May 24, 2009

Memorial Day for GI Joe

G.I. Joe, the fighting man of the 1960's, with his pistol wielding hands and paddle boat feet, had a pink scar upon his face. I always wanted to erase it. So when I painted his portrait I did leave it out, but put a highlight in its place.
I had a small collection of G.I. Joes as a child in addition to the Barbie entourage I wrote about previously. As I found the Ken doll suspect, Barbie’s consort of the day was the military man, if only so that she could borrow his neat jeep.
To paint the G. I. Joe portrait I altered the lighting on his face so that he was illuminated from below - brightening eye sockets that would ordinarily be in shadow. This gives his face a somewhat less than benign appearance. It is Vincent Price lighting, to be sure. One doesn’t know whether he is terrified himself or is frightening to others.
During my recent exhibition, "Homage to Squares," which closed last week, Joe was hung separately from the other doll portraits, but just around the corner from them. It gave the impression that he was ogling them from a short distance, with surprise and indignation, perhaps?
This little square portrait was different from the female doll heads in that Joe did not get a metal leaf background but a painted one with metallic paint instead. The paint was mottled to look something like battle camouflage. G. I. Joe, once again is at our service.

May 18, 2009

Fashioning a Barbie

Extra care requires making extra parts. When creating the square painted papers for my collage "Sleeping Standing Up," I made several extra 4" squares of paper sized with light blue gesso. After painting most of them and placing my select few onto the large work, I had to do something with the rest. What to do with about ten extra sized pieces of blue paper? The answer came from an unlikely source - a vintage Barbie doll collection. I had brought the dolls out of storage with the intent of selling them off. But before parting with them, I thought it best to paint them first. I sized gold and silver leaf onto paper and carefully traced the shape of the dolls’ heads onto the gilded and silver leafed surfaces. I then cut out the shape and stored these for later use. I mounted the silver and gold with the cut out shapes on to the blue gesso paper. I built a textured paper frame around the leaf - pink for silver and brown with blue for gold. I then carefully painted these iconic doll faces on each square page. There was the Barbie with the bubble hair bob from 1963. There was a fashion Barbie with a strange headress with gold stripes. A Skipper doll was also immortalized in acrylic paint on paper, as was Barbie of the late sixties. G I Joe made an appearance as well - the only man so far in the little square doll portraits.
Despite their design to appeal, the faces looked almost ghoulish to me - the overly long necks with eyes too blue, noses too small, and mouths too demure. Painting them caused me to reflect upon standards of feminine beauty. Despite the "improvements" to Barbie throughout the years, I found that my preference leaned towards her earliest incarnations - the design adapted directly from Lily the fetish doll. There was a remotely Oriental look to her, with those narrow eyes askance. Perhaps I had a nostalgia for a fifties era that I was not a part of. Or perhaps I was just intrigued by the idea of painting an image of something meant for men that ironically became the provenance of little girls.
How arbitrary and fleeting are concepts of beauty. This very mutability of the desirable is what I find so fascinating. What creates a desire for certain proportions and a predilection for a narrow range of coloring? I look at these Barbie dolls and despite their appeal, seem to mock our choices - holding a mirror up to our tastes and finding them bizarre with the passage of years.

May 17, 2009

Sleeping Standing Up

My "Homage to Squares" exhibition turned out to be elaborate and complex. It took me and three volunteers two vehicles to get the art and installation set up to the site and eight hours to hang the show. Thank God for friends! Heart felt thanks go out to Julia Wolfe, Pierce West and Kevin Smith. I could not have done this without them.
Interestingly, my friends often had a better idea than I did about how to hang much of the work. This does not surprise me. I just create the art - displaying it is yet another art. Pierce West especially had good ideas about what to use in focal points and how to arrange things so that they would read like a long narrative, as in the case of the thirty small figurative paintings and their accompanying poems. Kevin and Pierce rearranged my long line of Barbie Doll portraits separate from the single portrait of G.I. Joe. So instead of being a part of this group, he was a counterbalance to it - like a long story with a punch line to it.
After an exhausting day of hanging art, I spent the day before the Friday opening busying myself preparing food. In keeping with the theme most things were square - fudge brownie squares, lemon squares and pecan squares to name a few. Opening night on Friday was surprisingly crowded, with most of the food and all of the wine consumed by the throngs. Again I am grateful for the savvy publicity from the Gallery 80808 webmaster, Susan Lenz.
Preparations for this exhibition have been so consuming that my intent to write about the art has been somewhat curtailed. Nevertheless, I will manage to write for a while about the work in this exhibition. With about eighty pieces hanging in this show, there is plenty to write about. With work ranging in dates of completion from early last decade to just last week, the show turned out to be something like a small retrospective. The most recent work, "Sleeping Standing Up," featured at the top of this page, was finished just last week. The picture is a collage on canvas comprised of a figure excised from a previous painting that met up with an unfortunate studio accident. ( I had written about this in a previous blog when I first cut the standing man out of the painting.) I had salvaged the figure by cutting him out of the painting and pasting him onto a new canvas. It took a long time to get back to the image of this man, which had remained rolled up in a closet for several months as I attended to my daily routines and weekly deadlines. As the deadline for completing new work for my exhibition drew near, I feared that I would not be able to carve out a niche of time to complete this larger, elaborate piece. But I found a sufficient block of time after all, in the final week before my show.
In this new version of "Sleeping Standing Up," I outlined the figure by squeezing a tube of scarlet paint around the contours of his body. I did this for both pragmatic and aesthetic reasons. Using a sold line instead of collaged fragments of paper as in the rest of the work, highlighted the subject in a bold and provocative way. The thick paint also served to hide the seam created by a heavy piece of canvas pasted on top of another canvas.
This mosaic collage, like most of my others, was not laid out in entirety then adhered to the substrate. Instead the process was more intuitive - colors and patterns revealing themselves as I worked along the surface. There were many surprises along the way - like the pink quilt-like border, and the large blue squares. A commentator thought there was a symbolic intent to the pink color - a threat to the masculinity of the subject. This was an interesting concept but was not in the forefront of my intentions. The pink just mysteriously resonated with me.
I hung "Sleeping Standing Up" at the end of the long hallway leading to my exhibition because I wanted it to be an iconic focal point. There are many things one could say about the brazen colors and the torpor of his presence. With the economic downturn, and so much of life turned upside down - lost retirements, state ownerships of what we used to consider the apogee of capitalistic institutions. This season brought with it a sense of sleepwalking - because so much of what we thought was real was not.
"Sleeping Standing Up" serves now as the greeter to the door of my exhibition. Unfortunately he will have to come down the day after tomorrow. Such a brief exhibition with such a long theme!

May 11, 2009

Plagiarism in the Past Perfect Tense

My upcoming exhibition is a patchwork of old and new work. The square painting turned towards a diamond shape to the right is a self portrait untimely torn from a painting I made years ago while I was still living in China. I didn’t really like the awkward composition in the original work so I salvaged the face (for historic reasons?) by excising it with a utility knife and then discarding the remaining canvas. I then pasted the portrait on to a gesso panel. Using a slightly updated palette of colors and an older painter’s way of wielding the brush, I surrounded the old image with new paint. It still has a somewhat naive early Lucian Freud look to it, but I will be exhibiting it anyway.
I am reminded again of Proust’s observation that when artist’s reach a certain age they begin to plagiarize from their own past, which explains the first word in the title of this little painting.
The second half of the title, "the past perfect tense," is an overlay of puns, historical references, and an interest in the cultural ramifications of linguistics. It is all word play. Through the rose colored lenses of the present, is the golden age of youth, with its seeming simplicity, a time yet untainted with responsibilities and limitations? Is the past perfect? Or was it really fraught with the tensions of uncertainties? Perfectly tense, maybe. Tenses do speak volumes about the cultures that invent and use them. It seems to me that the past perfect is a language of regret...
"If I had gone to medical school instead of art school, then I would have been much better off financially."
Staring into the face of the past through this little self portrait, I recalled wondering at the time, how I would feel looking into the mirror a few decades later, as an older woman, particularly considering the high premium our culture places upon youth. Surprisingly, it is more annoying than distressing - especially having skin hang down from my face while standing upside-down.
I suppose the mere fact that I bother to walk around on my hands in an old-age-be-damned attitude is its own answer to the trepidation one should be feeling at this time. And the young, rather than evoking feelings of loss or jealousy, elicit charm. Sometimes they look like little dolls to me. Even my own visage from those decades past is doll-like, with that narrow little face and those big staring, almond eyes. But the older face that looks back upon it has some regrets but does not mourn. It only exhales in relief at having survived the vicissitudes of the life lived since then and grateful for the experience gained.

May 5, 2009

La Mei

The large commission that I wrote about in my previous blog is finally complete. "La Mei," the plum blossom of the winter, does retain the atmospheric quality of the initial grisaille but it was not without some whiting out and repainting of select areas of the surface. The spots of yellow at the base, originally elliptical, became increasing rounded as the painting progressed. The upper right corner was painted in a very gestural way, then tightened up, then trimmed up and loosened again. This is probably what the Abstract Expressionist meant by the dynamics of "push and pull" in a painting, even though this one is more Oriental than Occidental in feeling.
Because the dimensions of the painting are roughly a square, the work will probably appear in my upcoming exhibition, "Homage to Squares," as a surprise to myself as well as everyone else who expects to see only figurative work. The painting is too large for me to get far enough away from it in order to get a complete image, but the detail illustrated here gives a general idea of the use of paint and composition.
Since the opening of "Homage to Squares" is less than two weeks away, I will devote the next series of blog posts to the square paintings featured in this exhibition.