October 23, 2015

The South Carolina State Fair Fine Art Exhibition: A Closer Look at a Few Works

The South Carolina State Fair this autumn hosted an art exhibition with an exceptional number of exquisite works of photography, paintings, drawings, mixed media works and sculptures. It was a joy to behold. What did not come as a surprise to me was that the special accolades accorded to the juror’s favorites missed most of my own selections. Of course, the sheer number of entries makes it difficult to truly evaluate the merits of the work. This is especially a problem when work is stacked one on top of the other or crowded too close.  When sculptures  that rely upon  negative spaces as a strong compositional component, such as Lee Malerich’s fantastic windows for instance, seen left, are placed in front of other objects, the purpose can be obscured. Imagine a sculpture like this in a setting with other sculptures in front of it and behind it and placed on the floor instead of at eye level.
 I do believe that in the context of crowded spaces, art that is subtle and complex tends to be missed. These are works that require undistracted time and focus in order to truly appreciate.

One such gorgeous yet understated painting was "A Collection of Heirlooms," by Jonathan Moore. At first glance it is merely an aerial view of a mass of tomatoes. But closer inspection reveals a subtle variation in color in every tomato. No two are alike. Any artist knows that sustaining that variation over a number of objects is difficult.

In photography, two works were especially memorable to me: Charles’s Hite’s color photograph "The Blacksmith’s Shop" and a black and white interior by Jo Robbins. Jo Robbins’ work is especially fine, with beautifully rendered textures and details. The work requires looking a while and observing closely so that the interior can reveal its many layered tonalities and richness of patterns. Is there a message to the book on the table that is emblazoned with the name of Rembrandt? And why is there no person napping in the chair when the photograph is entitled "Afternoon Nap?"

Perhaps the most memorable of the photographs in the State Fair exhibition was Charle’s Hite’s "The Blacksmith’s Shop," pictured at right. The photograph required much thought and technical skill to create and therefore requires just as much thought to observe. The artist tell me that the photograph was shot on a "camera bought in 2006, the Olympus E-500." In order to capture the complex scene Mr. Hite tells me that because of the high contrast he used "the HDR technique of capturing five images at five different exposure values ranging from +2.0 down to _2.0 to render the details inside and out as my esyles see it and the way I remember it..not as the camera tells it should look, as all camera systems capture differently."

What I particularly appreciate about "The Blacksmith’s Shop" is that it seems to invite a complex and detailed journey or narrative. The viewer enters the remnants of this architectural gem and is treated to a tactile sensation of rough boards and peeling paint. Traveling through the photograph further a doorway at the back frames a landscape, beckoning the viewer to a portal to another world. It is mesmerizing - almost dream like. This photograph within a photograph could be missed with a cursory view.

This is the last weekend of the South Carolina State Fair. Pick out a few favorites and look at them a long while.

October 11, 2015

Sonnets to the Malamute: The Poet Revealed

Apart from the accidental shift from a vertical to a horizontal format in my recent illustrations, the job was going well. I chose the sonnets that I wanted to illustrate. With input from the author, the work progressed slowly but smoothly. Then a shift occurred when the author came up with his own ideas for the last 8" x 10" illustration as well as the final 5" x 7." He proposed to reveal himself as the author of the sonnets. This revelation would be in the form of a dual portrait of himself as both man and child. I was sent pictures of both the man as he is now and how he was over seventy years ago as a toddler. The author originally thought to make the man and boy Janus-like, but I explained that I would require profile views for this and since there were none in the offing, the Janus format was abandoned. With more requests to include two images of a puppy, slight of hand and ventriloquism, my work was cut out for me.

For this last illustration, I treated the author of the sonnets as a kind of conjurer/ventriloquist. He speaks through a small puppy and a toddler. Because these are his creative instruments I reduced their size to a toy-like scale in contrast to the central figure. I had to do a bit of my own conjuring here because the portrait I was given was of a face only but no hands. I drew my own hands in different positions, making the fingers thicker to make them older and more masculine. I placed the right hand palm downwards with strings emanating from the fingers and attaching to the bantam sized dog. The left hand is palm up in a gesture of release - the puppy is released in to the sky. The puppy in the sky is taken from my previous illustration of a line in the first and last sonnets, "You are the sky above a star on earth." In this redo of a portion of the previous illustration the sky is depicted torn in parts and incomplete at the base in order to indicate that it is a construct, like a stage setting, rather than a reality. I made it this way because I felt that once the poet/author of a work steps in to that work it immediately places the art into the realm of a created, imagined or remembered entity. In this regard the illustration depicts both the art and the creator of the art in one context where they coexist yet are separate realities.

October 9, 2015

Sonnets to the Malamute: A Three Headed Dog in Hell

My illustration work brought me to a challenging sonnet. Because I had already switched from a vertical format to a horizontal one I selected a sonnet to illustrate from my clients book of sonnets to the malamute that had allusions in the text to many mythological figures. In that sonnet the malamute became Cereberus, the Hell Hound. His drool was transformed into the Horehound plant. There were three judges in this sonnets, as well as the mythological dog Lelaps. It was a veritable mythological smorgasbord.

Generally, I consulted with my client when I was not entirely certain about the iconography of his poetry. But in this case I illustrated something without doing so because I thought there was a figure not mentioned, but perhaps implied in the text. The mythological Lelaps, the dog who always caught his prey, is often paired with the Andalusian fox. The Andalusian fox can never be caught, so this pair chases each other indefinitely. There was no mention of the fox in the sonnet, but I thought that since Lelaps was there, he should, of course be chasing the fox. So I added a fox in the upper left corner of the drawing.

When the drawing was complete, my client wanted to know what that other dog in the upper corner of the illustration was doing there. I explained that Lelaps is generally paired with the Andalusian fox so I just presumed to make him a feature of this illustration. I hoped that I would not have to do this illustration over again because it was quite detailed and time consuming. I had to do a lot of searching to find good pictures of a horehound plant. And I was unfamiliar with the rest of the cast of mythological characters as well and had to make a few drafts to get them right. Giving a malamute do three heads in different positions also had posed a significant challenge.

So after silently chastising myself for adding a fox without my client’s say so, I ventured an offer to make the fox much lighter. Total erasure was impossible. Of course this can be accomplished with ease in photoshop but my client was also purchasing the original drawings and not just permission for use. Fortunately, the lightened fox managed to squeak through. At least he recedes a little more and is not so dark and obvious.  How foxy!

October 6, 2015

Toad in a Sardine Can Braves the Great South Carolina Flood on 2015

I posted my family members on my status as being "okay" despite the fact that Orangeburg County is an official disaster area. Although my basement was flooded and the hot water was off for a while we still had an intact home with electricity and running water. This is something to be very grateful for.

The brother who inquired as to my whereabouts liked the illustration of my toad valiantly braving the flood. The conversation turned to some suggested improvements on this illustration. Bob thought that I might reconfigure the drawing with a Warhol inspired addition of a Campbell’s soup can lettering. I looked around my house and found we had no such soup cans. I settled instead on the lettering from a can of sardines. The words seemed apt: "SARDINES in water."

My updated toad paddling in a sardine can boat is attached above. Even the toads in South Carolina are resilient. This one fashioned a boat from a sardine can found in a recycling bin.

October 5, 2015

Washed Out in South Carolina

Nicolai Gogol opens his novel My Childhood with a scene from the funeral of the protagonist’s father. It is deftly told through the eyes of a child who cannot as yet fully comprehend the import of his father’s death. Instead the child focuses upon the living frogs haplessly swept into the grave along with the dirt that was being piled upon the coffin. He watches with alarm as the frogs futilely try to struggle up the sides of the grave and are just as persistently knocked down the hole again by the dirt falling off shovels. Walking back from the funeral the child asks his grandmother if the frogs will live. "I don’t think so," came her stalwart reply.

I thought of this piece of Russian literature when looking at my now flooded basement/studio/garage. Fortunately I was not storing too many perishable objects down there due to the lack of temperature control and the tendency towards water accumulation. But I may have lost my kiln and it will take time for the hot water heater to dry out, the gasket replaced and the pilot light relit. But I was not looking most ardently at those things. I was looking at the feeble drain in front of the garage. It was an antique sort of thing...a wrought iron grate with large elliptical holes on top of a carved out area of cement and equally antique drain pumps inside to siphon the water off to lower ground. In the preceding months of dry weather this drain had become the residence of two toads. I named them Richard and Wilbur, observing their habits and dutifully feeding them every day. I even built a small toad house for them on higher and safer ground. They stayed there for a while then returned to their preferred drain abode, as it offered a seemingly safe and cool haven, rich with attractive crawling food.

Now the drain was under six inches of water. Pictures of desperate flooded out cities and equally desperate people in South Carolina have been flooding the media all day yesterday and today. Yet I could not help but think of those two toads in the drain. Did they live?

I intended to work on writing about my illustration work for sonnets or finish a landscape I was working on. But the constant battering rain and the images on the news were just too great a distraction. And there was that nagging question about the lives of two toads. I finally dispensed with the toads and brought myself back to the question of clean up by making a small illustration of Wilbur the Toad escaping from his flooded drain home. I submit my illustration of a South Carolina Toad escaping the great flood of 2015.

October 2, 2015

Sonnets for the Malamute: A New Turn

Sometimes even the clearest and best laid plans go awry. After carefully considering the format of my illustrations for my client, we settled on portrait style, or vertical illustrations. Everything went as planned and my client seemed happy with the project’s progress as I created detailed 8" x 10" art work in a vertical format. While at work on the next illustration, however, halfway through the completion of the drawing, I realized that for some reason, I had turned the page and started working from left to right in a horizontal format. I am not certain as to why. Was it the horizontal images of Elizabethan woodcuts that I had been studying for inspiration on the theme of death? Or was it some feebleness of mind leading to inattention to an important detail?

Whatever the reason, the subject of two figures side by side seemed to work better on the horizontal rather than the vertical. Death and the dog. Death is horizontal, yes? The grim reaper is the great leveler. Perhaps those ideas impressed themselves on my unconscious, causing me to turn the page a different way.

I could justify the horizontal both aesthetically and conceptually for this illustration of death. But how would I justify it for my client when my contract called for vertical illustrations? I decided that because I had put so much work in to this illustration I had to think of a way to appeal to my client’s good nature so that I would not be obliged to start over again. I offered a discount. He accepted with the caveat that perhaps the next illustration could also be horizontal so that they could be paired in the text. Since my ideas for the next illustration also would work better for a horizontal format I was quite amenable to the change.

October 1, 2015

Sonnets to the Malamute

The sonnets that I had been making illustrations for were written in such a way as to come full circle, with the last sonnet repeating lines from the first one. Before illustrating them, however, I asked the author what I thought I already knew the answer to. It seemed to me that both the first sonnet and the last one described a night sky. But no, the poet told me, the first was a night sky and the last was a sunrise. It always pays to ask.

The line that was repeated in the first sonnet and the last sonnet was, "You are the sky above a star on earth." So for both the first and the last sonnets, I created an image of a malamute puppy in the sky. The puppy floats above an aerial view of Princeton, New Jersey, alluding to a favorite haunt of the writer. Since I knew that the last sonnet references a sunrise, I altered the sky to reflect that. Also, to visually recreate the theme of a circle in the writing, I made the last illustration a mirror image of the first.