March 30, 2013

Not Exactly Frida Kahlo

I used to wonder how an artist like the famous Mexican painter Frida Kahlo could have had the patience to make such detailed paintings while experiencing so much discomfort from her injuries and illnesses. I’ve since found that getting lost in details can prolong the distraction from the symptoms of illness. So that is why I’ve been making drawings with so many intricate patterns that they can take up to three days to complete. It helps. And the best part about the drawing is that there is a product at the end of the slow but steady effort.

In my drawing of this figure in an interior featured above, many details are allusive. The Tibetan Tiger rugs on the floor remind me of my unaccepted invitation to go to Tibet. I sometimes think of trips not taken now that I am not mobile. Fortunately I did travel extensively in my lifetime but of course now that travel days have ended it is difficult not to have a few regrets about the trips that could have been and the sights not seen. So now I take virtual trips through personal memories and the not so personal but blessed internet. I did have a memory of seeing these Tibetan Tiger rugs while in China in the 1980's but used the internet today to rediscover their form.

The figure in my drawing was an old friend and patron now living in Columbia, SC. She had offered to pose for me when I was working on my small square canvases for what was then my series of one hundred squares for the millennium project back in the 1990's. I reached my quota before she had a chance to enter the select one hundred. But a few years ago, when I wrote my poems to accompany the one hundred paintings, I decided to replace a few of these paintings. So I asked Ann if she would like to pose for the new paintings. She did and I made a few drawings, selecting one to use as a model for the square painting. I posted this one earlier along with the revised drawing. The drawing featured today is a completion of the sketch not used - just like my road trips not taken. The tigers on the floor point the way into the composition - Janus like in their coming and going. There are three more symbols of the east in the drawing. Two are the stylized snake and rat on the pottery in the corner. I made these because I had started this drawing in the Chinese year of the rat and finished it in this year of the snake. I had thought of depicting a snake swallowing a rat but thought better of it.

The last little symbol in my drawing is an amalgam of east/west communication and the spirit of Frida Kahlo. Any student of the paintings of Frida Kahlo is familiar with her graphic depictions of her body experiencing unspeakable tortures. I thought of doing a similar thing because I was having one of my daily pain attacks while I was completing this drawing. In the background on a shelf is an upright rabbit eating a carrot. The Chinese phrase for a rabbit eating something sounds like the word “torture” in English. It is not exactly as Frida Kahlo would have expressed discomfort but it is there. It is a classic case of my Victorian sensibilities overriding my need for graphic expression. And it is fine by me if the only folks who get the bad joke are few. At least one purpose of the drawing was served - the pain faded away after it was finished.

March 26, 2013

Man with a Black Square

From nine by nine inches to nine by twelve inches, the composition of an old sketch grew slowly into its new dimensions. The sketch was originally used to create one of my square paintings, which I allude to in replacing the glass that the figure was holding with a black square. I’ve named the drawing after this change, “Man with a Black Square.” The birds in the carpet and the crow in the Japanese painting on the wall are also new embellishments.

Crows has become fascinating to me after watching a Public Television Programs about investigations into crow intelligence. Apparently they recognize and recall individual human faces. So crows know us. How amazing! The crow in the painting within my drawing is taken from a painting by the Japanese artist Kawanabe Kyrosai. As a Chinese speaker and sometimes writer, I thought it would be interesting to include a real Chinese message in calligraphy on the face of this painting. It reads; A Picture of a Crow, Janet was inspired by joku (Equal in Nothingness - the artist name of Kyrosai).

March 20, 2013

The Metamorphosis Revisited

“By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.”

-Franz Kafka

“It was Franz Kafka,” I wrote in an e-mail to a friend, “The novel was The Metamorphosis.” We were trying to recall the story of the man transformed into a giant insect. At first a worry gripped my soul that I was in the grasp of losing my faculties for not having remembered the name instantly, then thought better of that when I realized that Franz Kafka is not exactly a name on the tip of everyone’s sink...Franz Kafka.
It was the second time that week that the subject of metamorphosis came up. Earlier my doctor described my very undesirable illness as a metamorphosis of the body and soul that I would have to come to accept. She likened it to a chrysalis becoming a butterfly. “More like a butterfly losing its wings and becoming enveloped in a cocoon once again,” I thought but didn’t say.
Not long after the doctor’s visit, I was reading Balzac’s Lost Illusions. Balzac made a similar observation about a reverse metamorphosis when he described actresses coming off the stage and replacing their theatrical attire for their street clothes as a kind of reverse metamorphosis - butterflies turning once again into larvae.

The synchronicity continued a fourth time. I was watching a television program about a woman who had a severe adverse reaction to a drug which left here disabled. She said something which was eerily familiar about dreaming of having sight and being able to run then awakening to the reality of sightlessness and disability - like the butterfly of dreams having a reverse metamorphosis into a larva.

I still have my sight, thank God, and can still walk short distances and occasionally run for about ten seconds. But it took many months to work up to that.  I still dream of having a normal body that moves with ease, only to awaken in the morning and roll into what often feels like a creature with an exoskeleton instead of a human body of bones and muscles. These days the full brunt of disability hits somewhat later in the day so I can devote a few hours to writing and working on some art.  On better days I have a semi return to functioning again in the evening.  I'm learning to be grateful for the better hours.

Having reflected on and hearing about allusions to metamorphosis so often over the last few weeks, I brought out a painting that I made in autumn 2011, when I was actually in much greater distress than at present. The painting is about a Kafka-like metamorphosis and is sufficiently ambiguous. Is the woman emerging from a chrysalis or is she becoming one? The painting was made from studying an actual cicada shell that I had placed on a scanner then printed out enlarged.  It is a small work - only 5" x 7" and part of a diptych. Pictured above is the left flank of the diptych with the woman facing right. In the other painting she faces left.

I liked the cicada/woman image so much that I used it later in one my illustrations for a poem, which I may post later.

March 15, 2013

The Man With the Red Shoes Reminds Us of Oblamov

Alternating between fast pastel and slow pencil drawings, I’m satisfying both the need for meditative details and expressive spontaneity. The pastel drawing above is one of my quick studies from yesteryear quickly finished recently. Although the study was black and white I had made color notes for some future date when I would either add colors to the drawing or make a painting from the sketch. I had made a small oil on wood painting some time ago and finally returned to the sketch to add the colors.

Even without the notes, I somehow think I would have remembered the red shoes that the model was wearing. They were so odd and so vivid. But it was worth the wait to finish this drawing because I brought some new understanding to this piece based on my readings in Russian Literature. I had finished reading Goncharaov’s novel Oblamov, a tale of a soul lost to lethargy. The descriptions of Oblamov’s chronic lounging, his puffiness and pasty skin, were still fresh in my imagination when I added touches of earth red and blue to the face of the reclining figure. His foreshortened body added to the impression of a diminished body and an overly active imagination.   Even the piece of paper that the model holds is reminiscent of the letters that Oblamov would start to write and never finish.

My husband saw this sketch when I tucked it into the transparent layers in my portfolio. “This person reminds me of a character in a Russian novel,” he said, “Oblamov.”

March 9, 2013

The Other Vendors

After I made a sketch of Patti Battaglia (posted earlier) at a vendor show a few years ago, I focused my attention on the other vendors, Wanpovi and Gilbert, with whom we shared our tent. The sketch I made of Wanpovi became the material for a painting. Her painting became part of my poetry book and I believe this may be somewhere in my blog site if readers have occasion to search for it. Wanpovi and Gilbert were a mother/son artist team and although the sketch of the mother became a painting, her son Gilbert was never painted. So to give him his just due, I’ve spent a few days refing the sketch into a completed drawing. Because the original sketch was 9" x 9" to meet the criteria for a canvas of that size, the 9" x 12" composition in this drawing added three extra inches in which I had to invent details. In this space I’ve created extra pottery pieces to add to the original blackware I depicted in the sketch. I’ve also added two works of Pre-Columbian sculpture and a Paracas embroidery design circa 1000 AD. The sculpture at the right is an Olmec figure of a dancer. The figure is described in my text as a male, yet I felt that there was something about the attire which bespeaks a more feminine gender. (Textbooks aren’t always correct). Why would a male be wearing what looks like a breast garment? When I studied the culture of Native American blackware pottery with Gilbert and Wanpovi, I learned about a female goddess of clay. I like to think of this figure as that goddess.

The standing figure to the right is Chavin and represents a flute player sporting a jaguar on his head. I placed this figure too low in the composition but instead of drawing it over again higher up in the picture plane, I simply added an arc above the sculpture. Now it looks a bit like a Chavin thermos container with a handle. Funny how a detail changes everything.

The juxtaposition of contemporary Native American Art with Pre-Columbian artifacts is poignant for it implies a thread of continuity which exists perhaps in spirit but not in reality. Many threads were broken in Native American History as conquest and diaspora disrupted cultural preservation. The blackware pottery illustrated, for instance, had to be rediscovered and the craft relearned in the mid-twentieth century. There is some cause for hope as Native crafts are being researched and relearned, however. In this century even the beautifully artistic Mayan written language is being given back to the speakers of the Mayan tongue. It is with some bittersweet justice that art and language are slowly returned to their original owners.  How time changes everything.

March 4, 2013

Monkeying Around with History

“Should I really be revising all my old sketches,” I asked a composer on evening at an art reception, “Am I not monkeying around with history by altering the traces of what represented a certain time and place?”

“Nonsense,” the composer replied. “Many composers worked for decades on musical scores, and had little compunction about revising.”

It was satisfying to get the go ahead from another arts discipline for my stealing from the past. Besides, what art historian will be scrutinizing my work to establish an accurate chronology? I suppose I should be accurate just in case and write down a start and finish date. But I’m simply too lazy to try and figure out the actual start date on my legions of drawings. Never thought I would forget the year I made sketches! So with that in mind, and my composer friend’s exoneration, I steal from the past with abandon.

A sketch that I recently revisited was one originally done in New York around 1989 or 1990. I do remember the model’s name because I made countless drawings of her - Zuthbeida, or Zuth for short. I made a painting from this sketch of a robed Zuth seated in an interior with her back turned. I had made a small square painting from this sketch and included it in my poetry book. In this painting I included a seated monkey, also with his back turned toward the viewer. To bring the sketch into a completed charcoal/conte/pastel drawing I added a monkey once again. He is a different monkey from the quiet one in the painting, but he functions the same way by adding interest to an otherwise bare spot in the composition. New monkey adds a bit of dynamics to an otherwise tranquil drawing by nonchalantly searching for lice to nibble on.

March 1, 2013

Dancing Men of All Seasons

March is here, but I still have one extra drawing that I had done for February hearts month. I call this drawing Dancing Men of Hearts, Clubs and Spades. It is, in fact, three views of the same man in the same costume but I decided to alter the features slightly with each view. So now Rusty, the model, has two alter egos. It reminds me of a conversation we had about having to juggle so many interests along with work. A doctor who is also a photographer and dancer, Rusty felt that there was never enough time to satisfy all these passions.

I, too, worked in many different areas of writing, creating visual art, and teaching. But I had managed these different interests by allocating time to them on a rotational basis the way I learned while I was a graduate student in China. So each interest was given a season - mosaics in winter, painting in the fall, ceramics in the spring, works on paper in the summer. I passed this system on to Rusty. I hope that it worked for him as well as it worked for me.   Oh! To have time and multiple talents!