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I’m sorry for the paucity of posts this month.  To mark the end of the somewhat disappointing two thousand teens (the teens? the ’10s? how do we even write out that decade?), I have been in a seasonal creative slump.  This brown mood might not be solely a reaction to the lackluster decade (and the troubling path of ignorance and excess which humankind currently seems to be set upon), but also a reaction to the death of my first artistic mentor, my mother’s mother Constance Fay Pierson (April 24, 1927 to December 7, 2019).

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Grandma has a competently written obituary in the Weston Democrat which outlines her life of education and travel (although sweeping stories of Somalia, the Congo, Kenya, Italy, and Indonesia during the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s were obviously more thrilling to hear about in person). Likewise, the writer has indicated the primacy which family had in Grandma’s world by the simple expedient of naming everyone in her immediate lineage (although it is too bad that the pets Johnny, Flash, Muffy, & Pharaoh didn’t get a shout out, since they were family too). However, neither the obituary nor the eulogies at the funeral have done justice to Grandma’s creative and artistic life.  Since her encouragement, patronage, and teaching were instrumental to my own life path, I would like to share some of her lessons with you.

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The vivid beauty of the places she went was enormously important to Grandma Connie, and she was always remarking upon the unique characteristics of the clouds, the trees, the waves or the hills of a particular place at a particular time.  Grandma could paint and she made charming alla prima paintings of the places she went and the things which were most striking to her (I have included a picture of a North African dhow above and a road in Central Africa a few paragraphs below…but alas, I don’t know the dates).  She also had a deep love of the the sculptures of the ancient Mediterranean world, the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, and, above all, the paintings and drawings of Italy and France.  Since she lived outside Washington, we would go look at those works at the National Gallery or the Walters Museum when I was visiting her as a child.

Grandma showed me how she painted and she bought me my first real paint set at an art store outside of Annapolis. She made sure I had each of the fundamental necessary colors, cerulean, ultramarine, ochre, sienna, sap, Naples yellow, cadmium and alizarin red, white, and black…but when I also wanted a preposterous iridescent yellow with scintillant stuff in it, she bought that for me too.   It wasn’t so good for painting the Chesapeake Bay or the sky but it was great for portraying imaginary glowing dinosaurs or ancient divinities.

This was important because one of Grandma’s greatest talents was to see a boring hall and say”what if this hall was lined with suits of armor holding halberds and great swords?” or to look upon a squatly constructed house and say “it would be so beautiful if it had a cupola or a Gothic spire.” She could see things with her imagination!

Now nobody is likely to come along and build pagodas or widow’s walks upon the concrete & clapboard dime stores and garages of Clendenin, West Virginia, but the feasibility of such ideas was not necessarily the most important thing to Grandma. She loved the humor and the wild unpredictable joy of imagining such juxtapositions.

The secret key to endowing life with beauty and meaning is not necessarily lovely items or cross-referenced tomes, but observation first and then imagination–the rainbow-colored skeleton key which unlocks, well, everything.  In our world of store-bought imagination, everyone’s faces are glued to their computers & cell phones to see what color-by-numbers digital wonders Hollywood can whip up.  Grandma Connie always advocated looking at the beauty of the actual world, then, if such was insufficient for your amusement, she suggested juxtaposing it with fabulously dressed luminaries from all of world history or with amazing and beautiful animals.  If there was no actual ostrich just add one!

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At her funeral a stout bearded mountain man of West Virginia unexpectedly appeared and signed the mourning ledger. It was one of her students from when Grandpa was in Vietnam and Grandma was teaching high school French back in West Virginia.  He said “I never though of myself as a scholar, but Mrs. Pierson convinced me otherwise. I went to college because of her…and I majored in Romance languages!” Grandma would have been delighted to have influenced his lifepath towards scholarship, but she also would have been delighted by the unexpected juxtaposition of the man and the major.

We are going to need to mash a lot more unexpected ideas together if we are going to get anywhere. We need to make better use of our imaginations not just in art, but everywhere.  That is one of the major lessons of art!

I wish I could have written more about Grandma’s amazing life, or about the things we drew and talked about together.  I also wish I had told you more about her generosity, her erudition, or her elegance, but there is no time: I need to go draw some beautiful monasteries with the Tuscan moon…and some ichthyosaurs wearing feathered hats.  Grandma taught me that the beauty, significance, and grace of the past is never gone.  It lives on in art and can be summoned forth anew with additional creative enterprise.  The world’s beauty and the human imagination are both never-ending fountains of meaning and delight.  Thank you Grandma, for showing me his truth of art and life. Now to get to work on some never-seen juxtapositions to honor (and baffle) her spirit.

 

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Pigeon on a Peach Branch(桃鳩圖,桃鳩図 [ja]), (Emperor Huizong) ink and color on silk hanging

This rather beautiful pigeon on a peach branch is a superb and ancient example of the bird-flower painting which has been such a mainstay of Chinese art.  The small ink and color painting is on a piece of silk mounted on a hanging scroll.  The artist completed the work during the Northern Song dynasty around the turn of the 12th century BC.  Each of these bird-flower paintings is meant to impart a sort of allegorical moral lesson, although I confess that I cannot understand what is meant by the lovely colorful (and plumply self-satisfied) pigeon seated next to the one opened peach blossom as winter turns haltingly to spring.

But who cares if the moral lesson of the work is too subtle for us? Not only is it a lovely painting with all the strength of Song dynasty art, the painter was remarkable in his own right.   Zhao Ji was born into the greatest luxury imaginable and spent the first half of his life becoming one of China’s greatest literati painters.  Unfortunately, his brother, Emperor Zhezong, the 7th emperor of the Song Dynasty, died without a son, and Zhao Ji was forced to take on the quotidian responsibilities of running China in a addition to his cultural and calligraphic practice (and working on his exquisite paintings). Zhao Ji ascended to the throne in 1100 as Emperor Huizong of Song, and although he is fondly remembered as one of China’s greatest painters, he was also one of China’s worst emperors.  After abdicating in favor of his son, he was captured by Jurchens in 1126 and became a sad pawn of the duplicitous Jin Empire (a foreign “counter empire” based in the north which opposed the Song and set up the conditions for the Mongol conquest of a broken China.

The lesson here could that having a person who should be doing something else run your enormous empire is a big mistake…or maybe that dividing your country into two battling states sets a nation up for disaster, however I choose to read Emperor Huizong’s story as an artist’s tale of great success at bird flower painting.

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I Can See You (Christian DeFillipo, 2019) Flashe on Canvas

Here are a couple of lovely pigeon-themed paintings by my friend, Christian DeFillipo, a Queens-based artist who studied at Rhode Island School of Design.  Christian’s intimately sized paintings are made with flashe, a vinyl-based paint which dries in homogeneous opaque layers.  The effect combines the best aspects of screen printing, paper cutting, and acrylic painting.  Christian’s works all seem to exist in a world of warm summer colors and ingenuous happiness.  The flattened forms and decorative foliage makes one imagine of a more innocent Matisse. Although Christian’s work does not always have the pastoral simplicity and winsomeness of these two particular canvases (some of his other works delve into Indonesian and marine motifs, for example), they are usually comparably carefree in tone and delightful in warm vibrant color.

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Both these paintings focus on pigeons, which are emblematic of freedom and happiness. The painting at top is titled “I Can See You” and the courting icterine doves put me strongly in mind of the doves in Boucher or even in Roman artworks (for doves were sacred to Venus).  I stupidly failed to write down the title of the second work, but the single white dove flying away from the painting, likewise gives the impression of a divine visitation–but not for scary eschatological purposes–just a pleasure visit.  Christian’s works are likewise a beatific miniature vacation–a daytrip to a park in summer where it feels like the doves and the trees are secretly smiling with us.  You should check them out at his online gallery (and thanks, Christian, for letting me use the images).

 

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La belle Hortense (Francine Huot) acrylic

Here is some contemporary chicken art by Canadian painter, Francine Huot.  Huot was born in Chateau-Richer,  a town near Quebec City and she came to professional painting later in life, after raising a family and making a career as a nurse. 

Look at the splendid bravura lines of jagged red, white yellow and brown which form a ball of abstract calligraphic squiggles…which is somehow a perfect hen striding through the summer countryside.  Some paintings are filled with allusions, deeper meanings, and extraordinary portents of doom and glory.  This painting is not like that at all.  It is a beautiful swift impression of a chicken.  Yet its bravura freshness and speed also convey real feelings of the darting hungry energy of the poultry yard.  It is a lovely work of contemporary impressionism.  I wonder if Huot’s life as a nurse (a profession where one does extremely neccessary things with swift economy) influenced her life painting chickens with a flurry of swordsman’s brushstrokes!

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I am looking forward to writing the second half of my post about minimalism (which I promised in my angry Marie Kondo post), but first, let’s take some time out to celebrate National Polka Dot Day–which is (evidently) observed on January 22nd.  I love polka dots for footwear and neckwear (and I seem to recall a special childhood blanket with beautiful kelly green polka dots on it), but, as we already know, polka dots are not merely for decorative use.  Dots occur again and again in nature, where they are critical for mimicry, display, and camouflage. Likewise, art returns again and again to the dot, not merely as a design motif, but as a formative abstract building block.  Certain artists did not merely utilize polka dots in their works–they utilized nothing but polka dots, which became the entire focus of illustrious art careers. Here are three polka dot theme paintings to mark the holiday.  Let me know if you have other favorite works.

First, at the top of the post is one of Yayoi Kusama’s pumpkin works (Yayoi Kusama, Pumpkin (2000), Acrylic on canvas, 53.3 x 65.4 cm).  Kusama is the undisputed doyenne of polka dots in this age…and perhaps in all other eras as well.  Focusing on the dots has kept her sane and brought her unprecedented international fame.  Yet beyond the hype and the relentless obsession, there is a relentless exploration of visual phenomena and ultimately of ontology within Kusama’s artworks.  All things can be reduced to dots…or perhaps to atoms (which are after all another even more abstruse sort of dot). Yet, even if it Is made of circles, still the pumpkin exists.  And there is an enormous formal beauty in its mysterious gestalt.

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Roy Lichtenstein is also famous for making works out of polka dots.  His work is less metaphysical in its subject than Kusama’s, but instead addresses the extent to which humans recognize and respond to iconography.  The above painting, (detail below), takes a panel from a serial-style cartoon strip and blows it to enormous size.  Although the work is instantly familiar from countless anonymous Sunday newspaper strips, it is alien too.  The anxious woman is as strange and inhuman as a Byzantine mosaic (and she is likewise made of innumerable tiny unrecognizable pieces).  Yet because of a lifetime of habituation she is instantly familiar, as is her melodramatic situation (even if we lack the particulars).

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Finally, we close out the post with the oldest painting of the three (below).  This is Georges Seurat’s masterful “Parade de Cirque” completed in 1887-1888.    Like Kusama, Seurat composed his entire world of dots, but he seeks a realistic figurative impression in a way which she does not.  The figures of the circus midway indeed seem real: they wriggle and shimmer like people seen in the footlights during a misty evening.  The subject—a carnival sideshow—has ancient roots which snake back into medieval history.  Yet, like Lichtenstein’s woman they are instantly familiar to everyone.  The cultural touchstone asks pointed questions about reality and our enjoyment of it.  The carnival folk and musicians are not wizards or celebrities, they are humble performers. Yet through the magic of art they have an otherworldly mystery and presence which captivate the bourgeoisie crowd ).  This illusion exists on other levels as well:  after all the artist is a member of the troupe– another illusionist who has made entertainment and mystery out of dabs of paint and showmanship.  These long-vanished Parisian performers are made of thousands of individual spots of paint, agonizingly applied.  Indeed this whole post is just dots on your computer screen and we are just little dots too.  Maybe EVERY day is National Polka Dot Day…

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For many years I studied at the Art Students League of New York, a storied yet inexpensive atelier-style art school/collective which accounts about half to ¾ of all eminent American artists as members, pupils, or instructors at one point or another.  I would work all day as a stupid flunky at a bank and then go to the League and paint for three and a half hours every night.  At the Art Students League, one could find every sort of artist from around the world, from international art superstars to first time hobbyists. I mostly studied with the great portrait painter Ron Scherr who drew young luminaries of contemporary realism to him like a man casting loafs of bread in Union Square park draws pigeons.  There were many gifted Scherr students whose works and careers I need to highlight, but arguably the most gifted draftsperson was my friend Mark Kevin Gonzales, a chess player who grew up in Brooklyn (the rest of us just moved here to make it in the arts) and went to the famous Brooklyn Technical high School.

Since Mark is a native New Yorker, his artwork highlights life in the city, and these particular artworks highlight the animal life of the city, our famous rock pigeons (Columba livia) which throng the city’s parks and statues.  Indeed they are famous urbanites around the world.  The watercolor painting at the top highlights Mark’s mastery of  form shading and color.  The pigeon has been rendered in swift staccato strokes of watercolor (a famously unforgiving media) yet because of his masterful brushwork, the piece has an illusion of three dimensional form and conveys the impression of details which aren’t actually there.  A master’s secret is that if you can get the first few lines exactly right, you don’t have to agonize over a bunch of fussy little lines (but…oh let’s not talk about the years and years of practice necessary to get those big flat shapes to come out exactly right with the flick of a wrist).   The pigeons feathers seem to glisten with shimmering iridescence which is upon close inspection revealed to be a simple wash of viridian.  Its lively eye and cocked head makes the viewer think that the bird is observing the observer from beyond this little square of paper.  I suspect the bird really was observing Mark closely in whatever park he painted this (the poor pigeon probably though he was being sized up by a big weird cat as Mark crouched at his traveling easel).

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The second painting is even more of a quick sketch…but it is also more of a celebration (and a political piece).  This pigeon is strutting his stuff as joyous 4th of July fireworks go off in the background.  Notice how the pyrotechnics have colored the urban bird red white and blue.  Rock Pigeons are not originally from the new world (neither are Mark’s black and Philippine ancestors, come to think of it) but they have moved here to New York and lived here successfully for generations and they have a greater claim to being native New Yorkers than just about anybody.  It is good to see the patriotic national colors fitted out for an existence which is completely urbanized and it is so good to see some of Mark’s playful small works (he usually works in exquisitely rendered large format portrait painting).  You should check out his amazing work in Drawing Magazine or at his website, or just take a gander at his astonishingly lovely drawings and paintings on Instagram…Oh and tell him what a gifted artist he is: he certainly already knows, but it is always still good to hear.

 

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I was going to showcase a mermaid painting from the glorious 19th century–a golden age of exquisite oil painting (when the technique of the masters combined with stupendous wealth and the camera made visual refernces available for the first time without yet stealing the show), but then I looked up at the wall and noticed I have my own mermaid painting–it just isn’t finished yet.  So I am afraid the 19th century masters will have to rest on their laurels until another day…and I am also afraid you will have to use your imagination to fill in some of the unfinished details of this work in progress.  This is one of the last of my torus-themed paintings, and you can see the great flounder lurking beneath it, preparing to take over as the central leitmotif of this era of my art.   The torus is made of a coil of strange purple cells (or rope) which is surmounted by an alien lotus blossom.  On the left a classic mermaid sings meltingly of the splendor of the seas, while on the right a trio of sinister dark carnival “mermaids” race towards the enigmatic central shape.  All around them the ocean blooms with life–mollusks and crabs desport themselves as a made-up roosterfish swims by and a moray looks on in wonder. Yet humankind is also present.  The lost lure with its beguilement and hooks hints at our trickery, although a masked diver suggests we are not inured to the lure of the dep in our own right.  Tune in later to see how it looks when it is done!

Hans_Memling_PassioneThis amazing painting is by Hans Memling a Netherlandish master of German birth who worked in Bruges during the late 15th century.  Memling painted the work around 1470 AD for a Florentine banker based in Bruges (that’s the banker’s donor portrait down there in the lower left corner).  The painting is most important for illustrating that extremely rich financiers can commision whatever sort of work they like from gifted middle aged painters in their hometown, be it medieval Bruges or, say, contemporary Brooklyn, however, the painting is also astonishingly a still painting with modality: like a sort of 15th century movie.  Instead of telling one scene from the passion of Christ, the painting tells many stories from the death and resurrection of Jesus in the same larger scene.  By moving around the painting and “reading” it, the whole story becomes evident (I especially like how ancient Jerusalem looks like a slightly exoticized version of Bruges).  Since WordPress hates art, you can only blow it up to a certain size here, but it is well worth going to Wikipedia and looking at a larger version where you can pore over the exquisite details of Memling’s craft (and contemplate the meaning of Jesus’ ministry and his execution).   For such an intricate work, the original is rather small–less than a meter wide.  Memling excelled at painting complex pictures of entire cities like this, yet despite the ornament and pageantry, the real focus never leaves Jesus as he is hailed and then denounced by the mob, judged by politicians, tortured and executed, and finally risen as a deity.  Despite its intricacy and scope this is a rather human and intimate work.  Memling seems to have known the fickle back-and-forth of society, so one can find all sorts of reticent retainers, devout followers, haughty lords, and confounded strangers in this work.  It is a reminder that the the antagonist, and the supporting characters, and even the setting of the passion are humankind–the story is meant to represent all of us.  Even Jesus, the son of man, is human until the last instance when he is revealed with his halo and scarlet robes of godhood.

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Here is a very beautiful painting by Pre-Raphaelite luminary Evelyn de Morgan.  This work is titled The Angel with the Serpent and it was completed between 1870 and 1875. Although the work is a religious allegory, its meaning is surprisingly elusive.  In Judeo-Christian myth, the serpent represents sexuality, subversiveness, knowledge (and evil). These meanings certainly pertain to this work, yet the angel’s tenderness for the snake seems to suggest that God has wrought these aspects of existence too.

Admittedly this painting might depict a world before the fall (the sumptuous flowering bush and the bare lands beyond hint at this possibility).  Is the handsome angel in the red robes Lucifer before he was cast down?  Even if this painting does depict the time of Eden, it still suggests that the snake was always part of God’s plan and is dear to the Divinity and his agents (a forbidden idea which raises numerous troubling questions).

I am presenting the painting not just so you ponder the metaphorical meanings of Genesis (although I hope you are doing so), but also to introduce my Halloween week theme of supernatural snakes.  Ferrebeekeeper is no stranger to snake deities and monsters at all levels, but snakes have always been part of every mythos except for those of the farthest north and so there are plenty more to get to.  Enjoy Evelyn de Morgan’s lovely painting and get used to numinous snakes–we are going to see some amazing scales and forked tongues before next Tuesday!

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To celebrate the blossoming cherry tree, I made a big painting on cheap canvas and hung it beside the cherry tree. It’s a little hard to get the sense of the scale, but it is the largest work I have made on canvas.

The painting is an allegory of humankind’s place in the natural world (like most of my paintings). Against an ultramarine background, a giant glowing furnace monster is prancing on the back pf an aqua colored flounder. Inside the furnace chamber a little blossom person bursts into flames, powering the great contraption. Behind this tableau, a titan’s head festooned in weeds sinks into the mud (an amphora in the left corner is likewise settling into the muck). A cherry tree blooms against the night sky…along with a piece of kelp and a glass sponge. A goosefish watches the entire scene from the right foreground.
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Sadly, I forgot to paint the giant clam which was supposed to be beneath the flounder. Fortunately there is a sad squid at left to represent the mollusks within the painting (although I am not sure why he is standing around). Although the work is less finished than I would like, I think it successfully combines humor with a certain wistful pathos. Let me know what you think (or if you have a wall which needs a giant mural).
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