My Feet Hurt

DSC_0473 (2)Quantum Cubist Self-Portrait, graphite, 12×9″

Woke up at 5 for reasons unknown and watched a grainy black and white youtube video of the 1952 Yankees/Brooklyn Dodgers World Series.  Jackie Robinson played second base for the Dodgers and Roy Campanella played catcher.  Young Mickey Mantle led the Yankees to victory.  The batters swatted at pitches with wide, flat swings.  Baggy uniforms billowed and made the athletes seem slow of foot and wide of ass.

Drifted off, woke to my alarm at 7:30 feeling much groggier than I had at 5.  Stumbled through making breakfast, cooking lunch to leave behind for Judy, and packing an apple and a sandwich to take along.  Felt rushed and slightly hassled as I drove to work but arrived five minutes before the doors automatically unlocked at Valencia Building 3.

The classroom was only partially wrecked from the last class and the Friday clean up crew, so it took just ten minutes to move easels and chairs into position.  Set out three models of human skulls on upright wooden boxes for my Drawing I class.  Arranged a complex still life (a skeleton, fabric, bricks, boots, cow femurs, an angel statue, and a lamp shaped like a horse’s head) on the gray stage for my Drawing II students.

2/3 of the students showed up on time.  Did a brief intro for Drawing I and then switched to Drawing II.  I showed them Picasso’s early cubist paintings, had the students draw 9×12″ boxes and divide them into 8 sections using curving lines.  Told them to draw chunks of the still life in each area.  The kicker was this:  each time they drew another section they had to move to another position.  Cubism=multiple viewpoints rammed together into one shifting, churning space.

DSC_0471 (2)Cubist Still Life, graphite, 8×6″

Drawing I drew skulls and learned portrait proportions.  Then they drew me and themselves, and after lunch they paired up and drew each other.  Usual mistakes:  eyes drawn too large, faces elongated, heads turned into bowling balls with facial features attached haphazardly, noses shortened and shrunk to Michael Jackson proportions, necks too spindly to hold up a head, mouths too small and narrow to chew a hamburger, brains shrunk to subhuman proportions, facial proportions of the drawer transplanted onto drawings of other people.  Students struggled for a while, but improved.  A poor student surprised me by drawing an accurate portrait of another student after having butchered my face.

 

Gave my usual speech about proper etiquette when a model is present (our first model comes next week).  Told them not to make remarks or jokes about the model, not to touch the model, not to fraternize (the model is not a future date), not to photograph the model, and in short, to treat the model with respect.  These rules are based on bad behavior by previous students.  I concluded: “If you have an issue following these rules, then I will have an issue with you, and then I will issue you out the door.”

Two students stayed after.  One wanted to show me her latest work in computer graphics.  I gave her a few color theory tips.  The other wanted to convert me into becoming a computer artist.  Told him that I like the tactile experience of working with my hands, of making things out of physical materials.

He persisted, so I trotted out my standard and most effective argument.  I asked him, “Would you rather make love to a woman or look at porn?”  He stammered and said, “I’ll have to think about that.”  Discussion ended.

Put away wooden boxes, still life props and skulls; arranged easels in a circle around the room; erased the blackboard, locked the closet, turned off the spotlights.  The weekend cleaning crew came in while I packed my bag, and I told them that the paper towels were out in both dispensers.

Trudged through the building and met two students in the lobby.  We cringed greetings to each other sharing the hope that neither student or professor would feel obliged to start a conversation.

The day had turned hot and muggy while I worked inside, and the walk to the car seemed long.  My teaching adrenaline faded away, and the effects of walking on concrete floors became apparent: my knees felt numb and my feet hurt.

 

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The Wine Lady

1994

I saw a woman on a sidewalk near the gallery at Crealde School of Art.  She reigned over a court of listeners, and a fellow Crealde teacher stood in the crowd.  I joined my colleague and soon realized that the lady holding forth was drunk and perhaps crazy.  She slurred her words as she ranted on about a sculptor who had molested her in his studio.  I didn’t doubt her story but wondered why she felt compelled to share it with a group of random strangers.  I began to edge away, but my colleague grabbed my arm, held on tight and said, “You’re not going anywhere.”  If she was trapped listening to the wine lady, then I was trapped too.

I didn’t know that the woman was a regular at art openings all over Orlando, but soon encountered her several times.  She usually held a plastic cup of red as she retold her story.  She had been an art student, and apprentice of sorts, an innocent young woman raped by a sculptor who had volunteered to be her mentor.  She fled, quit art school, and returned home.  Now she felt compelled to attend art events, to drink until she achieved a sloppy state of semi-coherence, and thence to recite the events leading to her downfall.

 

1999

I joined an artist’s co-op, and we held open houses once or twice a year.  I got to observe a lot of odd behavior in the art crowd in Orlando.  Some folks would come for the wine and hors d’oeuvres and set up private parties in the less frequented corners of our studio warehouse.  Some folks came view to what they considered to be a freak show.  They’d sneer at the artwork and make snickering jokes that questioned the sanity and talent of the exhibiting artists.  Everyone appeared to have an expert opinion regardless of their actual experience working in visual arts.

The wine lady showed up one night and stood in the doorway of my studio.  She had  already lost the ability to keep her internal monologue private.  She scanned me and said, “Well, he’s pretty good looking but putting on a little weight.  I wonder if he likes his wine too much.”

I greeted her to interrupt her appraisal, and she wandered over to my refreshment table.  My 14 year old daughter came in to say hello, and the wine lady targeted her.  She began to warn Annie that men were animals.  And then the wine lady started to launch her standard tale of woe.  I cut her off with a few sharp words and told my daughter to go find her mother.

A few years later I saw the woman walking along Aloma Avenue in Winter Park.  She marched at a brisk pace, gestured with her arms, and argued loudly with phantoms.

Several years passed.  My life grew complicated and more difficult and I attended fewer and fewer openings.  I moved my studio home to escape the drama I found whenever I joined artist groups.  I associated with other artists less frequently.  I had grown tired of the collective jealousy, political maneuvering, and madness.

I recently decided to give the art world another chance and went to an opening at Crealde.  I spotted the wine lady hovering near the refreshment table.  I felt surprised that she was still alive.  I listened to her story once more and didn’t dodge off to another room.   I nodded along to her familiar rant, and the intervening years seemed to peel away.

I felt more sympathy for her.  It doesn’t take much to derail a life, and I respected her ability to survive.  And I admired her persistence.  It takes a lot of stamina to hold onto a grudge for a couple decades and to persistently retell a sad tale of trauma.  I doubt that I could manage that.

Perhaps the wine lady is a latter day, wine-soaked Jonah preaching the evils of the male gender.  Who am I to judge her judgments?

 

 

Back Story

A friend of mine, a color field abstractionist who never made it to the big show, painted large canvases of pastels and off-whites.  He sold them to interior decorators who placed them in bank lobbies and board rooms.  He made a living, but his one show in New York flopped.

One day he invited me over to look at some new work.  I stifled a yawn as he rambled on about his “latest breakthrough”, but he rewarded my patience by pouring two tumblers of whiskey.  We lit up cigars and retired to his back porch, and he told me a nugget of art world wisdom:  “People don’t buy paintings.  They buy souvenirs of an artist’s back story.”

I didn’t know what he meant, but he explained.  (He always explained.)  “Van Gogh couldn’t draw and his early compositions and colors are crap.  But then he lops off an ear and tries to give it to a whore to prove how much he loves her.  Ends up in an asylum, shoots himself a few years later.  Folks start buying his paintings.  Wouldn’t touch them while he lived and breathed, but once the back story got out, he became a tragic genius.  Everybody wanted a piece of that.”

I asked him to name a few more examples.  “Dali shows up at a party wearing a diving suit, the ones with the weights and the bell shaped helmets.  He’s walking around with an oxygen tank on his back and nearly dies when a valve fails.  He’s sucking up all the air left inside the helmet and can’t get the damned thing off.  Great publicity.  Stole his wife away from a French poet and got kicked out of the Surrealists for making paintings about Hitler–or rather, his erotic dreams about Hitler.  He turned his life into a circus and sold off the posters.”

He went on.  (He always does.)  “Georg Grosz said that he and his buddies were like barkers at a carnival.  Come see the freak show.  And the rich ones lined up and paid admission.”

“But he paid a price, didn’t he?  Didn’t the Nazis chase him out of Germany?”

“So what?  When you put yourself on the market you have to expect some feedback from the public,” he drawled.

“You’re a real jerk,” I declared.

He sipped his whiskey, winced, and ran fingers through his thinning hair.  “And you’re naïve,” he countered.  He probed:  “So what’s your story?  Middle class background, white boy from the Cincinnati suburbs.  Married happily and had a couple kids.  Boring.  Wait a minute.  Didn’t you grow up Catholic?”

“Yeah,” I said warily.

“Any problems in the priest department?” he asked.

“Nope.  Didn’t happen to me and I never met any victims,” I said.

“Too bad.  Better start making something up.”

“What’s your deal?  I barely know anything about you,” I said.

“Oh, didn’t I tell you?  I was born in Venice near St. Marks.  My mother was a part time model and a part time hooker, and my father was Titian’s fourth cousin ten times removed.  I stowed away on a tramp steamer when I was 12 and hid with the rats in the hold.  I nearly starved in New York until I fell in with the mob.  I ran numbers for them and shook down mom-and-pops when I got old enough to look dangerous. Squiggy the Mooch sent me to art school after he saw a sketch I made of a dead body.  Said I drew the puddle of blood real good.  Met Franz Kline, fought Jackson Pollock in a bar, and screwed Elaine De Kooning (everybody screwed Elaine De Kooning).   She introduced me to Peggy Guggenheim, and the rest is history.”

“Didn’t you tell me that you’re from Milwaukee?  Your dad worked in a brewery, and your mom was a seamstress.”

“Back story, boy, back story.”

He took a long drag on his cigar and let out a long stream of smoke.

Art, the Offender?

DSC_0446 (2)

Does art find harmonies that soothe?  Do the harmonies suggest an underlying and reassuring order?  All is well?

Does art destroy smug tranquility?  Does the destruction open up new ways of seeing, hearing, living?  Or does it merely wipe away preconceptions without building a scaffold for new structures?

I read that James Joyce came across a few intelligible passages as he edited Finnegan’s Wake.  A reader might just be able to connect some dots.  Joyce immediately reworked the offending phrases until they seamlessly blended in with the seething babble of the rest of the book.

Picasso broke forms, twisted shapes, rendered the world in ways that surprised him.  Yet he missed having a set of rules by which he could judge the value of his work.  He realized that Cubism had undermined tradition, and that he couldn’t retrace his steps to regain the comfort of working in an enclosed system.

I used to use color as a weapon.  Reds and greens clashed and tore at each other.  Hot colors shouted at dull.  I wanted to wake everyone up to make them feel what I felt.  Now I know that they already did, that my emotions weren’t unique.  And now I like a little harmony as my days grow harder to manage and the world seems alien to me.

I sometimes visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York when I lived in Pennsylvania.  The lower floors started with James Ensor, and as I progressed upward I saw a progression of movements.  Fauvism jumped to Cubism skipped to Dadaism and Surrealism.  The tangled energy of Ab-Ex ran down and became supplanted by Pop Art and increasingly arid Minimalism.  The eighties section focused mostly on installation art.  Eccentricity seemed to be the only recognizable goal.  I fled around a corner into a quiet room with dimmer lights, sat on a bench and sighed.  A Monet water lily painting hung before me, and I felt like a thirsty traveler sipping cool water at an oasis.

DSC_0448 (2)

Abstraction: Poetic Interpretations of Memory

 

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Here’s a slide show of recent paintings and a drawing. These were made this year and represent a huge departure from my narrative painting series. Abstraction allows me to make poetic interpretations of emotions and experiences, and the process is more absorbing and satisfying than working realistically.

Technique: I’ve been layering images associated with specific events. Memories of a weekend vacation, a quilt on a bed, bass fishing with my father, recovering from surgery, dealing with a friendship gone bad, and an adolescent dream are the sources. I let the colors and shapes develop into rhythmic patterns and create contrasts between flat shapes and volumetric forms.

I intentionally leave hints of the original subject matter. I’ve never been a purist, never wanted to edit compositions into pristine arrangements of a few precious forms. I’d prefer, if I had the cash, to own abstract work by Paul Klee, Stuart Davis, Georges Braque, Arshille Gorky, Patrick Henry Bruce, August Macke, and Marsden Hartley. (They  included autobiographical images, symbols and references to nature in their compositions.)  I’d pass up the pure abstraction, minimalist, and conceptual artwork of Brice Marden, Robert Mangold, Robert Ryman, and Ellsworth Kelly.  (They boiled things down to sterile nothingness.)

 

 

 

Ohio Man and Vincent Van Gogh

The art department at the University of Delaware had a poster pinned on the office door: a reproduction of a Vincent Van Gogh self-portrait.  The painting showed the artist puffing a pipe while wearing a bandage over the torn stub of the ear he had recently severed.  Vincent looks haunted, like a man who has begun to realize that his life has just shifted permanently sideways.

van gogh

One day I saw Professor Bob standing in front of the poster.  He grabbed his scarf, wrapped it around his head, mimicked the act of smoking a pipe, and hunkered down.  He sucked in his cheeks and looked mournfully up at us.  Professors Larry and Steve shouted and laughed, and I asked, “What’s so funny?”

Larry told me that a grad candidate had brought along his wife on his interview.  She was a hair dresser who most likely had never attended college.  She had seen Bob standing near the door earlier in the day, pointed to the poster and asked Bob if the painting was a portrait of him.

I met the candidate later in the day and discovered that he was a small town boy from Ohio.  He spoke simply about his work, and I asked him what projects he had planned for grad school.  He told me that he painted portraits of anyone willing to model for him.  He didn’t have any rationale for his selection process and didn’t wish to explore an underlying theme while developing his work.

I liked the man, but knew that the professors would reject him if he didn’t come into his afternoon slide show with a plan of action.  I knew that the profs wanted to see a conceptual model.  He might explore issues surrounding homelessness by painting street people.  He might survey modes of masculinity by contrasting football players to poets, blue collar locals to high-toned academics.  He could investigate the shifting standards of feminine beauty by painting women who fit the definitions of attractiveness in different times and cultures.  Example:  a Rubenesque woman contrasted with an emaciated Twiggy-like model.

But the man from Ohio gave me a blank look when I tried to coax him into picking a more complex project.  He simply wanted to paint people and had never given much thought to issues inherent in the field of portraiture.  I’m sure that he’d never heard of “The Male Gaze’, and didn’t understand that a person’s clothing, posture and expression revealed clues about their social status and group history.

I changed the subject when I saw that my efforts were pointless.  I asked him how he liked Delaware.  I remembered the difficulty I had in adjusting to East Coast culture after moving to Wilmington from Dayton, Ohio.  I had been unprepared for the rudeness, the social preening, the thin-skinned hostility.  Ohio Man jumped on the topic and told me a story about a waitress in a Delaware diner who yelled at him when he asked for more coffee.  He said, “I was polite and nice as pie, but she’d like to have torn my head off over a refill.  I told my wife, ‘Things sure are different here.'”

His paintings looked good to me at the slide show.  The proportions were accurate and the draftsmanship sure, and the flesh tones shimmered clear and fine.  His brushwork was lively, and the paint thick and juicy.  The guy had talent.  But he blew it when he started to talk.  He pointed to a portrait of an old man and said, “This is my Grandpa.  I showed it to him when I finished it, and he said nothing.  I worried that he thought it was no good.  But he smiled to show me that he liked it and that he was proud, and that smile meant more to me than anything anyone has ever said about my work.”

Ohio Man waited for the profs to say something pleasant in response, but Larry stared at the floor, Bob smirked, and Steve glared at the candidate.  Ohio Man looked flustered but continued as before.  He delivered heartwarming stories about subjects in forthcoming slides.  Aunt Mattie suffered from diabetes, but that didn’t stop her from making decorations for the grade school Christmas tree.  Uncle Jim sold shoes in a shop downtown, and he always remembered a repeat customer’s name.  Cousin Jean planned to join the Navy after she graduated from high school because she loved her country and wanted to see the world.

I spoke with the professors after Ohio Man packed up his slides and joined his wife in the hall.  I expected more jokes, but the three men had grown solemn.  They couldn’t believe that an artist who had made that much progress had failed to develop one critical line of thinking.  The profs couldn’t find a hint of ironic detachment in the paintings, not a scrap of socio-political thrust in his attitude toward his subjects.  The man was simply a painting machine.  He’d offer nothing but greeting card homilies in critiques, and would do little to challenge his fellow students.

Bob, Steve and Larry rejected Ohio Man and sent him back home.  I  sometimes thought of him when I passed the office and saw the Van Gogh poster.  I hoped that he’d found a refuge among people who liked him and his work and valued his innocence.

Art Country

I recently watched a beer commercial during a break in a hockey game.  It showed a horse running down country roads, streets in small towns, children raising the Stars and Stripes, a firehouse, men shaking hands.  It ended with a father and son standing on a porch.  The sun had begun to set, and one handed a beer to the other.  They smiled reluctantly as if too shy to fully acknowledge the love they felt for each other.  They sipped their beer and looked out over their land.  The horse ran by…

I thought that it might be interesting to see if a sales formula leaning hard on nostalgia, patriotism, and old fashioned hokum could be applied to another American product.  I tried Painting, and failed of course.  But failure can be funny:

 

This is the story of paintings made in the heart of America, in a community where a gallery contract is a bond for the artist (but not so much for the dealer). 

thomas hart benton reaping

Thomas Hart Benton

These are the paintings made for those who took on the challenge of defeating ennui, who found an opportunity to defray the tax costs of inherited wealth, who forged a new hope for a cleverly invested future.

 

jack levine woman fan Jack Levine

 

These paintings were made for a generation willing to sip wine, speculate over risky masters (the ones who stubbornly outlive their most valuable periods), to remember a time when it was easier to choose a bankable artist from amongst the desperate, paint-spattered rabble.

 

Daumier

 

This is a story bigger than painting…This is the story of ART COUNTRY.

 

Roy De ForestRoy DeForest