Monday, August 11, 2014

Badlands and Baldanders

Another recent painting:

5" x 7"
Oil on gesso on hardboard.
It's not the best scan. I was using a product called Ampersand Gessobord, which has a pebbly tooth. I always just scan my paintings, as I don't have a good set-up for photographing them. Usually I prefer using Claybord, which consists of a hardboard panel coated with a kaolin clay ground. It's very absorbent, which most people don't like, but I like how smooth it is, and don't mind building my paintings up in layers. It gives them a kind of luminous quality, and scans well. I wanted to finish this one pretty quickly, though, so I went with the gesso.

(Some time soon I want to try a painting on tin, as in the Mexican ex voto tradition. An artist friend of mine, who, unlike me, is from Mexico, has been doing a number of these, and knows how to prepare the metal properly. He showed me a couple retablo-style pieces by a friend of his who has a painting in the San Antonio Museum of Art. They looked almost medieval, and I thought them quite beautiful, though of course they have a strong dose of irony. I prefer to do things straight-faced, without self-reference.)

Anyway, the above picture is an homage to Georgia O'Keefe, of course, though her hill and mesa pictures always depict New Mexico. I went camping at Badlands National Park in South Dakota with my kids some time back, and the landscape just made my heart sing out. I'd never seen anything like it. Since then I've been itching to celebrate it in painting.

I have a little studio in the upstairs corner of my house. It gets north light, and I can look over the backyard from the window, and watch my children swinging, or the chickens chasing each other around. Lately I've been listening to audiobooks while painting. This has the amusing effect that each passage of the painting gets identified in my mind with some scene from the book. I was listening to The Lord of the Rings while painting Badlands. A couple watersheds of the main mountain, for instance, make me think of the Prancing Pony. Badlands and the foreground and statue of my Santa Maria sopra Minerva painting required all three volumes of LOTR plus Paradise Lost. I guess I paint pretty slowly.

Right now I'm working on one of Saint Michael the Archangel casting the devil from heaven – perhaps this is rather mercenary of me, as traditional religious pictures are the only things that seem to sell around here, close to the border with Mexico. Most appropriately, I've gone through The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator, but I'm not done with the image yet. I have a couple weeks to wait for my new audiobook credit, though, so Moby-Dick will have to fill in the gap.

I've kind of been working my way toward abstraction from two different directions, mathematical and artistical. My recent show featured both paintings and digital collages. Its title was Abstraction, and my artist's statement is as follows. (As is usual for such things, it's annoyingly assertive, universal, and elliptical.)
By abstraction the rational mind isolates an aspect of nature and examines it in itself. 
Mathematical abstraction. When we see five stones, or five sheep, or five men, we abstract the quantity five, which in itself exists nowhere, and thus begin to people an intellectual universe. This is a leap of insight. There are tribes of aborigines for whom there are no numerical concepts beyond one and many
Artistic abstraction. The artist sees with the corporeal eye (or the mind's eye, which views concoctions whose ingredients came through the corporeal eye) and, selecting some element out of the world of form and color, digests it and creates a new work by hand. 
These are separate and distinct. Beauty is truth, truth beauty. But the beauty of truth is not the truth of beauty. 
Art is neither illustration, nor expression, nor communication. It is creation of the visible.
One of these last assertions  – art is not illustration (though it can of course be illustration in specific instances) – puts me in mind of William Blake, who strenuously asserted the contrary. To him, art was neither more nor less than illustration. I am a great admirer of his work, both his poetry and his illustrations, but here, obviously, I've come to disagree with him. His view makes art subordinate to knowledge, beauty subordinate to truth, and is typical of the gnostic view of things. Etienne Gilson has a good discussion of this controversy in his Forms and Substances in the Arts.

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