The Oak and the Cypress: Mal di Mare

Mal di Mare, 48 x 36, Mixed media on panel, 2016

…And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

Excerpt from “On Marriage” by Kahlil Gibran

This body of work is about being married, or in a long-term relationship.

Nine years ago, the first time Mia and I were in Europe together, I collected (OK, I may have ripped it down) part of a poster that was displayed on a wall in Sicily. Although I liked the poster for its graphics and colors, its message is a political one about the state of the navy, border control, and various civic concerns related to the waterfront.

I took the title, Mal di Mare, from these graphics. Although it sounds quite lyrical in Italian, it actually means “seasick”. I hope this doesn’t sound too negative in tone, but I think it’s part of the ups and downs of a relationship, the bargain you make in a long-term commitment.

The Oak and the Cypress: Hesitation Change (Waltz)

Hesitation Change (Waltz), Acrylic on panel, 48 x 36

…And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

Excerpt from “On Marriage” by Kahlil Gibran

This body of work is about being married, or in a long-term relationship.

Mia is an avid dancer, and the waltz is the unofficial dance of love. My interest is picqued a little more, not by dancing the steps, but watching them being danced, and even by the visual pattern of diagramming the steps. A Hesitation Change is a real step in the waltz, although this diagram depicts the Whisk, and a Natural Turn. I liked the suggestion of the title, related to changing patterns within a relationship.

The Oak and the Cypress: Roadblock

Roadblock, 24 x 24, Acrylic and mixed media on panel

…And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

Excerpt from “On Marriage” by Kahlil Gibran

This body of work is about being married, or in a long-term relationship.

Being married usually means in-laws, and I’m lucky to have a very good relationship with mine. My father-in-law and I have a special relationship, one that’s humorous and tender. I could be wrong, but I don’t think our relationship would be nearly as sweet if I were a son-in-law. Recently, I’ve been thinking about him quite a bit. As the owner of an auto body shop for many years, he has a love of cars and driving. When I see something related to cars, I think of him.

I’m always on the lookout for found objects for my artwork, and often come home with something in my pocket. Besides the road reflector I found while running (I brought that dirty thing all the way back from Maui in my carry-on; I just had to have it), this composition is based in part on a diagram I saw of a fuel injection system. This depiction is so stylized as to be make-believe, and I don’t think any car buff would see it in there, so I didn’t mention that part to Frank.

But when I told him that I’d made a painting about him, he was quite moved and said with a real sense of wonderment, that no one had ever made a painting about him before. Only because you don’t know any other artists, Frank.

The Oak and the Cypress: If Love Is Like Wine: You Are My Predilection (Neruda)

You Are My Predilection (Neruda), 24 x 24, 2016

…And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

Excerpt from “On Marriage” by Kahlil Gibran

This body of work is about being married, or in a long-term relationship.

This title is a quote from a love sonnet by Pablo Neruda, which was read aloud at our wedding. The poem is silly and profound at the same time. The letter M stands for Mia, who is obviously my predilection, and sometimes my muse. Some of the graphics came from a wall poster in Siena that I photographed while we were there.

The Oak and the Cypress: Tangier Overture

Tangier-Overture

…And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

Excerpt from “On Marriage” by Kahlil Gibran

This body of work is about being married, or in a long-term relationship.

This painting was inspired by our trip to Tangier, Morocco last summer, as a leg of our European trip. The blue and white color palette, as well as the suggestion of Arabic writing evoke a little of the visuals of Tangier. Maybe more importantly, tensions about the risk we were taking in traveling to a country where it’s illegal to be gay, as well as an encounter with a security agent at the airport informed this painting.

The title addresses these tensions and comes from a game I’ve been enjoying recently, where I get ideas for paintings from mishearing the titles of classical music pieces on the radio. The true title of the piece of music that this painting is named after is Algerian Overture, but as soon as I heard it, I knew that if I changed the place name to “Tangier”, I had my title.

Discovery

Hand-Marbled Paper
Hand-Marbled Paper

Learning something new somehow refreshes the soul, doesn’t it? I felt like I was walking on air after a friend taught me how to marble this paper.

You’re Invited!

Tangier Overture
Tangier Overture

To an exhibition of new paintings at the Knutzen Family Theatre in Federal Way, Washington.

The Oak and the Cypress

…And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

Excerpt from “On Marriage” by Kahlil Gibran

This body of work is about being married, or in a long-term relationship. The first step toward this theme was a technical one: I challenged myself to begin using pattern in more conscious ways in my paintings. This technical consideration soon turned metaphorical as I began to consider the patterns (specifically behavioral ones) in my daily life. Around this time, maybe because of this train of thought, I suddenly realized that my eight-year relationship with my wife can now be considered “long-term”. We’re not honeymooners any more, and sometimes we’re both surprised to realize that. On top of this, we traveled to Italy last summer, the first time we’d been there since we went together as a brand-new couple. This trip provided a natural comparison and opportunity to look at our relationship at its beginning and at its current bloom. It also caused me to revisit some of my earlier artwork, since I was inspired by Italy at that time. The warm Italian palette, crusty textures, sense of the passage of time, and found objects such as Italian wall posters frequently featured in my compositions, and I’ve returned to some of these themes to explore marriage.

The exploration of the figure is a departure from my usual abstract paintings, and a move into more personal territory and themes. Only two paintings have ever been shown before in public.

The Oak and the Cypress
On view at Knutzen Family Theatre
3200 SW Dash Point Rd.
Federal Way, WA 98023
Monday – Friday, 9 to 5
Through August 16, 2016

Behind the Scenes, Part 2

Tangier Overture
Tangier Overture

“What does it mean?”
“What were you thinking about when you painted this?”
A few times: “I see a golfer”.

It’s amused me to think of doing a series on golfers to give the people what they seem to want, but I don’t really care for golf. So instead, here’s what I was thinking about when I painted this painting:

As I mentioned earlier, this painting already existed as another painting, until I decided I needed to return to it and improve it (which I hope I’ve done).

In the exhibition where that original version was shown, someone started a conversation with me about pattern in my work. Specifically, he said that he noticed that I used a lot of pattern, but that I always cover it up with fields of plain color. He asked me why I did that, and I didn’t have an answer because I hadn’t even thought of it that way myself. From that conversation, I challenged myself to consciously use pattern, and to resist what I now know is my temptation to bury it. This has led to some interesting developments for me, and a new (to me), labor-intensive way of deliberately creating patterns, such as stripes. I’ve used a lot of tape in the process, laying it down, painting stripes, blow-drying them, removing the tape, and starting again with the next stripe.

This mindfulness, and taking pains with details, came at a time where my wife and I suddenly woke to the fact that, Hey, we’ve been together a while now; this is now what you’d call a long-term relationship! We’re not honeymooners any more. Time has a way of creeping up like that.

In my mind, I started to examine these two things side by side, the attention to my process, and the attention to my marriage. Both go better when you’re mindful. Both go better when you take the time. Both need a lot of attention.

Also around this time, we took a long vacation, the first since our honeymoon. Among our stops, we revisited Italy, where we had gone together in the very early days of our relationship. Going there again provided a natural comparison and opportunity to look at our relationship at its beginning and at its current bloom, seven years in.

As an artist also, there was an irresistible comparison to revisit old themes, since Italy had provided me with such inspiration for my work a few years ago. I’ve started working with Italian wall posters again, as well as other found objects. Bruce Springsteen and many others have revisited past material and made it fresh again, for example, rearranging Born to Run, a song he wrote at age 23, to reflect a mid-life perspective, or touring this year solely on the back of an album, The River, that he wrote at age 30. There is the possibility for an increased richness of perspective and self-knowledge and of course – better work! Which is really what us artists are after all along.

So these are the thoughts that are influencing my work right now. For this painting specifically, I was also thinking about some experiences in Morocco. The blue and white color palette, as well as the suggestion of Arabic writing evoke a little of the visuals of Tangier, where we spent a couple of days.

You may or may not know that being gay is illegal there, and there is an active effort, in some locales more than others, to bring gays to “justice”, which is harsh. I wasn’t concerned to travel to Morocco, as I’d had quite a bit of experience in the Middle East, and we were going to Tangier, a major city located within sight of Spain. The sophistication of a big city and its familiarity with Europeans made me feel completely comfortable, and honestly, we can “pass” as straight whenever we want to. (We don’t usually do this, but sometimes it’s safer). Mia, though, had some hesitations about ways that we might accidentally reveal ourselves, and was anxious about getting “caught”.

On top of this dynamic, in the airport when we left, I was pulled aside for an additional, private inspection by a female security agent. This never happens to me, so it was notable. It became even more notable when this particular inspection made up for the previous lack of attention. When I tell the story in person, I make it sound very funny and act it out with some degree of abandon. But that funny version sort of minimizes the underlying scare of it, because when you’re gay in a time and place where it’s illegal to be, you don’t have any power. I made the conscious decision to not object in any way to any part of the inspection, because I had my own fears about what would happen if I had. If I had suggested that the inspector was somehow wrong, or had gone too far, I’d be making a public declaration. By saying I was uncomfortable, I’d be saying that there was something inherently sexual in what had happened. Because we were both women, that would make it illegal. If I put her back up against that hypothetical wall, her only defense would be to lash out. And if she lashed at me, she’d hit her mark, because after all, I really am gay, and my wife is standing right there to prove it. Suddenly, or in my mind anyway, we’d both be going to jail, while the inspector is filling out paperwork and making jokes in the backroom. No thank you.

So these relationships – between visual elements in the painting, between Mia and me, between our current relationship and our younger relationship, between the agent and me, between my current work and my previous work, between a foreigner and a new city – were in my mind while I worked.

Then, one day while I was listening to classical music in the car, I heard the title of a piece, which was Algerian Overture. [Lately, I’ve been enjoying this fun game that I play with myself, which is that I get ideas for paintings from mis-hearing the titles of classical pieces. My favorite is that I heard Music of 10,000 Fernandas, which had so many possibilities to a lesbian, but when I checked the playlist later, I realized that they’d said “Music from Antonio Fernandez”, the classical guitar player. Which I can’t help but think isn’t nearly as interesting]. Although I’d heard Algerian Overture correctly, I knew then that I’d found my title if I just changed it to “Tangier”.

Behind the Scenes (The Painting Fought Back)

Tangier Overture
Tangier Overture

The author David Foster Wallace once said something like, When writing a book, there always comes a time where you fall to the ground and bang your head against the floor. I see a lot of parallels between writing and painting, but I don’t feel this way with every painting because there are some that almost paint themselves. Then there are definitely those that want to wrestle you to the ground, grab you by the hair, and forcibly bang your head down for you.

This was one of those paintings. Now that I’m finished, I can talk about it without feeling like I’m going to jinx it. Or, like it’s judging me. You can see up there at the top, hanging out, looking innocent. In reality, I think it’s the most difficulty I’ve had in five years. I probably went through a good 17 different versions of this painting, including turning it to different sides, completely wiping out sections, changing or moving elements, even starting over completely from what I thought was already a finished painting.

Yes, here’s the painting that I thought, for a brief moment, was a finished work:

Beginning point (sort of!)
Beginning point (sort of!)

I even exhibited it, but I knew it was wrong when I saw it again on the wall at the show after not having seen it for a while. My head kind of snapped, and I made a little half-gasp under my breath. All of a sudden, it just wouldn’t do. It no longer seemed resolved. It bugged the hell out of me.

When the show was over and I got the painting back to the studio, I tried not to look at it, but it always tugged my eyes over. I knew I’d have to do something about it. After some time of assessing it, I started to work on it again.

Work-in-progress, Stage 2
Work-in-progress, Stage 2

I didn’t document it completely, but now you can see a big difference in the overall structure of the painting from the so-called starting point. See that little pointing, square blue shape from the top right of the Starting Point painting? I liked that, and it stayed, but see how everything around it changes.

Work-in-progress, Stage 3
Work-in-progress, Stage 3

Follow the little blue square as it moves to the upper left…see how I turned the painting 90 degrees counterclockwise? For a while, that seemed to make more sense. Eventually, I turned this version upside-down and settled on that orientation for the final. The blue square ended up at the bottom right.

And those were just some of the major changes. There were many minor ones that probably only I would notice. And then, one day, when you’re lucky, you look at a painting and it tells you it’s finished. There’s nothing more you can do to resolve the energy and the tensions between the parts. It fits the way it is.

Hopefully, this one will stay that way this time…

365 Days of Art: September 6 – Elizabeth Murray is Born

Elizabeth Murray, Bop, 2002-2003

September 6, 1940

Painter Elizabeth Murray is born. She’s known for pioneering shaped canvases which ask the question: am I a painting or an object? They’re fun, abstract paintings that are made of cartoon-like shapes and symbols, and she died too soon.

365 Days of Art: March 1 – Plane Crashes; Arshile Gorky Artwork Destroyed

Arshile Gorky, The Limit, oil and paper on canvas, 1947

March 1, 1962

American Airlines Flight 1 crashes in Jamaica Bay, Queens about two minutes after takeoff. Ninety five people and fifteen abstract works by Arshile Gorky are aboard, all en route to Los Angeles. All crew and passengers are killed. The artwork, on its way to an exhibition is LA, is destroyed.

This is the plane crash that killed Pete Campbell’s father in Mad Men. When I saw the episode, I felt like it was a little over the top, too soap opera-esque, but several prominent people actually were killed in the real-life crash, including a close friend of President Eisenhower’s, a gold medal winner, and the mother of Linda Eastman, who would go on to marry Paul McCartney.

And poor Gorky. Although the crash happened long after his death, misfortune and tragedy had a way of finding him. This wasn’t even the first time his work was accidentally destroyed: on January 26, 1946, a fire in his Connecticut studio ruined about 20 paintings.

Time traveling back to 1914, March 1 is also the day that a teenaged Gorky and his sister arrive in Watertown, Massachusetts to settle with relatives. They are refugees, fleeing the genocide of ethnic Armenians in their native Turkey.

Gorky tragedies will show up more than once this year.

365 Days of Art: February 16 – Edward Hopper Poses for Raphael Soyer, Disses Abstract Art

February 16, 1963

Edward Hopper poses for the second time for Raphael Soyer, who is painting his portrait. Soyer noted the occasion, as well as their conversation in his diary:

A professor, head of an art department, recently asked him to participate in an art symposium with the nonrepresentationalist Motherwell and others. “I said nix. Painting has become a matter of words to such a great extent,” he said sadly.

365 Days of Art: February 15 – Whitney Biennial Features Agnes Martin (Who? Read On; She’s Great)

Agnes Martin, The Tree, 6 feet by 6 feet

February 15, 1977

The Whitney Biennial opens; at least one of Agnes Martin’s grid paintings is featured.

Did I hear you wondering, Who is Agnes Martin? She worked at the same time as the Abstract Expressionists (in fact, had a much longer, more productive career than most of them), in New York City in the 50s which was the height of that movement, in a similar large format (6 feet by 6 feet, until old age forced her to scale it back to 5 feet by 5 feet) in a muted palette of mostly black/white/gray, and in the visual language of abstraction. That all sounds like the definition of Abstract Expressionism. So why isn’t she as well known as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, heck, even a Franz Kline or an Ad Reinhardt (who was a close friend and mentor)?

I didn’t know much about her until she died, and even that was possibly because I happened to be in grad school, in a painting program, at the time of her death.

Martin is the opposite of flashy, and that’s the short answer; who could compete with the partying and testosterone and noise of all those Ab Ex boys? Both her own personal appearance and her artworks’ are free of adornment. Her work needs time spent in front of it, to get to know it. It’s way too nuanced to reproduce well on a computer screen–sorry! But I think the time spent is well worth it.

There are a couple of readings of Martin’s work that speak to me. One is a meditative one, encompassing the idea of a mantra. She was known to practice meditation, and the experience of standing in front of her paintings, swallowed by the large scale with one’s eyes tracing repetitive rectangles is similarly calming but proactive. The small rectangles that make up the larger square grid are precise, but without the machine-made quality of something mass-produced. Martin cultivated the evidence of the man-made; she really did pencil each line by hand (after carefully calculating her measurements of course) and turned the paintings to control the dripping of the paint by encouraging them to fall in certain directions. She painted in this style for about 40 years. Yes, 40 years. What is that, if not meditation on a mantra?

The other reading of her work is intriguing and personally fascinating to me. It’s thought that Martin was a closeted lesbian and the ways that influenced her work and even the way she presented herself to the world make for an interesting read of her grids. She always presented herself (especially in her later years) in a practical, masculine, almost ascetic, way, free from any feminine embellishment like accessories or styled hair. Her clothing consisted almost exclusively of a shirt without a collar, pants, and canvas shoes–nothing more than the bare minimum. She took pride in her construction skills, and after she left New York for New Mexico, built her own studio, and performed all the “hard labor” that needs to be done on a painting before you can paint on it. And for large canvases, the prep work is extensive. In an interview filmed when she was in her late 70s at least, she can be seen hoisting a large canvas, and gessoing it herself, insisting that she could hire someone if she wanted to, she just didn’t want to. She’s pretty bad-ass. The asceticism extended beyond her appearance, to a solitary life, for a while even living without water and electricity.

Some of her interviews suggest at either a hidden love affair, or an unrequited love as the possible reason for her move out of New York and into the untamed southwest. She said that “passion” and “lust” were “exhaustible” and “not real” emotions, and “Real love is when you’re not making love but you still love each other. Innocent love is what I paint about.” She reportedly said that searching for love “is a great mistake” and described how she had wasted some time doing that but had moved beyond it, to a point where it wasn’t a part of her life. She never married, and there are no known love affairs. This too, was rather unheard of in the NYC art world of the 1950s, when the men as well as the women had multiple and often public love interests.

A quick look at the social climate of the 1950s: it was a long way from the Stonewall Rebellion and start of the gay rights movement. Being gay was clandestine and secretive. Underground gay bars, like the Stonewall in NYC, were raided regularly by police. People who were arrested in such raids were fired from their jobs. Various laws prohibited gays from everyday activities like drinking alcohol in bars. If you can imagine that. Our illustrious Senator McCarthy was holding hearings trying to find out who was gay and who wasn’t. Those who were gay, or suspected of it, weren’t considered worthy to serve our country in the FBI or any number of government jobs and were rooted out amid a culture of suspicion and fear. Living quietly underground–unless you were extremely rich and could afford to have this eccentricity–was the only viable way to live as a gay man or lesbian at this time.

In this context, thinking about Martin’s solitude, quiet paintings, even her self-denying existence without basic amenities, makes a certain sense. It’s also been noted that her insistence on the handmade, within the rigid overall grid structure, seems almost rebellious. Even now that viewpoint is still held with regard to gays “choosing that lifestyle” that flies in the face of morality and American values. But Martin’s handmade rebellion, if it can be considered that, was executed by her the way she did everything else–in a quiet way that won’t cause a fuss. This quiet rebellion that she perpetrated day after day in her studio for over 40 years was almost like hiding in plain sight. And the thought that one can look through the grids like a screen–but can’t see anything on the other side, can’t get to know her or the painting any better other than continuing to retrace the surface–also makes sense psychologically. She did not want to be known; she used the grid to hide. Best of all, Martin always said that her very first grid painting came to her as she was thinking of a way to paint “innocence”. In the context of the McCarthy hearings, this meditation, over and over, on innocence seems profound.

A really great article on these ideas can be read here. An exhibition of Martin’s work called Agnes Martin: Beyond the Grid is on view at Tacoma Art Museum now. There are several grid paintings and prints, as well as early work, including the nude female portrait that was included in the Hide/Seek exhibition at TAM a couple of years ago. The current exhibition doesn’t talk about her sexuality at all, but is wonderful.

Artwork Goes to Outerspace

Salyut 7 space station in 1982, image courtesy of http://www.spacediary.info/eng/salyut.html

Now don’t ask me why, but in 1982, 154 serigraphs (or fine art screenprints) were taken into space. Yes, outerspace.

The prints were created by Victor Vasarely, who worked in Op Art, creating a sense of movement by employing optical illusions and color tricks. The prints were brought on board the French-Soviet spacecraft Salyut 7, a French and Soviet project, and I can’t figure out why! I mean, look at how tight that space is. Why they would want 154 of anything is beyond me. I don’t see how the work could have been displayed, since every inch needs to be functional, not serve as an art gallery. Not only is there no space to hang the work, but if you couldn’t look at it, why bother? This whole thing really made me chuckle.

A Big Week

In one week recently, four of my paintings found lovely new homes.

My portrait of Abe Lincoln (read more about its backstory here) now hangs above the desk of a businesswoman from Brooklyn.

In Secret went to a home in Manhattan and, in a neat turn of events, surprised a visitor who had seen it created in the studio.

Encounter is now hung on a wall that actually overlooks my old studio from grad school. [Imagined conversation…New work to old studio: How do you like me now?!]

Bridge was purchased by an art conservator.

I’m so happy to send these works off to loving homes!