April 30, 2008

Safe Beneath Her Roof

To explain logical aggregates in Chinese language, when I teach that subject, I often refer to the Chinese character for “safety” or “peace” - a woman underneath a roof. “A woman is safe underneath her roof,” I would explain, while drawing the bao zi gan, the roof symbol, with the symbol for woman underneath.
Although my explanation helped students remember this character and the system of logical aggregates, I was never entirely comfortable with the logic of that explanation. Surely, in many cases, domestic violence for instance, a woman is assuredly not safe under her roof. Still, the symbol is a powerful one, if not for its hope, than at least for its irony. I therefore used this character in one of my mosaic works, “Safe Beneath Her Roof.” I created the mosaic shortly after hurricane Katrina, which brought a portion of my work into the permanent collection of the Gulf of Mexico. Disappointed at the loss, but feeling ambivalent about verbalizing my sorrow at losing art work when others lost so much more, I made a visual memorial instead of a verbal complaint. The mosaic features a small handmade ceramic bowl with the Chinese character an, or “safety” etched in sgraffito on its interior. The bowl is placed underneath a roof-like structure punctuated with debris such as a rusted spike and a broken bottle.
I discussed the mosaic “Safe Beneath Her Roof” briefly during my presentation last Friday at the American Comparative Literature Association conference in Los Angeles. I was almost going to eliminate this work from my presentation because it did not dovetail well with the other works in the “Archaeology Series” that I was discussing. It turned out to be fortuitous that I had not left the work out, however, because it resonated well with another panelist’s topic. Professor Victoria Reid, from the University of Glasgow, gave a scholarly yet moving presentation, “The 2003 Heat Wave in France: Representations of the plight of the elderly in literature and film.” The heat wave caused the demise of 19,000 people, most of them older people who died in solitude under the roof of an apartment without air conditioning. Although this is ten times the number of deaths from Hurricane Katrina, the hidden dispersal of the victims led to a surprising silence in the press. The art of literature and film is now beginning to fill the vacancy of that void.
After hearing Professor Reid’s excellent paper, I came to a revelation about the Chinese character for “safe” as I now understand it. I had neglected to realize that the language was a male invention and spoke for the impressions and concerns of a patriarchal society. It is not the woman under her roof who is “safe” therefore, but the posterity of the man to whom she belongs. A wife, slave, mother, or daughter who always remains within the confines of the four walls beneath a roof does not pose a threat. The wife or concubine cannot wander into the arms of a competitor - the genetic and social standing of the man of a household is therefore protected. And in more general terms, both ancient and modern, the woman who is sequestered away cannot harm us. We are all safe from our collective guilt when the woman - especially the elderly woman - withers and dies in a place we can neither see nor hear. We are safe when she is alone under her roof.

April 16, 2008

The Neo-Surreal in the Art of Marcelo Novo

If ART Gallery on Lincoln Street in Columbia, South Carolina is featuring the paintings and prints of one of my top twenty-five favorite artists in South Carolina, Marcelo Novo. It is rare for a commercial gallery to offer an historical perspective on an artist’s work and the curator, Wim Roefs, should be commended for offering such an exhibition. Mr. Novo’s work in the exhibition was produced from 1985 to 1994 and illustrates an unfolding vision of neo-surrealistic figuration.
Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Marcelo Novo studied with Roberto Aizemberg, who was greatly influenced by first generation surrealist painters. Throughout his own development as a painter, Mr. Novo has retained a dream-like narrative in his work characteristic of that generation of painters. Some of his earliest non-figurative works are reminiscent of the paintings of Yves Tanguy - landscapes of the unconscious replete with monumental sculptures. The silvery grey, black and white modulations in paintings such as “Dale que venga” are exquisitely refined and satisfying.
It is captivating to see the evolution from these early sculptural paintings to the later works when the machines become environments populated by cuneiform figures in a Novo civilization. What particularly attracts me to these forms is the kinship they appear to have to Mayan glyphs - pictures as language. Indeed all these paintings seem to tell us stories - wonderful stories of passion and triumph.
Two drypoint and monotype works that stand out for me are “Untitled (Man Hands Up 1)” and “Untitled (Man Hands Up 2).” There is rich texture and linear detailing of the black forms on a sumptuous ivory paper. Like scrimshaw on a whale tusk, it commands much more than a cursory glance to take it all in. There is a tale that unfolds here - making us wonder just what it is that the raised hands intend. They look too self-contained to be suppliants. Are they crossing themselves to ward off evil? Are they attempting to hide their identities? Or are they making a display of the power of hands that bring art into being?
The opening reception is 5PM - 10PM on Thursday, April 17. The show is up until May 7. Catch it if you can.

April 12, 2008

The Media is the Message

"I want to use wax crayons in my paintings but am not sure how. I was told that I couldn’t do that." One of my students asked me this at our last meeting. I assured her that there really is no such thing as a wrong or right media, only compatible or incompatible ways of using substances. So I thought of a way that wax crayons might work with oil paint and set about to experiment on some panels with my student. I mixed the tube paint with a combination beeswax and damar varnish medium and used a palette knife to trowel this heavy-bodied pigment onto the panel. I then broke off pieces of wax crayons and dropped them into the paint.
"We’ll heat up the paint with a hair drier set on high heat and see if the beeswax in the paint melts with the crayon so that it adheres." I said as I ran upstairs to get a high powered salon-style blow drier that I recently inherited from my step-mother. When I got back down to the studio, I enthusiastically set it on high speed and blew a good many of the wax crayons off the panel. So by trial and error we discovered that the blow drier had to be set on low initially to slowly soften the wax so that it would have a tack to it before melting it into the beeswax-laden paint. The tiny silver, red and green dots of crayon fragments melded nicely into the pigments and we discovered a new way of making what I would like to call faux encaustic. I then sent my student on her way with a dollop of the beeswax and damar.
Afterwards I was confronted with this little demonstrator faux encaustic painting that I wasn’t quite certain what to do with. I then remembered a multi-media mosaic and painting that I had done with pigment and glass some time ago and sought to recreate this effect. I became interested in combining somewhat disparate media after seeing the work of Michigan artist Ellen Stern a number of years ago in an exhibition in Miami. Her painting "Jack" began as an embroidery of a fairy tale, the threads of silk slowly dissolving into paint which then became glass and tile. It struck me as an allegory of a tale retold several times in translation - the same story repeated in a different media, altering the story slightly with each retelling as the various permutations of media reinterpret the narrative. Even more captivating was the subject of this particular narrative being about a vine that grows uncontrollably - like stories running rampant across borders. There was something else that was bold about this simple statement - especially since in contemporary art we rather arbitrarily assign art to "fine art" or "craft" depending upon what is used rather than how it is used. I think Ellen’s piece was a challenge to the notion that what is used in an art work is more important in understanding how to interpret it than what it says.
To try to capture some of the essence of what Ellen was communicating in her multi-media narrative, I decided to compose an art work traveling through three different media: oil and wax, ceramic shards, and glass. It first required fetching a narrow strip of prepared substrate out of my garbage pail and cutting it to match the height of the first beeswax painting. I glued the small painting and its companion column onto a substrate prepared with sizing. After they dried I proceeded to add bits of a broken ceramic vessel to the outside and inside of the painting - it was a tacky little Easter thing I found on the side of the road but it yielded some interesting texture to the work. Then I reinterpreted the colors and patterns of the painting in glass around the outside boundaries. This completed, I then returned to the column and reinterpreted the surrounding glass in oil and beeswax. I call the piece "Media Narrative in Translation I"

April 5, 2008

The Fine Line in Sleeping Standing Up

I made a painting of a man in New York some years ago. His name was Dexter, and he had an expressive face and an unusual ability to remain standing while sleeping. Although I liked how I painted him I was never satisfied by the back round. After moving to South Carolina I painted this back round several times over and was still never satisfied. To settle my frustration, I finally took a utility knife and carved his body out of the canvas and pinned it to my studio wall so that I would no longer be distracted by the failure of the surrounding paint. I then constructed a new canvas and painted him anew onto an entirely different back round - one replete with the angles and textures on the side of a barn at one of the many abandoned homesteads around South Carolina.
Later that afternoon, a friend of mine dropped by the studio and asked what I intended to do with the large cut out of the man pinned to my wall. “Discard it I suppose,” was my somewhat fatalistic reply. Gwen, my friend, wouldn’t have it. “But I really like his demeanor...the expression on his face has such pathos. Couldn’t you make it into a collage?” She asked. I had never made a collage with a piece of a painting before and wasn’t certain that it would work but I told Gwen that I would reserve this portrait and upper torso until I figured out how to use it.
I did eventually use the painting fragment in a large collage - surrounding the figure with red lines, gold leaf and abstractly painted geometric shapes. These embellishments were derived from the Russian icons I had seen when I went on a memorable trip to visit my relatives in Ukraine. The finished collage, which I named “Icon,” served me well. “ Icon” won a significant monetary award which came just in time for me - for two weeks after the award it was discovered that I had breast cancer and as a consequence had to take a leave from my teaching and my studio. There were two ways that one could understand this situation - that my award might be eaten up by illness and therefore diminished, or, that Dexter as “Icon” was the manna from heaven that arrived at the precise moment of need. I chose the latter understanding, gratitude being healthier than despair. I would have to extend that gratitude to good friends, husband, surgeon and radiation oncologist as well.

But what of that other painting? I continued to repaint the back round until I could do no more. The final addition was a row of blue dots at the base inspired by some roadside flowers. The painting was hung in one of my galleries, was returned to me, then was hung in another gallery and was returned to me. Unfortunately this painting, which I aptly entitled “Sleeping Standing Up,” suffered an accident which left a hair line crack in the paint on the upper right corner. It is not very noticeable but this means that I will never be able to sell it through a gallery. So now what? I had considered selling it to anyone who might be willing to pay for material costs and transport. Otherwise, he might end up in a cut and paste yet again. He probably will.

April 2, 2008

Milestone in Monologues

For Shirley:

The Horizontal Reading

Long shadow of a late afternoon
yawns before her
like the mystery in an alley
on a DeChirico canvas
The dark line on the blue horizon
reading from classical left to Biblical right
and back again
shifts along the straight and narrow path
as fleeting light mingles with the stars
of the milky way on her spotted dress

Yellow sun of a brilliant day
opens its eyes before her
like the spotlights on a stage
that follows spinning young dancers
Ascending light draws a reader up a page
from Mesopotamia below to the Orient above
and back again
as flower buds reach
behind the pages of a book
for tessellated words in stone
Back in November of 2007, I wrote a blog about a book of poetry that I was working on. I then wrote a post some time later when the book was about one fourth of the way finished. My book, Monologues: One Hundred poems for one Hundred Paintings, is now halfway completed. In celebration of making it to this milestone I am publishing one of the poems from Monologues and the companion painting.
I anticipate the second half of this book proceeding more slowly because I have identified twelve paintings that I either need to paint over again or substitute with new ones. When I finish six of these and have written seventy-five poems, I’ll mark that milestone by publishing another excerpt. I’m predicting this to come about at some point in mid to late summer.

April 1, 2008

Doggie Designated Driver

Had such a wild party today that I thought it best to let my dog drive me home.

Happy April 1.