether abstract and yet mysteriously familiar, pleasurably resonant of something that actually doesn’t exist.  This satisfies me.

Bell Poems, Expanding

"Bell Poem No. 11" - Carraher 2020

Bell Poem No. 11
October 2020.  Acrylic on canvas. 20 x 10 in.

I haven’t posted about the Bell Poems in a while, but I haven’t stopped creating them.  I wasn’t sure when I began just where they were going, and if they were ultimately going to comprise a true body of work.  By early last fall I’d decided they were indeed all part of a collection that held together – if, through nothing else, that they all began with a large calligraphic gesture in black on white, on a canvas of 20 x 10 inches (or 10 x 20 – orientation is not a fixed attribute of this group).  Nonetheless, they’ve proved to be of flexible character beyond that common beginning.  Some, in truth, I did not designate as a bell poem at all at first, they just seemed too different.  But I’ve given up on that.  I think their origin dictates the class.  

No. 11 above is a bit of a throwback in style to an early example, Bell Poem No. 2.  In this case, though, I pushed further in not stopping with a single layer of colored stain, but rather went over the first layer of quinacridone rose with another layer of a medium green, which gives the surface vibrancy.  

But things are not stopping there.  A snapshot of the three latest on the studio wall: 

Bell Poems on wall

More detail on these to come, once I’m sure they’re finished and they’re properly photographed.  But, briefly, the furthest left followed an early course much like No. 11 above; the middle piece will probably remain black and white like several other of the poems; and the painting on the right goes off the regular course completely, about which more later.  But I think it belongs anyway.  And that feels right. 

I’m beginning to believe that this will go on for a while.  The elongated format and the large black brush work on white inspires me.  That just seems to be the fact. 

The Heart in the Bardo/400,000

"The Heart in the Bardo" - Carraher 2020

The Heart in the Bardo
December 2020.  Acrylic on canvas. 14 x 11 in.

Finally, after almost a year of denial and dismissal, an acknowledgement and honoring of those lost to the coronavirus: President Biden and Vice President Harris led a national mourning at the Lincoln Memorial this evening.

At 400,000 dead we are now double what we were when I last posted the number, in late September. May this be the last time I post this text to accompany the Plague Faces:

I paint this series to recognize those who have died or suffered grave loss in this crisis, and, further, to accuse those who have knowingly, willfully, or carelessly pursued polices, actions, and inactions that allowed these deaths and suffering to happen and who continue to do so at this moment.

"Plague Faces No. 21" - Carraher 2020

Plague Faces No. 21
2020.  Acrylic on canvas. 11 x 14 in.

Faces

"Henri" - Carraher 2020

Henri
April 2020.  Acrylic on canvas. 10 x 8 in.

I miss seeing people’s faces.  It’s a feeling that has reached a point of sadness.  I am 100% on-board with the necessary effort to universally mask until it is safe to once again reveal our full selves.  But I will be happy when that day comes.

So in the meantime I’m posting this rather cheerful countenance from last spring – painted in the first days of the pandemic, when masks were still novel, and home-made, and not yet a symbol of division.  Before faces became in short supply.

He’s created with alizarin crimson straight from the tube, on a canvas stained by a sponge with a mix of alizarin and raw umber.  He got the name Henri I think because I was reading about some fin-de-siecle Parisian artists, or their dealers – I no longer remember who – and he just came to life for me that way.

I miss your face.

The Furies

"The Furies" - Carraher 2020

The Furies
December 2020.  Acrylic on canvas. 12 x 16 in.

My mother, near the end of her life, was endowed by her illness with a truly awesome power of fury – a fury of which there had been little indication during her prior 90 years, and whose aura extended exponentially beyond her tiny frame.  At that time she was truly fearsome to those around her, no matter how young or how strong.

My own fury at the ongoing losses and injuries caused by a malevolent and incompetent Administration does not have near the power hers had to affect anything except myself, I fear.  But it does affect me, corrosively.

The Furies do not come to rest without leaving damage; it’s their job.  And they are loose in the world now.

A Year

"Carbon 1" - Carraher 2020

Carbon 1
December 2020.  Acrylic on canvas. 16 x 12 in.

I’ve starting painting over old paintings.  Not that they can be all that old, as I’ve only been working with paints (as opposed to pastels) for a couple years now.  But this past year – this strange year of time and solitude amid chaos and loss – has allowed me to paint, and paint, and paint, and make mistakes and learn lessons and create a lot of…well, bad work.  And now, especially after this year, I’m running out of room for it.

All of that time to paint has also moved me far and fast in the direction I apparently was always headed – a direction I think the new work above illustrates well.  I’d reached the end of possibilities with a canvas I’d beat to death, so I painted it over with titanium white although not thoroughly.  I allowed it to remain patchy, with the surface and color uneven.  The result was deeply inspiring to me, and I was immediately satisfied with this gesture in black. It feels quite different than the black gestures on plain untextured white canvases that I have been making these last few months (see here and here and here), with more dimension, a depth and a richness.

And this direction, long coming but this year accelerated, is clearly deeper and deeper into abstraction – yes, and expressive abstraction, that much reviled classic American style.  It is exciting to me, I celebrate it, and I celebrate this cursed year because, through it all, I’ve arrived at this.

I have so much to say on this – on all of it.  I had planned to include quite a bit more in this post – about this past year, and Time, and space.  So much percolating in my brain, almost painfully.  And perhaps those thoughts will show up in future posts.  But maybe not; I’ve lost the patience to write.  After all, I’m painting, not writing.  That’s the point.

Happy New Year.  We made it.