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Friday, January 19, 2018

Frumpy in the extreme

We build lousy modern churches because we don’t believe in the power of art.

The Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche in Berlin (Courtesy Wikipedia)
One of the joys of being an intellectual mynah bird is that people lob the most interesting ideas my way. Yesterday someone said, “You know what makes me sad? The lack of passion in modern church design.” She is right. Modern American church design is frumpy in the extreme.

Consider Canterbury Cathedral, consecrated in 1070 AD. It’s meant to reach up to the heavens, while at the same time impressing and humbling the pilgrim. It is a good visual analogy of our longing for and relationship with God. It is the product of the highest and best gifts of eight centuries of artists. The relationship between God and man, our yearning, is palpable.

Lakewood Church in Houston, TX (Courtesy Wikipedia)
Compare that with the largest megachurch in the United States, Lakewood Church in Houston. Its congregation is 40,000 people. It’s housed in a building with all the charm of a basketball stadium. That’s no surprise; it’s the former home of the Houston Rockets. It has altar calls, but no altar. Its preachers work on a large stage.

Outside the city walls of Canterbury is the Church of St Martin, the oldest Christian house of worship in England. It was the private chapel of Queen Bertha of Kent in the 6th century, before Augustine arrived from Rome and officially established Christianity in Britain. It’s austere and slightly larger than my living room, but there is no doubt it is a sacred space.

The quire at Canterbury Cathedral (Courtesy Wikipedia)
Not all modern churches are terrible, of course. The original Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche was nearly destroyed in a bombing raid in 1943. It was rebuilt from 1959 to 1963, when Germany was recovering from the devastation of WWII. It’s a masterpiece of beautifully-crafted, controlled religious fervor.

Congregationalism may descend from the Puritans, but their austere churches were nonetheless beautiful, testimonies to the clear light of faith.

Old South Meeting House, Boston, MA (Courtesy Wikipedia)
Why, then, are modern American churches often so ugly? It’s not that we’re a post-Christian society; there are new congregations being formed and new churches being built here every day. And it’s not that we’re all poor; ours is the richest nation in the richest period in world history.

By and large, American Protestants subscribe to a practical theology of dualism. We believe that our physical space is separate from and less important than our spiritual life. We’re also transients at heart; we move around and take our churches with us. Like our Big Box stores, they’re built to be temporary. In part that comes from our premillennialist leanings. If Jesus is coming back soon, why waste money on the building?

The monumental choir screen at Chartres Cathedral (Courtesy Wikipedia)
We also feel guilty about art. Who among us hasn’t heard the canard that the Vatican should sell its treasures and use the money to feed the poor? That denies any connection to the transcendent, or any worship role for the architect and artist. It repudiates the purpose of the art.

Bernini did not build his amazing St. Peter’s Baldachin so it could be sold to grace some wealthy man’s office; he built it for the greater glory of God. And that’s a Biblical position. Bezalel was named the chief artisan of the Tabernacle by God himself, who said, “I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft,” and then let him loose.

Of course, our culture as a whole is fashionable, rationalist, pragmatic, and consumerist. In church we want contemporary music, good production values and an entertaining preacher. They mean a stage and an audience, not an altar and congregation.

Churches see themselves as vendors of Christ, competing with vendors of other cultural properties, up and down the road. That doesn’t leave us much time or space to offer beauty up to the Lord.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Lois Dodd in New York

It’s not often you get to see the work of a living master, so go see this show while there’s still time.

Two Red Drapes and Part of White Sheet, 1981, Lois Dodd
If you like reading phrases like, “sets up a dialectic between an implication of distance and the optical immediacy of design,” by all means buy Lois Dodd, by Faye Hirsch. I don’t, but I like picture books. And I appreciate any attention paid to Lois Dodd. She is one of the masters of 20th century art, but has been overshadowed by her male brethren.

The 90-year-old painter has summered in Cushing, ME for six decades. She was part of a wave of New York modernists who came to Maine at the end of World War II. They were following an historic line of painters, starting with the Hudson River School artists. All of them found freedom and inspiration here. For Dodd and her peers, Maine was where they could break away from the strictures of Abstract Expressionism and explore representational painting.

Dodd never achieved the fame of the men who joined her on this trek to Maine: Fairfield PorterRackstraw DownesAlex Katz, Charles DuBack, and Neil Welliver. This was despite her sterling pedigree as a painter.

Globe Thistle, 1996, Lois Dodd
She was educated at Cooper Union, and one of five founding members of the Tanager Gallery. This was one of New York’s first artist cooperatives and central to the avant-garde scene of the time. Dodd taught at Brooklyn College and at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. She is an elected member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and of the National Academy of Design.

Dodd didn’t receive her first solo museum show until 2013, and it wasn’t in New York, but at the Portland Museum of Art. “Artists who have experience in both New York and Maine will tell you that Maine is much friendlier to women artists,” wrote Edgar Allen Beam at the time. “Indeed, Caldbeck Gallery in Rockland, Dodd’s Maine gallery, can boast of gender equity with 51% of the artists it represents being women.

“I suppose the fact that Dodd mostly paints interiors, landscapes, gardens, flowers and female nudes in a very matter-of-fact modernist style of realism might explain why New York area museums – in love as they are with flash and fads – have failed her,” Beam continued.

View Through Elliot's Shack Looking South, 1971, Lois Dodd
Well, yeah. She’s not agonizing over sex, and she has an affection for the things she observes. What room does the art establishment have for that?

Meanwhile, the Alexandre Gallery, her New York representative, is finishing up its thirteenth show of Dodd’s work. Lois​ ​Dodd:​ ​Selected Paintings​, runs for one more week, until January 27, 2018.

Two Trees, Afternoon Light, 2014, Lois Dodd
At 90, Dodd continues to paint, although she doesn’t get out like she used to. Mortality is staring her in the face, as it does with us all. She is one of the greatest living American masters, and this might be your last chance to see her work before she is frozen in time. If you’re in the metro New York area this week, you really should go.


Rewriting Painting
A panel discussion chaired by Barry Schwabsky, featuring painters Lois Dodd, Thomas Nozkowski and Philip Taaffe, and art critics Faye Hirsch and John Yau

Thursday, April 19, 2018, 6:30pm – 8pm

Join Barry Schwabsky and a panel of leading painters and critics for a lively debate on the state and shape of contemporary painting and its critical reception. How far have artists extended the boundaries of the medium in the 21st century, and what does it mean to be identified as a painter today? Is the word ‘painting’ still adequate to describe a practice which no longer necessarily involves paint or flat surfaces? And to what extent do the ways in which we write about painting influence both the public’s reception of the work and contemporary practice itself?

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Open source art history

An easy, interesting, free site for learning art history, available to everyone.

All art survey courses start with the Venus of Willendorf (courtesy of Naturhistorisches Museum)…
A reader asked how she could learn more about art history. My normal answer would be to go to the library and take out a copy of Janson’s History of Art. But she can’t do that.

A while ago, another reader sent me this listing of free art-history courses online. Most of them are narrowly-focused, making them more interesting to the enthusiast than to the beginner. But the list led me to SmartHistory. It has a detailed set of syllabuses that takes you through the development of western art, from the Venus of Willendorf to Pop Art. (Those of you looking for an analysis of the last fifty years will have to wait.)

And go to this (Chartres cathedral c. 1220)…
These are:

A syllabus is an outline for a course, a description of where you’ll go and how you’ll get there. You get them the first day of class, put them in the front of your binder and refer back to them when you’ve forgotten something. SmartHistory’s are interactive, so they end up driving your learning. You walk through them step-by-step, just as you’d go to lectures at university. I sampled several lessons and found them complete, interesting, and thorough. And there are graded quizzes.
And then to this study of a horse by Leonardo da Vinci (courtesy of ‌Royal Library, Windsor Castle)…
Smarthistory started in 2005 as an audio guide series for use at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, and as a resource for college students. It has now published 1500 videos and essays on art and cultural history. While these include the art of Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Oceania, they’ve not yet written syllabuses for non-western art.

“Publishers are adding multimedia to their textbooks, but unfortunately they are doing so in proprietary, password-protected adjunct websites. These are weak because they maintain an old model of closed and protected content,” they wrote on their webpage.

And then to Impressionism, represented here by Monet’s Impression, soleil levant, 1872 (Musée Marmottan Monet)…
That, to me, gets to the heart of the matter. Individuals and institutions may own individual paintings, but nobody owns our history or our heritage. Doling it out at $25 for a ticket to the Met or $100 for an access code to a textbook is contrary to our goal of building an educated, thinking society with common values. A person who follows these syllabuses meticulously is going to learn everything they’d study in a college survey course in art history.

And end up somewhere around Roy Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl, 1963 (Museum of Modern Art, New York).
Smarthistory launched its first custom-designed website in 2007. Between 2011-2015, it was supported by Khan Academy and remains its official partner for art history. And this is the first I’ve heard of it. Somedays I feel like the last one to the party.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Fall from Grace: the wreck of Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst finally makes something recognizable as art, and the chattering classes hate it.

From Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable by Damien Hirst. All images lifted from the internet without attribution because, hey, it’s 2018 and that’s how we roll now.
One of my former students now works in the workshop of a famous artist. This artist does not create his own work. His ideas are executed by a staff of artisans. He has a factory in Manhattan, a workshop in New Jersey, and hires specialists elsewhere as needed. He pays his artists about twice the minimum wage, and has a cadre of middle-managers and designers. He himself has no technical skills. “I’m the idea person,” he has said. His most expensive work sold in the aftermarket for just under $60 million, but you can buy copies on Etsy for $35. The work is so banal as to be uncopyrightable.

The artist’s workshop was standard practice for European artists from the Middle Ages until the 19th century. Sometimes these were family based, which is why we had women painters like Artemisia Gentileschi—she studied with her father and was better than the boys.

From Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable by Damien Hirst.
But these workshops were guild-regulated, and had a strict quid pro quo: young apprentices worked in exchange for their room, board and training. Consider the early career of Raphael: he was taken into the workshop of Umbrian master Pietro Perugino at a very young age, perhaps as young as eight. By 17, he was qualified to hang out his own shingle as a master painter.

The modern workshop, however, is not designed as a teaching mechanism; it’s a factory for expensive, branded artwork.

Damien Hirst was the most prominent member of the group known as Young British Artists (YBA) These were the bad boys of British Art in the late 1980s. All attended Goldsmiths, all were discovered by Charles Saatchi. Hirst had a rocky start, barely getting into art school at all.

Hirst became famous for a formaldehyde-preserved shark called The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, which sold for something greater than $8 million. Like the artist I mentioned above, Hirst is sometimes accused of plagiarism. The shark, for example, may have ‘quoted’ the window display of a Shoreditch electrical supply shop. Once again, the problem is that the ideas are too banal to be owned.

From Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable by Damien Hirst. 
With the new millennium has come reassessment. Hirst’s prices have slumped. He has responded with a comeback show, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, sprawling across two museums in Venice. It is an enormous fantasy based on the supposed discovery of a sunken ship. It includes its own movie.

It’s been panned by the cognoscenti. “Insipid,” wrote Tiernan Morgan. “[U]ndoubtedly one of the worst exhibitions of contemporary art staged in the past decade,” wrote Andrew Russeth. “[A] spectacular, bloated folly, an enormity that may prove the shipwreck of Hirst’s career,” wrote Alistair Sooke. Hirst has been accused of plagiarizing the sunken artwork of Jason deCaires Taylor, which, considering the history of the YBA, is downright laughable.

This former darling of the British art world obviously cheesed someone off.

From Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable by Damien Hirst.
Unlike those reviewers, I don’t get a free trip to Venice to see the show in situ, so I looked at pictures online. That’s no way to experience art, but to me, it seemed audacious, witty, absurd and well-crafted (albeit by someone other than Hirst). In short, it was all the things Hirst never succeeded at when he was famous and feted.

While I was pondering his fall from grace, I was preparing for a studio visit of my own, the net to be calculated in hundreds, rather than millions, of dollars. I emptied the trash and cleaned the toilet, and the juxtaposition made me smile.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Monday Morning Art School—drawing from the inside out.

There are times when you have to dance backwards in 2-inch heels. Or at least do the equivalent in pencil. Here's how.

My soap dish and towel. These are very small drawings, by the wayabout three inches across.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I stress working from big shapes to little shapes.  We start with generalizations and move to detail. This is such a fundamental rule of drawing that it seems almost inviolable.

Yet there are times where the reverse can work brilliantly. There are artists—Albert Handell, for example—who work from their focal point outward. It’s a good trick to have in your kit. Practicing it occasionally helps you see composition differently.

Don't hate me for the state of that soap dish. At least I wash my hands!
Your assignment this week is to draw a small still life, starting from whatever detail first catches your eye. I used my grimy soap dish. For me, the most attractive thing was the elliptical shadow thrown by the bar of soap, so I started there.

The soap and its shadow. That would soon change.
When is a still life not a still life? When it’s a-travelin’, man. The soap and brush were still wet. As the towel settled down into its pose of casual insouciance, it deflated somewhat. All the pieces moved, imperceptibly at first, and then faster. The soap and brush slithered across the table and on to the floor. This happened three times before I got them to sit and stay.

Finding the arcs of the soap dish around the soap.
One of the advantages of drawing the what interests you first is that it helps you avoid losing your subject. This is particularly important if you draw people on the subway, or lobster boats in harbor. Both will leave on their schedule, not yours.

Fit the dish shapes around the soap like puzzle pieces. Note that the brush has mysteriously flipped over.
If you were drawing this big-to-small, you would start with the ellipse of the dish and its placement on the bigger shape of the towel. You would then break the dish down into its parts. Reversing that, I started with the bar of soap and its shadow. I then built the dish around those objects. To do that, I figured out how they fit around my brush and soap, like pieces of a puzzle, paying careful attention to the so-called negative shapes that resulted.

Brush and soap in their bowl.
(Remember that what you see in the photo isn’t what I saw in real life. Photos distort reality.)

After that, it’s just a question of continuing the process outward. At the end you’ll want to spend a few moments integrating everything and setting a few final, strong lines to hold the composition together.

Growing a shadow.
Where might I use this technique? If there’s one object that’s the focus of my piece, like a beautiful tree, I might start by positioning it elegantly on my canvas and working around it. I sometimes draw hanging coats from small-to-big, since it can be difficult to get the parts to flow together. I always work small-to-big when the object of my attentions is in danger of moving along soon. 

I developed the drapery from the inside out, as well, like little puzzle pieces.
This is a technique applicable to drawing, for the most part. The only time I do it when painting is when my subject is a boat and I'm concerned it will soon be off to sea. Oil paintings can’t be cropped as easily as watercolor or pastel. Making an error of placement at the beginning is a difficult mistake to work around. In oils, it makes the most sense to do a careful drawing and tuck it away against the possibility of losing your subject.

This technique works well for drapery. This is someone's jacket, draped over a chair.
I’m teaching four workshops this summer, in Rochester and Rye, New York, on the Schooner American Eagle, and at Acadia National Park. For more information on any of these, email me here, or check my website.