November 27, 2007

The Chinese Stamp

While archiving my works on paper, I came across an old drawing of an enlargement of a postage stamp. The drawing was completed in an illustration class when I was still an undergraduate at Douglass College in New Jersey. What is amazing to me now about the drawing is not the rendering but how prophetic the content turned out to be now that I see it again through the lens of age and experience.
I recall that I was attracted to this stamp because of the delicate colors and curvilinear composition. The dog seemed to rest in perfect harmony with the banana plant and the rolling hillocks. The colors were delicate, creamy pastels against a gold back round, the stark black and white dog a perfect counterpoint to this delicacy. I scrutinized the strange language on the stamp, carefully copying the odd shapes in pencil. I dutifully rendered the choppy lines of the printed foreign script. At the time they were forms to me but without meaning. Although I could see the artistry in the script, my ignorance of the language was a barrier to understanding the content. As an undergraduate in an illustration class in the United States in the late seventies, this language, however intriguing, was not relevant.
I had no idea that two years later, I would be in China, reading and writing this language. I would come to know masters of Chinese painting, both past and present and have experiences that would change the course of my life forever. Looking retrospectively at my young drawing of the Chinese stamp I am stunned at the thought of how quickly and dramatically a life can change. Knowing from my old-age vantage point that the young woman who made this drawing was teetering on the very brink of that change, I hold my breath, as if a sigh from the future would send a chill to the past. Within a year, my health would fail, I would leave the pre-med science program and study full-time in art, my family life would be turned on its head, I would leave my country. It would be a long time before I could come back home. In many ways I never really did.
Looking again at my drawing of the Chinese stamp, with my experiences in my second life as Zhen Ni Ta the Chinese artist well behind me instead of in front of me, I read instead of merely see. When I look at the writing, I cannot see the shapes without the crisp clear tones of Mandarin ringing in my brain. “Zhong Hua Min Guo You Ju Tai Bei “- the postal office of the Republic of China, Tai Bei. The writing on the face of the painting depicted in the stamp is too small and I cannot read it. But the carefully drawn little squares underneath the calligraphy I recognize as an ancient script used in seals. I can just barely make out something which appears to be a wish for good fortune.
The painting depicted in the stamp I now recognize as a work by the 18th century painter, Lang Shi Ning - another irony and harbinger of things to come. For Lang Shi Ning, the imperial court painter for the emperor Qian Long, was not in fact Chinese, but the Italian Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione. Too little is known of his life in China, yet it was known that apart from his tenure as an imperial painter, Castiglione designed architecture for the emperor which blended European and Asian aesthetics. Following in the footsteps of a rare artist who trained in China, I would learn to grasp the same traditional brushes, touch the same hand-ground inks to those same fine silks and papers. But in communist China, there were no emperors with courts to serve under (not that I would by any stretch of the imagination qualify for such a position!). There were only people who trained me in the traditional arts of painting - people like that nice family in Beijing who taught me how to make glue sizing for silk and paper. A family who, I was to find out shortly before leaving the country, counted among their members, Pu Jie, brother of Pu Yi, the last Emperor of China.

November 25, 2007

Soutine Heaven Sent

After showing in three different venues this past week, the "Angel" series of paintings are beginning to be acquired. The people who collected them, however, were attracted to the abstract qualities of the paintings rather than the subject. So my hypothesis was proven wrong, as was my advisor's. It was assumed that people would buy paintings of angels because of the subject matter regardless of how they were painted. But actually they were purchased for the way they were painted despite the fact that they were entitled "Angels."

In looking back at this series, I am reminded of the paintings of Chaim Soutine, with the impasto brush work, deep blues and reds. Is there something in the Eastern European nature which makes for such heaviness?

November 15, 2007

Angels, Reluctance, and Necessity

A sister of a friend of mine, upon hearing that my art sales were sluggish, suggested that I do paintings of angels because people liked them and would definitely buy them. I tried to conceal, but probably not very well, that I was bristling a bit at the suggestion because it conjured up images of ceramic kitsch. But I thanked her because her advice was basically well-intended and also because she was on her way out of town and therefore not likely to bring the subject up again any time soon. But the subject did come up again - this time in a letter via a third party. At that point I decided to diplomatically say that since I'm an artist for hire I would be happy to paint angels or any other subject for paying patrons, but on my own time, the subject matter would be my choice.
Then two things happened to change my mind. While in Charleston, I took in the exibition, "In the Spirit" at Nina Liu and Friends. There was a series of bold oil pastels by the artist Phillip Chen. They were beautiful abstractions with intricately textured surfaces entitled "Angels." The only allusion to angels in these works was a composition with a central form in the shape of a "V" which could be interpreted as wings. So what is in a name? One could very well paint what one always had painted but name it in keeping with the season.
Just a few short days later, I was asked if I might set up a booth to sell small gift items at a fund raiser for Glen Forest Elementary School in Lexington, SC. Since I had no more teaching gigs or commissions for the rest of this year I agreed. But I needed to come up with something I could do quickly to sell for under $50 each and in a style/subject that would not conflict with my gallery in neighboring Columbia, SC. Angels perhaps? Well, okay, I decided to give it a try, keeping it light, enjoyable, highly interpretative, and, out of time and neccessity - to use only materials I had on hand. So I scrounged around my studio and came up with paper sized with black gesso. Into the night? I had a bag of decorative feathers left over from a school project - wing parts? And finally, I had gold, silver and metallic leaf for a touch of the otherworldly. I laid out the metal leaf on the black gesso first, in no particular order and avoiding the obvious "halo." I next smeared on acrylic paint in between and sometimes washing over the metal leaf. The final touch came with the applied feathers. I found that when the feathers overlapped the metal, the light reflecting off the gold and silver irridized the feathers - giving them a somewhat otherworldly glow.
To my pleasant surprise, the project was engaging, and even my most discerning critic, my husband Nat, liked the results. So a project that I thought I would abhor turned out to be an enjoyable experiment in media that I might continue to use in later work.

November 11, 2007


There is a colorful piece of South Carolina history which is rapidly dissappearing and which my husband and I are endeavoring, in our own ways, to record. As large tracts of fallow fields are cleared when they are sold to developers, this history is briefly, tantalizingly revealed. During the course of the clearing, old homesteads, shot gun houses, and share croppers cabins reappear as a ghostly reminder of epochs past. In the brief weeks before they are razed, we go there to admire the red and green patinas mixed with the sparkling silver of a tin roof. The faded and cracked layers of paint on the sides of these buildings stand out in a surreal way against the textured grasses and blue skys like an abstract expressionist canvas suddenly transported from a New York studio in the 1950's and plunked down in the middle of a South Carolina landscape. And then they are no more. But in the brief time before their collapse into ruin, my husband has been photographing them, and I have been painting them. My paintings are sometimes literal, and at other times interpretive.
This ongoing series of paintings I've named "Domiciles." When I first started them ten years ago, they were tiny works on small wood blocks. I still paint them in this way like free-standing toys. But my last series are on larger canvases - 18" x 22" and 18" x 32." I suppose this is in part because although people like to collect my small works, tiny works yeild such tiny paychecks. The more important reason goes beyond that of marketing strategies, however. I just want people to see them and to get one last look at what will soon be gone forever.The "Domiciles" will be on view at the Pinckney Simons Gallery on 1012 Gervais Street in Columbia, SC as part of the Vista Lights Celebration this Thursday evening, November 15. Come and enjoy some art and history!

November 2, 2007

Anti-intellectualism in America?

Anti-intellectualism in Popular Culture

copyright 2007

“Intellectuals in the twentieth century have thus found themselves engaged in incompatible efforts: they have tried to be good and believing citizens of a democratic society and at the same time to resist the vulgarization of culture which that society constantly produces. It is rare for an American intellectual to confront candidly the unresolvable conflict between the elite character of his own class and his democratic aspirations” Richard Hofstadter

The painting above, “Artist Cannibals” was inspired by my looking at a horror film, which I should never do. Stylistically it was also inspired, I think, by some of the colors and compositions I saw recently at the “Cats on a Leash” exhibition in Columbia.
I had just finished a complicated commission and sought some evening relaxation at the television. I only have minimal cable so there was not much variety to choose from. PBS is the only really worthwhile program but on this particular evening there appeared to be a dry spell there as well - so it was back to surfing the waves of popular culture. Although I am not very enthusiastic with what comes down the pipeline of mass media culture, I cannot resist peering in to that pipeline regardless - and most of the time of find it relaxing and entertaining. Who can resist Super Nanny placing recalcitrant children into the “naughty chair” to calm them down and give everyone else a break? I think of many adults I know who should be sitting there. But this particular evening I watched disjointed patches of the horror movie, Hannibal. I watched it in snippets because a good portion of it was so revolting that I had to avert my attention to items on other channels. The story line wasn’t much disrupted by my doing so - just more killing and eating with overt sexuality upon my return.
I sat entranced - or should I say entrapped- by a particularly horrifying episode in which the evil genius Hannibal drugs an FBI agent and performs impromptu brain surgery on him. How a fugitive from justice obtains the drugs and equipment to do that is perplexing to say the least. But that little oversight aside, we are treated to a feast of cinematic gore in which Dr. Hannibal Lecter removes parcels of the hapless FBI agent’s brain and cooks them up in a convenient portable skillet. The Doctor then feeds them back to the victim who enthusiastically praises the Doctor’s cooking skills. As the victim consumes more and more of his own brain, he becomes progressively more stupid. It literally made me gag. Sorely regretting that I had watched this and wondering how I would ever sleep that night, I went to bed and tried to put it out of my mind. The following morning, however, the unfortunate memory of the movie I saw the night before haunted me again as I was cutting up some walnuts for baking. The walnuts started to look like little brains to me. I definitely should not watch horror movies.
But as I reflected on the movie with several hours of the rawness removed, I realized that there was something more than gore that left me with a bad taste. The film Hannibal creates an evil protagonist with painstaking details and it was these details that were so disturbing for a number of reasons, both personal and philosophical. The film carefully crafts a character, who, in addition to his penchant for killing and eating people, is an educated, urbane, gentleman with a fondness for gourmet food, opera, and art. We see his letters to the FBI agent Clarisse illustrated with his virtuoso renderings of figure drawings that would make a Michelangelo proud. We watch as he attends the opera, dressed to kill, so to speak. And he is never far from caviar.
In this film, the psychotic psychiatrist Dr. Lecter is an ex-patriot fugitive residing in Florence, Italy. He works in a library that boasts exquisite architectural details and classical sculpture amid anxiety-provoking poor lighting. For a victim who he ends up disemboweling and hanging, he does research in this library’s archive first to turn up a drawing of the victim’s ancestor, who was hanged in the piazza in a similar fashion. He does this so that he can give the victim a little art history slide lecture before killing him. One wonders why a supposedly highly trained law enforcement professional would be meeting someone he knows is a serial killer in isolated dark places without backup and persistently turning his back to him - but that’s American cinema.
In the final scene, after he has just exercised his culinary skills on a human brain, Dr. Lecter is on a flight, no doubt to some new European country where the people are artistic and cultured but inept at catching criminals. He has eluded authorities once again - free to star in more sequels. As a young boy in the seat next to him watches, Dr. Lecter, in avuncular fashion, introduces him to the delicacies that he has brought with him. Patronizingly promoting the virtues of his packed lunch over the inferior airline food, he opens a tupperware container with suspicious grey matter in it. The curious child asks if he can try some, and Dr. Lecter offers him a taste, spoonfeeding the brain to this unsuspecting innocent while remarking on how his own mother always taught him to be willing to try something different.
So why am I bothered by this piece of pop culture? I suppose on a personal level because I am an artist and opera fan, who loves Florence, gourmet food and art history. I have even been known to carry my own cooking onto airplanes - in little tupperware containers no less. So what is popular culture trying to tell me? That I have great cannibal potential? And what does this tell us about popular perceptions of artists and intellectuals in general? Does a film like Hannibal horrify because the artistry and intellect we so trust and admire is surprisingly and unbelievably juxtaposed with cold-blooded killing? Or has Hollywood tapped into the psyche of Americans and come up with a great formula for a super villain who embodies everything that arouses horror and suspicion: libraries, art history, food that doesn’t come from golden arches, opera, psychiatrists, artists, intellectuals, dark corners of Europe, serial killers and cannibals. I hope that it is the former but I fear it could be the latter.
I see almost no depictions of artists in American films and on the rare occasion they do appear, they are usually portrayed very unfavorably. The misanthropic, chronically irritated painter in the film, Hannah and Her Sisters comes to mind, for instance. Images like these in the mass media may have indeed penetrated the American consciousness, for at a recent art conference in Columbia, SC, a public opinion survey revealed that 75% of people polled said that they disrespected artists. Yet it was interesting that this point was not taken up by the participating artists. Is it because of a passive, fatalistic feeling that this is our lot in these United States? The focus of the conference remained then, on how to better market ourselves as artists. Market to who? Anonymous surveys are telling us that people don’t like us. It would seem to me to be an exercise in futility to try to effectively market to the 25% of people who are not unfavorably disposed to artists - considering that only a fragment of that population has the means or desire to purchase art. Futile, at least, without considering the public relations factor.
But before anything constructive can be accomplished with regard to remedying a tarnished image, it behooves one to investigate the sources of these impressions. My questioning led me to wonder whether negative impressions of artists are a recent phenomenon, or if they merely reflect an ongoing alienation between artist/ intellectuals and the public.
This prompted me to start a search for the sources of anti-intellectualism in America which led me to the Pulitzer-prize winning book by Richard Hofstadter, Anti-intellectualism in American Life. I was led to this book by an interesting on-line article by Deborah M. De Simone at the College of Staten Island, New York. Richard Hofstadter published his famous treatise in 1963, when the country was still recovering from the McCarthy era - a veritable witch hunt which cost writers, academicians and artists their jobs. Professor M. De Simone considers the work so prophetic, however, with regard to the present climate in our country and in particular within our educational system that it warrants a second look. So I got a copy through inter-library loan at our local library and have been reading it ever since. It is a beautifully written book and in many respects, still timely - for Hofstadter so clearly defines what artists and intellectuals are and what their roles in society can and should be. In addition, it is a remarkably detailed historical analysis of the slow evolution of artistic sensibilities and intellect from virtuous attributes to character flaws. Hofstadter gives some solid social/historical basis to the feeling that should any of us presume to say that we are liberal, feminist, artistic, or intellectual that there is a crowd out there poised to throw tomatoes at us ...or why we want to throw tomatoes at them. It struck me as remarkable that given all the evidence laid out in his long treatise, that Hofstadter could actually conclude on an upbeat note.