Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Old friends

After an intensive year and a half spent preparing for an upcoming exhibit, I suddenly find myself with time to sit. Be still. And take stock. 

So I've been visiting with old friends, my constant companions in the studio. And with the luxury of time, I've been thinking about how these friendships have sustained me. When I felt dejected and stuck, looking at these paintings helped get me moving again. On the days that I was flying, they seemed to wink in acknowledgment.

Most of these images have been hanging on the studio wall for many years, and several have been with me for decades. How's that for loyalty!  Although new cards periodically show up on the shelf, they are unlikely to dislodge old-timers from the wall. 

During a recent afternoon in the studio, I began thinking about why I found these particular paintings so meaningful. Several, such as those by Vermeer, Manet, and Degas, remind me of the many hours spent in the European painting galleries at the Met Museum when I was in high school and college. I've always loved the Vermeer (A Maid Asleep) because of the light pouring through from the back room, and only recently noticed how the rectangular forms on the right side of the canvas are echoed in the Morandi that hangs above it on my wall. The Manet (The Balcony) offers the exquisite whiteness of the gowns set against the cobalt green shutters. The Print Collector by Degas is filled with corners and squares overlapping squares, and that brilliant white shirt collar.

Morandi entered my life through his etchings. But his paintings have had a profound influence on me, perhaps more so than any other visual artist. I am drawn to the dialogues between the forms and his dogged pursuit of honest representation. 

The paintings of Diebenkorn and Scully began showing up on my wall when my own work was still firmly planted in landscape, years before I had the slightest understanding of why I found their paintings so potent. But they waited patiently until I was ready to begin our conversations. 

Marden's Cold Mountain paintings and etchings (After Boticelli) have their place on the wall because of the complexity and intensity of the exploration. And because the paintings prompted me to read some of the poems of Han Shan. 


Heilmann's work is a more recent addition to my wall, and it is there to remind me to keep me playing.  Several more add to the mix:  On the wall, below the Vermeer, is a fabric applique by Sonia Delaunay, a Rodin drawing of a dancer, and a piece by Donald Sultan.

Now it's your turn. 
What's hanging on your studio wall?  
And what are the conversations?

Monday, November 26, 2012

Altoon Sultan: Playful Geometry

Blinky Palermo

I am often intrigued by images that are visually spare, although I tend to favor a measure of compositional complexity in many of my own paintings.  The work that captures and holds my interest is generally modest in its making and conveys an essential experience—sometimes meditative, sometimes playful.  Collages by Jean Arp, paintings of Blinky Palermo, or small Tantric paintings are among the gems that come to mind. 

Jean Arp

page from Tantra Song


It is in this spirit that I offer some thoughts on the work of Altoon Sultan. In recent years, Sultan has been painting intimately scaled abstractions with images derived from tools and farm implements that she encounters near her home in rural Vermont. These egg tempera on parchment paintings (some as small as 4 x 6") are elegantly composed and often spatially complex. You can see a selection of these paintings by clicking here

However, it is in Sultan’s prints and textiles that I find connections to a more minimalist aesthetic, but with a twist.  Working with iconic geometric forms, her circles, squares, and triangles are sometimes presented in symmetrical arrays, while in other works they appear to frolic across an open field. Sultan is also an avid explorer of materials, producing potato prints, cardboard prints, as well as digital prints. Her textiles include hooked wool drawings (which often incorporate egg tempera), as well as what she describes as “ruglets”, small wall hangings made from hand dyed wool hooked on linen backing. Many of the prints have a palette of subdued earth tones, while the textiles are often brightly hued. 

 The Potato Prints generally incorporate simple forms arranged symmetrically on the page and concisely titled with the name of the shapes—no pretensions here. The forms are irregular in both shape and inking, and imbued with a hand-made, humble quality.  To see more recent potato prints by Sultan, click here

Sultan, Vertical Three, 11 3/4 x 6 1/4"
Sultan, Four Square, 2012, 12 x 10"
Sultan, Five Circles, Four Squares, 2012
17 3/8 x 15" 

Once again, using an everyday material in making the Cardboard Prints, Sultan works with basic geometric forms arrayed in simple patterns. In this series, Sultan’s compositions are simultaneously pared down and rhythmic. The somewhat irregular shapes offer a sense of possibility, without complications. 

Sultan, Green Rounds, 2012, image 10x10"
Sultan, Split Circles, 2012, image 10 x 6 3/4

Sultan, Baby Blue, 2012, 16 1/2 x 28"

Sultan’s Hooked Wool Drawings can be seen as a bridge between her prints and her hooked wool ruglets (below).  Incorporating hand dyed wool as well as egg tempera on linen, these drawings leave much of the field bare, and offer a range of tactile experiences as the forms float and bounce over the ground. 
Sultan, 2012 #12, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 14 x 12"
Sultan, 2012 #16, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 14 1/2 x 12"
Sultan, 2012 #17, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 15 x 11 1/4"

Although continuing to explore conversations between simple geometric shapes, Sultan’s Hooked Wool Textiles (which are intended as wall-hangings) take us in a somewhat different direction. The very tactile nature of these pieces would seem to lead us away from the minimalist sensibility of the prints, yet they are first and foremost explorations of figure and ground. The often vibrantly hued textiles are composed of numerous ‘strokes’ of hand dyed hooked wool, which create a rich texture and lush surface activity. 

Sultan, Purple Push, 2009, 10 x 21.5
Sultan, Blue/Yellow Ground, 2012, 11 x 10

Sultan, Objects #4, 2011, 9 x 15

Sultan, Red / Blue Ground, 2011, 11 x 10
Sultan, Empty Center / Blue Brown, 2011, 9 x 9

Sultan, Four pieces from the Figure/Ground series

These textiles are exquisite balancing acts -- placing simple forms in tension with one another and in tension with the edges of the image.  As with the prints, the slight irregularity of the forms allows them to breathe and also brings some levity into the formal conversations.  For me, Sultan's explorations in printmaking and textiles provide an ongoing source of visual delight, as they offer a minimalist sensibility along with a dash of wit.

Sultan is quite prolific and the images pictured here provide only a small sampling of her work.
You can see more of Sultan’s prints by clicking here and more of her textiles by clicking hereYou can also search her blog for additional images from these series.


Saturday, November 3, 2012

Leonardo Drew

I recently experienced two, count ‘em 2, exhibits featuring the work of Leonardo Drew.  I say experienced, rather than saw, because the extraordinary physicality and emotional impact of Drew’s work demand that you fully engage with it.

 LEONARDO DREW, Number 155, 2012

Wood, 55 x 58 x 61 inches

Although I have included photos from the gallery websites in this post, it is simply impossible to get a true sense of Drew’s work without experiencing it directly.  And what follows is just a small sample of what was on view in each of the galleries.

The exhibit at  Sikemma / Jenkins included a multi-room piece (which Drew spent a month installing on site), several large scale wall reliefs, as well as somewhat smaller wall sculptures, constructed from thousands of pieces wood -- thin strips, slivers, blocks, some charred and painted.  The individual pieces of wood were stacked against each other, suspended from the ceiling, strewn on the floor, tightly wedged together, elegantly pieced in layers, and, in some sculptures, combined with other materials such as metal and graphite.

LEONARDO DREW, Number 161, 2012
Burnt wood, paint
Site specific installation, dimensions variable

Another view of Number 161,  a three-room installation

LEONARDO DREW, Number 162, 2012     123 x 185 x 24"
Wood, wood, metal, paint, gouache, thumbtacks, ballpoint pen, graphite, paper

When I walked back and forth through the gallery, the raw and ominously towering presence of the large installation (Number 161) was balanced by the elegance of the wall sculptures, such as Number 155.  Although the pieces of wood in several of the wall sculptures were less jagged and often more uniform in texture and size, the forms thrust out from the wall in a manner that felt menacing. 

While the sculpture left me very much aware of Drew's handling of materials, the show at Pace Prints triggered an intense spiritual response.   I consider myself to be deeply attuned to nature, but this work took me to new places.

LEONARDO DREW     12P, 2012       66 x 70"
Three-color pigmented cast handmade paper

To label Drew's offerings at  Pace Prints  as prints, is to me a misrepresentation of the work (although the pieces are offered in small editions.)  Instead, consider them wall sculptures from paper pulp and other materials.  In 12P, shown above, what you can't see is the deep (several inches) sculptural relief of cast paper in the central panel, or the dense skeins of fibrous networks that surround it.

The imagery is derived from roots . . . . and we are asked to experience the roots in all their glory and intensity -- as dense, fibrous mats,  or thick, sculptural fragments, in earthy sepia or as a thin silvery network.  While many of the pieces were executed in dark sepia and black, several were pale cobalt blue and others had overlays of a silvery pigment.

LEONARDO DREW    17P, 2012       36 x 36"
Pigmented handmade paper with cast paper-pulp addition

Drew describes this body of work as “monstrosities created in paper pulp.”  I see this body of work as urgently demanding that we commune with, inhale, cover ourselves, with dirt, loam, earth, whatever you choose to label the stuff from which vegetation arises.  I was awestruck by the sheer virtuosity of this work and shaken to the core by the deep spirituality they evoked.

To learn more about Leonardo Drew, I suggest that you read  Nancy Natale's excellent post about the artist and his 2010 exhibit at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Mass.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The beauty of small abstractions / Helen Miranda Wilson

Helen Miranda Wilson, Red Tress, 8 x 10.5"
In her show at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, Helen Miranda offers a suite of intimate oil paintings on panel rich with vibrant palettes and undulating lines that had me transfixed.

Helen Miranda Wilson, Time of Night, 9 x 12"
Helen Miranda Wilson, Aristocrat, 8 x 8"