A Dead Wren and Holy Mackerel

Found this guy in my back yard and decided to put him to good use-poor thing.Brown Wren

Bought this fish and did a few paintings of him. Wanted to get my money’s worth. Here’s one of them.Mackeral on Red Plate

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On Art Galleries

If you ever walked into a commercial art gallery and felt intimidated—don’t! Most gallery owners are just glad to have a warm body in the gallery. They also know that only about 5% of the people who come in are seriously interested in buying art. Trust me, I know; I’ve gotten it straight from the horse’s mouth. And don’t think of art galleries as mini-museums. Think of them more as retail stores, because that’s exactly what they are. They sell paintings instead of clothes, shoes, furniture, etc. The most important criteria a gallery owner has when representing an artist is his ability to sell his work, not the merit of the work; that’s secondary. A gallery owner once asked me what I thought of a contemporary artist he represented. I told him the work was competent but a pastiche of impressionist paintings, down to the long dresses and parasols of the women in the paintings. “Yeah, you’re right,” he responded, “it’s not anything I’d want in my house, but he’s a nice guy and he sells well.” Do you think he tells clients or prospective buyers that?

Much of what is exhibited in commercial art galleries is bad, even terrible, but there is some good painting out there. So take a look and make up your own mind. Don’t be dictated to by gallery owners or anyone else, even me. I’m often astounded by the lack of knowledge about painting by people who run art galleries, so don’t be intimidated. Yes you say, but you’re an artist, you know about painting, what’s good. People sometimes ask me, “How do you know if a painting is good or not?” Painting is a language, an abstract language. Delacroix wrote in his journal back in the 1850’s that he could envision a day when painting would not need a subject. He, like all great painters, understood that painting is an abstract visual language. Hang a painting by Velasquez upside down and I’ll enjoy it almost as much as if it were right side up. I admit a preference for representational painting but only because I enjoy seeing how the artist uses that abstract language to interpret his subject. Still, I’d rather look at good abstract painting than bad representational work. Get an understanding of that language and you’ll no longer be at the mercy of curators, critics, gallery owners or anyone else. Let the great painters and their works inform you. Get your ass to a museum and when you feel it in your gut, you’ll know you’re on your way.

A quick analogy: Imagine trying to read Germinal by Zola in the original french; problem is–you don’t read french. You can see the printed page, can even mouth the words but you don’t understand it. The same with painting.

I feel generous today, so here are three contemporary painters whose work I like: Susan Jane Walp, Amy Weiskopf and Elizabeth Geiger. All different approaches to still-life but intelligent palettes behind their work, and all women—how ‘bout that! Interesting side note: Ms. Geiger’s husband is also a painter and has a bigger reputation, but, for my money, his wife is a better painter; a bit more honest and her paintings have bigger shoulders. Her husband is a poor man’s Fairfield Porter.

Red Socks

Projecting Amateurism

It all started with David Hockney; or more accurately, that stupid book of his. The old masters were a bunch of charlatans! They projected their motifs and traced them. Hockney was never much of a draughtsman, so he couldn’t understand how anyone, including the old masters, could draw so well. They must have been cheating! They were all using a camera obscura or some similar device. How else to explain their mastery?

One only has to look at the drawings of Rembrandt to see how ludicrous Hockney’s supposition is. The spontaneity and fluid character of the line in the Dutch master’s drawings belie Hockney’s assertion. Also, a camera obscura is a very clumsy device, hardly conducive to lugging around the streets of Amsterdam for impromptu drawings. And a dark room is necessary to use it effectively, with mirrors and candles involved. “Excuse me good sir, would you step into my tent while I set up my mirrors and candles. I’d like to do a drawing of you.” Good luck with that, Rembrandt, old boy.

We look at the drawings of these great artists and the line has a more organic character not present in the work of contemporary artists who use projectors. This is true not only for Rembrandt, but for Michelangelo, DaVinci and just about every artist I can think of since the Renaissance. On the other hand, the line in the work of contemporary artists who project and trace appears to have been drawn by a machine. The work is cold, mechanical and reflects the passionless method of execution. Very often, this dead quality carries through to the finished painting. I mention this because artists who rely on projectors always use as their defense: “What difference does it make? It’s how the finished painting looks, not the drawing to start the painting.” Exactly! That’s the problem. It’s not a question of cheating, although one might have a valid point when artists try to pass off traced drawings as original works; but rather it’s the dead quality of the finished painting. Does anyone really believe that you can start the creative process with something as robotic and mechanical as tracing and have it not affect the entire process and the final look of the work? The creative process starts with the first mark on the canvas, not somewhere down the road. The truth, their paintings have nothing to do with the art of painting and everything to do with the art of illustration. That’s exactly what they are—glorified illustrations, illustrations with pretensions. Might as well paint by numbers. I’ve seen a few paintings started this way and they do resemble elaborate paint by numbers kits. The only thing missing—the numbers.

And how does Hockney explain the artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who we know drew freehand from life with masterful skill? Degas comes to mind, among others.

A personal note: In my early twenties, I was drawing directly from life using a quill pen and ink. At the risk of tooting my own horn, I think the drawings damn good. If I could do it, I know damn well, Rembrandt, et al, could. And let’s be honest, most artists who use projectors do so because they can’t draw that well and are lazy to boot. All the rest is so much bull shit.  Yeah, occasionally someone like Chuck Close does something creative with it, but that’s the exception. And don’t give me that, “one has to use modern technology to be relative,” nonsense. Tell that to Lucien Freud, Morandi, Balthus or Porter. Look at their work–just paint on canvas and without any modern technology, unless one wants to include the lamps that Freud used to illuminate his subject before going back to natural light later in his life.

An interesting side note: Hockney is a lot more famous than Freud who is a much greater talent. A hundred years from now, people will still be admiring the genius of Freud while Hockney will be relegated to the dust bin of art history—bank on it!

There’s been an explosion of representational painting done with projectors in the last ten years, almost all of it terrible, and it’s the result of Hockney’s rationalizations and the proliferation of digital cameras and projectors. Now it’s cheap and easy! No more film and expensive slides and clumsy carousel projectors. Worst of all, are the artists who project photo-shopped images.  All these art majors, not to mention the middle aged schmucks “getting in touch with their artistic side” creating their kitschy attempts at surrealism. They buy cameras and projectors and presto! instant genius.  Amateurism run amuck!

One last thing: Photo Realism is much more popular in the US than in Europe. I believe it’s because it’s easier to understand. “Hell, honey, that’s so realistic, it looks like a photograph! It must be good!” But for every Richard Estes or Ralph Goings, there are a thousand hacks churning out inept attempts, one after another, even with the aid of their technology. Yet their work gets bought. People don’t understand the language of painting and therefore grasp at what they do understand when looking at paintings. Too bad. They miss out on so much.

An Encounter with the Great Gatsby

Yesterday I walked into a Barnes and Noble and was immediately knee deep in a cesspool of best-selling shit. The stench! Memoirs by has been celebrities, girl this, girl that, all the sentimentality we cannot see and row and rows of King, Koontz, Grisham and worse. Glossy abominations! It was too much! And the masses lapping it up. They can’t get enough. And all with the Good Random Housekeeping seal of approval. They must be good. Random House for Christ’s sake! Wait a darn tootin’ minute. Didn’t Random House publish Fifty Shades of Grey? No, that was Knopf. Hey, editors gotta eat too, after all. Wait! Suddenly a clearing, a little fresh air. A few copies of The Great Gatsby sit forlornly on a table. I pick one up and read a page or two—aah, that’s better! I leave the store empty handed but feeling much better. I get home, pull my copy from the bookshelf and open to the last page. So we beat on, boats against the current… Simple, profound and as true today as ever. I wish I had some champagne to offer a toast to dear Scotty. I’d even drink it from a woman’s shoe. It’s the least I can do.

Draconian Measures Needed

I’d like to propose two amendments to the U.S. constitution.

First: Henceforth, it shall be illegal to apply running, drippy paint on the surface of a painting.

These days, you can’t spit without hitting a painting, abstract or representational, which doesn’t have this contrivance, this insipid mannerism. Paintings lacking any real merit or intelligence are imbued with all sorts of surface embellishments, but runny paint is the clear winner, the most ubiquitous. I often read artist’s statements expounding on their process and materials. According to them, their painting is all about those two things, specifically those two things. Why not just say, “My work is shallow, all style and no substance.” After all, it would be more honest, certainly more honest than the painting. Don’t misunderstand, I have always enjoyed painterly painting, prefer it actually; but there is a difference between painterly and self-indulgent.

Second: Henceforth it shall be illegal to have the word, Girl, in the title of any literary work. All in favor, say, “Aye.”

One would think at this point that even the female segment of the population would be tired of being pandered to by the publishing industry. I must admit to only managing a few pages of Gone Girl while wandering through a Barnes and Noble some time ago. The writing didn’t impress me; though to be fair, most popular writing doesn’t, it having a soporific effect on me. After seeing the movie, a friend told me the plot was pretty much the same as the book. If so, the plot has more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese; and yet, it’s still a best seller. More recently, I forced myself to read a few pages of both, The Girls and The Unluckiest Girl Alive. In both, the descriptions and similes were so contrived as to draw attention only to their self-conscious origin. Saddest of all is that these writers probably congratulate themselves on the cleverness of their writing. So, once again, all in favor say, “Aye.”

A postscript: Am reading short stories by John Fante–if you haven’t, give them a try!

Till next time.

Discovering Celine

Six months ago I discovered Celine; not the singer, the French writer. Actually I discovered his existence decades ago when my world lit up with Henry Miller’s work. Miller admired and respected Celine who had two novels published during the thirties when Miller was living in Paris. But it was only recently that I decided to read this great writer. A side note; Miller’s admiration for Celine was not returned. Celine considered Miller a pale imitator of…you guessed it-Celine. I think that’s a bit harsh; influenced yes, imitator no. By the way, I used that one ellipsis out of respect for the author.

Anyway, if you’ve never read Celine, treat yourself. For my money, (and who else’s would I use) Celine and Joyce used the written word more creatively than any other twentieth century writer.

Is contemporary painting and fiction DOA

There’s a quote by Thomas Wolfe, “Fashion is the greatest enemy of art.” A similar quote by John Constable from about 1830, ” Fashion will always have its day.” It seems to being having its heyday presently. True, commerce drives the fashionable in art and it is a powerful force to be reckoned with, but I have to believe there are painters and writers out there resisting that golden siren’s call. Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing like money for a shot in the arm, to quote Henry Miller, but let’s not sacrifice everything for it. Bukowski didn’t. A dead end job at the post office kept a ribbon on his type writer and liquor on his shelf; and if not bliss it was enough.

Here’s a thought. Let’s do away with every university art department and creative writing program in the country. Our culture has become too institutionalized, too homogenized. Just what it needs! Go to a master thesis exhibition at just about any university and you’ll likely find a video installation spouting some pretentious and sophomoric sociopolitical nonsense, a wall hanging of hand-made paper torn, burnt, scribbled on, an installation piece on the floor and if there is any painting or drawing, it likely was projected from a photograph, traced and then colored in. Ho hum, same old, same old under the guise of avant garde. An art major at university will not learn to be an artist; probably won’t even learn how to draw or paint these days. There’s a quote by Bansky that goes something like this, “How come so many young artists today say they are willing to sacrifice for their art, but they’re not willing to learn how to draw.” I’m not a big fan of Bansky but kudos for that quote.

Art majors are taught a fashionable curriculum and little else. I speak from personal experience. With naive optimism, I became an art major at the U of DE at eighteen only to realize that it was a sorry excuse for any real art instruction. After two years I dropped out, worked a year and transferred to PAFA in Philadelphia. In those days, PAFA didn’t have a BFA or MFA program, only a four year study in the arts modeled after the studio system favored since the renaissance. It turned out to be the right move.

As for the sorry state of literature these days, I’m less qualified to comment, but fuck it! it’s a blog. I read quite a few short stories on internet literary journals and find so many  alike in tone and voice. Paragraphs could be interchanged and one would probably never notice that it was a different writer. I can only assume this is the result of creative writing programs propagating their fashionable ideas on writing. Too many writers spend their entire adult life in academia. Snug and safe, they die a slow artistic death. Most  great American writers of the twentieth century either never went to college or dropped out. So let’s get the arts out of the clutches of the university system, that great educational industrial complex. I know there are good writers and painters out there. Yes, publishing houses and art galleries are more interested in sales history and/or potential than anything else, but I continue to hope. Till next time.