February 23, 2009

Hanging an Exhibition of Paintings and Photographs

"Abandonment and Rediscovery: the Vanishing Architecture of Central South Carolina," is now on view at the Rivers, Rails and Crossroads Discovery Center in Blackville. The space was a little smaller than I had recalled so I had to hang the paintings and photographs "gallery style" with two rows of pictures instead of a single row. I had originally intended to hang the paintings separate from the photographs in separate but once I started putting them on the walls, it seemed natural to intersperse them. In this way the actual view of the sites are juxtaposed with the painted interpretations of them. We are looking forward to the opening this Saturday, to the catering by Miller’s Breadbasket and to the Blues Harmonica Music by Walter Liniger.
A late addition to the exhibition is a slide show presentation of the past decade of rendering these barns, shacks and old homesteads on painted panels and canvas This should give the viewers a better feel for how the project came into being and an understanding for the whole body of the work known as the "Domiciles." The painting from the exhibition featured above was taken from a shed in a winter field near Blackville.

Buckle on the Horizon Line

Buckle on the Horizon
There was this beautiful hand made belt in a remote antique store. It was exquisitely woven with threads of gold around small baubles and touches of fabric. Although I admired it and the price was very reasonable, I didn’t get it because it looked like it would require the loss of about five pounds of midriff fat. Nevertheless, the woven belt and the buckle inspired the way I painted my next "Domicile." The building in the painting above, with its crisscrossed fencing, layers of interwoven paint, and parts of machinery aligned itself like a belt on the horizon. A painted patch of emerald green on the cement exterior seemed to form a buckle, tying together earth and heaven. This completes painting number one hundred and four in this series.
"Structure with Green Square," was painted in oils on a gesso panel. The panel was prepared by coating wood or masonite (in this case masonite) with three coats of rabbit skin glue. Then I added six to nine coats of marble dust gesso, sanding between coats. I used a very fine sandpaper, about 220, for the final surface. The extra fine surface was like ivory. But since gesso is porous, I had to seal the surface. There were commercial sealants available for that purpose but I instead used a homemade ruby shellac with the ruby leaves imported through Kremer pigments in New York. I then troweled paint onto this surface with a small palette knife, like a construction worker, slurrying cutting and smoothing my way into the house.

February 20, 2009

Fronts and Sides

A shot gun house sat long and lanky on a street corner. The "shot gun" name was ostensibly derived from the theory that a bullet from a shot gun fired through the front door would travel the length of the house and exit out the back window. The house was painted a robin’s egg blue with a more delicate azure blue trim. This blue, I am told, is called "shoo devil blue." Before moving to South Carolina, I had never heard of a specific color on a house having apotropaic powers. Whatever effect the color was purported to have on the devil, it actually attracted me. I could not help but notice it glaring out from the landscape - a bar of turquoise set in an otherwise understated palette of earthly colors. From the front, its diminutive face looked like a playhouses Viewed from the side, the long form brought to mind the long greenhouses of my late uncle’s florist business or the chicken coups from my grandmother’s farm.
There are many such structures in South Carolina, perhaps built long and narrow on account of taxes being based on the area of the home facing the street. I have been painting them either straight on, so they look diminutive, or from the side so that they run the length of the canvas or panel. Lined up they are like house mug shots. There is something pleasingly archaic about frontal and side views. Side views recall ancient Egypt and the frontal look something of icons.
The three-quarter view in my "domicile" series is rare. Whether it is because I am plumbing the depths of ancient art or because I am too lazy to consider two-point perspective, I am not certain. I think it is for the stark clarity. Organizing forms along a flat plane abstracts them. I sometimes turn other objects near the architecture I am painting onto a frontal plane so that everything is organized like shapes in a Paul Klee painting. An example of this is the rusted fan in the courtyard of a painting I illustrated two to three postings ago. In the original photograph, the fan is turned to a three-quarter view. In the final painting it is frontal.
The two paintings illustrated at top and side are from Bamberg and Blackville, respectively. They are both painted on gesso panels. I will post more about the gesso panel technique tomorrow.

February 19, 2009

The Shamrock Hotel

In my last posting, I included an image of my painting of an abandoned courtyard adjacent to the Shamrock Hotel in Blackville, South Carolina. I have also painted the facade of this building as well. I did not originally set out to paint it as it looked too monumental for my usual subject matter. But when my husband and I met with the director of the Rivers Rails and Crossroads Discovery Center in Blackville last autumn to discuss an exhibition, she asked us if we might include images of the Shamrock Hotel.
When requests for subject matter are made, it can be difficult to warm to the subject at first. In this case, especially, the building in question was not much more than a shell and we wondered what the local attraction to the place could be. It appeared to be more the stuff of history and imagination than substance. While photographing the front of the building, however, the sun briefly opened through the clouds and struck the multicolored grasses which had grown up within the interior of the building. When the colors shone through the empty arches they gave the impression of stained glass cathedral windows. I could see immediately what the glory of the old building must have been when bathed in color. I painted this moment in oils on a small oak panel.
Despite the current economic plight, the citizens of Blackville hope to one day rebuild the Shamrock Hotel. It would be a gorgeous site if they could. For now, there are paintings, photographs, postcards and the audacity of sanguine expectations.

Rusted Door to an Abandoned Courtyard

I finally finished the last painting for my show, "Abandonment and Rediscovery: The Vanishing Architecture of Central South Carolina." The show will be hung this Saturday, February 21, and I am hoping that by then the touch up paint for the side of the painting will be dry . I have used a "gallery wrap" instead of framing for this larger work. The wrap around design adds some three-dimensionality to the painting. It almost becomes an art object - a painting package. Saving money on a heavy duty frame for this size, 30" x 40" doesn’t hurt, either.

The subject matter in this painting, like the previous one, is from the small town of Blackville, South Carolina. The scene depicts a rusted doorway in an abandoned courtyard adjacent to the Shamrock hotel. My painting technique was to use flat planes of color troweled on with a small palette knife. Details and textures were scratched through or applied with more knife strokes. Impatient with that after a number of days spent working on this canvas, I finally finger-painted in the rest.

February 10, 2009

Road Trip to the Finish Line

As my work for my upcoming two-person show continues, the painted canvases and panels lining up around my makeshift studio once again are evocative of the road trip mentioned in my previous blog. I’ve been taking literal road trips in order to record the ramshackle structures along highways 78 and 301. Preparations for my exhibition, "Abandonment and Rediscovery: The Vanishing Architecture of Central South Carolina," has become increasingly engaging as the weeks roll by. I am joined in this effort by my husband, Nat Wallace, who will be exhibiting his photography from the sites we’ve explored, and we are fortunate in having Walter Linigar perform his Blues Harmonica for the opening celebration and catering from Miller’s Bread Basket. Our little project is now backed by the South Carolina National Heritage Corridor, The South Carolina Humanities Council, and the Orangeburg County Fine Arts Center.
The painting on panel pictured above is from the small town of Blackville. The day was overcast - which was good for seeing small details within subtle shadows. The best painting and photography happens for us with the filtered lighting of a rainy day. What I liked about this particular edifice was the triangular dormer and the windows set askew from settling. There are so many peculiar angles on these houses I sometimes wonder if they were purposely put together that way.
I’m still in the midst of painting a larger canvas as e-invitations have been sent and post cards on their way. I suppose it is in my nature to work up to the last minute although I try not to. It is the last week I can paint for this exhibition without the risk of hanging wet canvases so I’ll have to wrap things up. February 28, the opening won’t be that long in coming.

February 6, 2009

The Price of Sentiment

The small oil on wood painting pictured above and to the right are of scenes around central South Carolina. I have been doing them off and on for a number of years - mostly because people are attracted to them and therefore collect them. Some are in the collection of the CEO of Planter’s Peanuts (too bad peanuts are a sore subject for Americans these days and Georgians in particular). These domiciles on wood have also found their way to Washington DC and grace the walls of former senator Hollings’ home. There is one with the former aide to Lynn Cheney, so I’m told.
In my previous blog, I mentioned that what attracts me to these scenes are the textures and flat planes of colors. When I begin to block out these color planes, they look like abstract expressionist painting. Part of me wants to keep them that way, and recently I have done so. Abstraction forces people to see the beauty of the paint itself. But generally I resolve them into structures more recognizable than patterns within geometric planes of colors. In so doing is it compromise? I would have to say yes and no. A lot depends upon artistic intent. If the integrity of the abstract relationships is maintained despite detailing, then my artist’s guilt does not rise. But when too much of the purpose for the painting is relegated to sentimentality through depicting scenes that cause the viewer to pine for a bygone era, then I feel the conflict that many artists feel.
After all, if the subject matter takes precedent over artistic skill, then the involvement of the artist’s mind in the creation of the art is negligible. It doesn’t even matter who painted the scene - as long as it was recorded and can be possessed for its emotional appeal. It is a age old conflict for artists - form versus content, the what it is versus the how it is.
As an artist trained by the artists of the Clement Greenberg generation, the dispassionate science of the form in painting took precedence over the emotional evocations in the content. There may have been content in their paintings, but art educators and artists-in-training did not discuss them. Words that evoked engineering or construction were used to describe painting, or, in some cases, words were eschewed entirely. An extreme form of this approach was in the graduate school lectures of the artist Leland Bell. I recall long lectures at museums with Professor Bell standing in front of paintings making an extensive repertoire of grunts and other vocal sound effects. It was certainly a dynamic way of getting to understand a work of art through its pops bangs and whooshes of forms, but it made me tired at the end of the day and feeling that there was something at the crux of the art that remained uncovered. It made me hungry for content. Ironically, professor Bell was a brave and passionate man who made paintings that were very emotive indeed. Perhaps the idea behind his lectures was that content in painting was so self-evident that it need not be discussed. But I would have liked to have discussed it - what it was like to hear the music that was depicted in the little paintings of jazz men, or the relationships of the families in those paintings of interiors. The fault here is mine for not having asked about them.
I know that people collect my paintings of sheds, shacks, small houses, and abandoned homesteads for their content. It is up to me to imbue that content with form. As long as the form continues to hold meaning for me this does not entail too much compromise of artistic integrity.
In the wrangling between painting for the joy of the form itself and the knowledge that a certain look or subject will capture public sentiment, I have come to the conclusion that there is value to both. The former fulfills my need and the latter, my clients, with some valuable overlap between the two and discovery along the way.
I am told, for instance, that my clients like to have more than one little painting of these buildings. Some even have collections of them. I was happy to have collectors, but I didn’t quite understand the appeal of owning a group of these little paintings on wood until I was recovering from surgery one week and only had the strength to make small works. I painted a large collection of the so-called "Domicile" series during my convalescence. As I painted I placed the buildings in rows on a shelf to let them dry as I made the next set. While lying down to rest, I looked at the small series of houses on the shelf and realized that as a group they signified something very different from a single painting of an isolated house. I had the distinct impression of taking a drive. So that’s it, I thought, I’ve touched upon that quintessentially American thing - the road trip. It is that sentimental journey home and sometimes the sentimental departure from it towards the vistas of new possibilities. And who am I to question that sentiment? I’ve felt it myself when my husband and I go out on a drive to relax. We look at houses on our way ; little houses, large houses, falling apart houses, abandoned houses. The journey and the places along the way that we record perhaps speak to something that reassures the human psyche - that people were there, are there and will continue to be here, and, if need be, we can pack up our troubles and go.

February 4, 2009

Post Post Proteges

For over a decade now, I have been photographing and painting shacks, sheds, abandoned homesteads and other edifices that show exposure to natural wear. My attraction to these is in the intersecting planes of complex colors and the textures of vegetation that weave a tapestry around them. The green patina on a rust red copper roof, the chipped layers of paint, and the worn grey wood all are beautiful in their erosion. I have been experimenting with simplifying the forms in these painting into their basic color planes and am contemplating the significance of this kind of abstraction.
The photograph I took on a recent road trip above details the formal arrangements of colors and shapes I have been after. The scene is from an abandoned hotel in Blackville, South Carolina. In making a study for a painting from this photograph, I simplified the planes of color to delineate their formal relationships. I saw recently that a former classmate from graduate school days, Mitchell Johnson, is using similar reductions in his paintings of architecture. This should not be surprising, because we are both third generation abstract expressionists, so to speak if one care to trace from our former professor, Paul Resika, to his teacher Hans Hoffman. Where and by whom one is trained has often lasting influence. Musicians claim that they can detect a Curtis or Julliard sound in performers trained at those schools. Similarly, I sometimes can see a Parsons look in the handling of paint by artists trained in that tradition.
There is something at work, though, in the Johnson/Kozachek handling of paint that goes beyond tutelage. The patinas of colors and simple planes on the architecture of rural South Carolina look like abstract expressionist art. Clip out a photographic detail of a worn doorway and it could be a Hans Hoffman canvas. Perhaps Mitchell Johnson’s and my own affinity for these shapes and colors can be attributed from South Carolina being my adopted state and Mitchell’s own experiences as a child in South Carolina and Virginia. So influences are not always what they first appear to be and perhaps not so simple after all.

February 2, 2009

Daring Dutch Damsels

Today while continuing the process of archiving my work I came across my large paintings of steatopygous nudes. They were painted in the mid-80's while I was living in Holland and ostensibly working for the overseas division of the University of Maryland - I say ostensibly working for the University of Maryland because there were very few calls for art courses on the American Military bases where the university offered an ala carte menu of college education. There was more use for the English courses that my husband offered, so we made our way in Europe off of the military’s need to know how to read and write rather than make pictures. Understandably so.
To kill time while looking for more reliable work (I never did find any in Holland), I painted in the upstairs bathroom of our small apartment in Nieuwenhagen, a small suburb of Heerlen. Why a small space would engender the need to do large paintings I cannot say. Perhaps it was a protest over the constraints of that time and place. Contrary to the image painted in the American press, Holland was a conservative country - especially with regard to women’s rights.
Perhaps things have changed by now. I certainly hope so.
These paintings represented a reaction to frustration. No exits. No possibilities other than what imagination would bear. I did obtain some solace by painting these large fiery matrons of madness. I recall that I was reading Germain Greer’s The Obstacle Course at the time which only fueled a sense of intimidation about a future as a woman artist. Although these feminist writings were useful in challenging the status quo, I sometimes wonder how many women simply threw in the towel after reading them. Difficult odds one can steel oneself up for, but impossible ones can make even the most sanguine shrug and say "Why bother then?" So as my art cubicle was physically and theoretically defined as quite small, it only created the urge to paint these monsters of women seven to ten feet long.
These daring damsels were seen by very few people before they were destroyed, but at least they were seen. The first spectator was an old friend from our China days who visited us in Holland. Tony Grayling, as chance would have it, took a restroom break in our upstairs bathroom/studio so was treated to this art exhibition. I recall that he liked one not pictured here that had a less wooly and more sculptural finish. It comes as an odd bit of satisfaction that although the art no longer exists, the eyes that looked upon them do and that these eyes represent the vision of a now venerable philosopher in London.
The other few people who witnessed these mad Dutch ladies, were a group of men in Maastricht and a group of men and one woman in Belgium. With the exception of the woman, both groups were horrified. Understandably so. The paintings depicted women with rear ends that could wipe out Limburg province and possibly adjacent southern Belgium just by sitting on that piece of topography.
Now, years later, I have a larger space in which to paint but I paint in very modest dimensions- even miniature. I like small for myself. I paint large now only when I have a commission to do so because I slowly learned that I will end up having to stare interminably at large things that are consigned to nowhere but my own living quarters. But although I paint what I can live with, there is still that urge to bring the Dutch damsels back to life in some shape or form.

February 1, 2009

Camellias and Ivy in a Terry Gess Vase

My sojourn into the gentle art of still life painting continues with a study of camellias and ivy in a ceramic vase. The ceramic vase was made by North Carolina potter Terry Gess. Terry Gess not only has an amazing flair for creating vessels with great form but with an eye for their eventual use as receptacles for blossoms and plants. When we visited his studio, I was struck by how he would hold a vessel in his hands and describe the botanical items he anticipated filling them with.
"This is a shallow bowl for narcissus" he told us, as he held a wood fired piece with short legs and a delicate waving form. This particular piece had simple dark brown on tan brush marks. Terry Gess’ sensitivity for design as a complement to nature was evinced by his understated decoration - simple brush strokes of iron oxide reminiscent of Japanese masters like Hamada.
The vessel that I painted with the camellias and ivy has almost a pod-like shape with a narrow wedge of an opening. The design is such that blossoms placed inside arrange themselves in an informal row without falling behind or in front of each other. This was helpful for pushing the ivy out and over the edge of the vase so that it could flow easily into a splayed composition.
This was a joy to paint on a cold winter’s day.