here's a picture of the set up upon completion of the painting. Just picked up stretcher bars for the next one. It's gonna be big.
Saturday, November 24, 2012
Monday, November 5, 2012
MFA Semester 1
4 October 2012
The Parallel Worlds of Richard Estes and Rackstraw Downes
Richard Estes “Fairway”, oil on canvas, 36”x46, 1995
Rackstraw Downes “Demolition and Excavation on the Site of the Equitable Life Assurances Society’s New Tower at 7th Avenue and 52cnd Street”, oil on canvas, 32”x36”, 1983
Both giants in the contemporary art scene, Richard Estes and Rackstraw Downes each take the modern landscape as their subject. While on the face of things their works seem to share much in common, they contain some telling differences which hint at a deeper philosophical divide.
One is immediately struck by the sheer profusion of visual information offered by both of these paintings. As evidenced by the works shown above, both painters demonstrate a prodigious work ethic and an insatiable appetite for raw visual data. Both paintings feature relatively commonplace, almost mundane, views of the modern world. They gain their power and a sense of monumentality not through sensational subject matter or painterly histrionics, but sheerly through the amount of effort and force of will required in their making. Both Downes and Estes paint with a cool detachment reminiscent of a documentary photograph’s impassivity- no slashing brushstrokes, no theatrical lighting, no other devices which might give more or less energy or importance to one part of the painting over an other. Nothing hints at any particular emotional attachment on the part of the artist. Compositionally, too, there is an ‘artless’ quality that speaks to a kind of visual journalism.
There are subtle differences which exist between these two works, of course. Estes’ edges are extremely crisp and refined, almost machined. Downes’ edges are also clearly defined, but at times become softer, allowing one form to merge with its neighbor. Their palettes also differ. Estes is heavily reliant upon local color. This is especially evident in the shirts of the baggers seen through the window; although painted solidly enough in four flat shades of red, there are no temperature shifts, no forays into subjectivity. Downes’ painting, on the other hand, teams with variation. One gets the feeling of an overall color complexion, with an interplay of temperature that extends even to the myriad window drapes. So too, with the buildings, rendered in hues of creamy pink. ‘Balderdash!’, one can imagine Estes thinking, ‘concrete is gray!’. Perspective, too, is treated differently. Estes utilizes a more conventional two point system while Downes’ work employs a three point system that also incorporates the curvature of the earth. Nevertheless, one gets the sense that like Estes, Downes is faithfully and dutifully reporting and recording what is laid out before him. Indeed, for all their subtle differences, one might be forced to conclude that, in the larger scope of art history, these artists are practically birds of a feather. Seen through the eyes of the nascent connoisseur, there would seem to be little to suggest the deeper philosophical rift which does, in fact, divide them.
The three hundred pound gorilla lurking behind the scenes of these paintings can only faintly be seen in the curved lines of Downses’ perspective, or the rigid exactitude of Estes’ forms. Nevertheless, this idea does exert undeniable force in how the educated viewer digests these works. What I’m referring to, of course, is their working process. Estes paints in a studio, using photographs as his reference. Downes paints on site, in direct confrontation with his subject matter. This is hardly inside knowledge. Richard Estes could fairly be called the posterboy of Photorealism. He was there at the movement’s inception and remains at its forefront. Rackstraw Downes has been the subject of PBS documentaries and has also met with no small amount of success. These painters and their working methods are inexorably bound with their works. It is only reasonable to assume that the educated viewer’s reckoning of their efforts would be informed and inflected by this knowledge.
The savvy viewer knows that these painters aren’t just fashioning illusions- they are making monuments to the human spirit and to the process of perception. We are looking at hours upon hours of human effort heaped one upon the other to create, paradoxically, one unified statement. These works represent not just what is depicted, but the hours of toil that went into it. Seen in this light, even somewhat kitschy artistic endeavors like, say, an Eiffel tower made of toothpicks, or The Last Supper painted on the head of a pin, gain a peculiar kind of fascination. Thus, the working process carries weight in how a work is viewed.
One might take the stance that all of this is irrelevant, that the image is the image is the image, and that work should be evaluated in purely formal terms. These aren’t natural rock formations that we are admiring from an abstract point of view, however. These works were done by humans- who did them and how they came to be will inevitably be of interest to the other humans viewing them. Our appreciation for Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling is deepened by our knowledge of his stalwart five-year struggle. It represents at once not only a sweeping panorama of Biblical storytelling, but an epic dedication of time and effort. This romantic notion colors our perceptions of all sorts of work. Take Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ for another example. Would it retain its stark power if viewers were ignorant of the history surrounding its creation? Would any of Picasso’s works, for that matter, have the same inimitable, rakish charm were his sexual exploits not the stuff of infamy?
More to the point, though, does the introduction of photography into the working process necessarily lessen a painting’s value? Certainly not. In many genres of painting, the image (and the emotions it evokes) is the prime objective. Any aid that gets one to that goal faster or more effectively should certainly be considered. The works of Downes and Estes do not fit this category, though. Their paintings are athletic- not just aesthetic- feats. Their subject matter and very flatfootedness ensures that we investigate their methodology. Again, its not just the image, but what the production of that image represents. Would the works of Ingres lose some of their grandeur were David Hockney’s theories regarding his use of the camera lucida proven true? Unequivocally, yes. If part of a work’s impact derives from the seemingly spectacular difficulty that it represents, then it loses some power if we find that the artist behind it had an unknown advantage.
Estes, of course, makes no secret of his use of photos. He has embraced this technology and used it to his advantage. Photographs are, after all, a part of the modern world he portrays. Estes does not merely document contemporary urban life and its proliferation of visual data, he fetishisizes it, and through the ritual of Painting, elevates it to high art. His work is at once an homage to its source reference (the photos he painted from), the objects depicted therein, and to an almost obsessive compulsion to not leave anything out. The incidental, multiplied ad infinitum, becomes monumental, the banal, heroic. This imposition of intense human scrutiny has resulted in an almost invisible layer of human effort which clearly lifts this final image above its source material. The overlapping latticework of the shopping carts and the intersecting reflections on the market’s window are delightfully maddening in a way that looking at a large scale photograph could not hope to compete with. In committing the image to paint Estes has given intent to circumstance, and in painting them has attached importance to all of the photo’s details. The finished painting has clearly outstripped its predecessor, and become more than the sum of its parts. Although partly a product of technology, Estes’ paintings are not ready-mades; they do not happen of their own accord. He can clearly claim authorship of them, down to the last stroke of paint. His accomplishment is impossible to dismiss.
But has Rackstraw Downes accomplished something more? In the role of documenter, I would argue, yes. Downses’ painting, by dint of its here-and-now process, carries more authenticity as a document of contemporary life and perception. While Estes receives his news through a second hand source, Downes draws from a primary source, reality. To literally ‘draw from thin air’ while one is in physical contact with the subject certainly paints a different picture of the artistic process than someone dutifully schlepping away in a studio- though that has certainly been a part of artistic production for centuries. Marked by a bent horizon and other peculiarly human distortions, Downes’ work implies the movement of the eyes and head as they scan an entire scene. His paintings are a product of his experience within the scene and the binocular vision which reports the data to his brain. Taking months to complete, his paintings are an amalgamation of many visual moments in time. Downses’ painting process is analogous to the ways in which humans stitch together their realities from many different moments and viewpoints, as opposed to a mechanical reproduction of a fixed, monocular view at one particular point in time. Surely that is more adventurous than undertaking the re-rendering of an image presupposed by a photograph.
For my part, I might also argue that one process is more romantic, more ‘magic’ in its creation than the other. Downes is literally ‘drawing from thin air’, with all the chance-taking that entails. When an artist such as Downes makes it clear that they are working from life, they announce to the world that they are competing on a level playing field with their predecessors. We are custodians of an august heritage, anachronistic heroes whose work and continued presence in the modern world serves as a reminder of who we are and from whence we come. The time-honoured methods and materials used to this day by observational painters stand as a bulwark against the rising tide of mass-produced kitsch. It is these ties that painters maintain between the art and artists of the past that keep our medium alive.
The simple fact remains, however, that photography has irreversibly shaped the modern eye. It would be foolish to imply that Downses’ own perception has remained uninfluenced by the cool impartiality of the camera’s lens. To suggest that Estes and his work has not been not affected by the natural world around him, which, of course, he perceives in binocular vision, would be equally naïve. Photography’s role in modern perception and its place in the practice of painting will continue to evolve. Only time will tell whether history counts Richard Estes a trailblazer or Rackstraw Downes a torchbearer… or if their differences will be dismissed altogether, swept under the rug of the public’s indifference.
Thursday, October 4, 2012
Anachronism: Eggtimer I
Here's the start of a new series I'm doing of eggtimers. The numbers will go on soon. I'm attracted to the ways this object evokes themes of domesticity, expectations, and the time constraints one places upon oneself, particularly as an artist. Ironically, I've been sinking WAY too much time into this little painting, which I've been at for the last two months. It's starting to look like a little time vault. Or maybe a tomb. Thinking I might do some quick ones later, within the 55 min. time limit that the timer allows. At any rate, on to something new for now.
Tuesday, September 11, 2012
MFA Semester 1
1 September 2012
Carol Duncan’s Artifacts of Power
As newly minted MFA candidates, our first inculcation to the world of contemporary art criticism took the form of a history of the avant-garde as seen through a feminist lens. Not surprisingly, a topic of much contention happened to be the female nude. While this did not come as a complete shock, it was interesting to note just how often the topic came up, particularly in our readings, and how vehemently it was decried.
The nude in Western art is a veritable institution, after all. To this day, every art school worth its salt trains its students in the intricacies of depicting the human form. Students spend countless hours in the effort to achieve competency in figure drawing- for good reason, as it is no light task, and is for some the pinnacle of professional draughtsmanship. In reading many of the essays assigned to us, however, it became clear that many see this time-honoured genre as not only being in questionable taste, but as an outright tool used for the subjugation of women. These themes seem especially prevalent in the work of Carol Duncan, a critic whose writing has been so influential that she authored no less than two of our fifteen assigned readings. In our cases as doubtless with countless others, her work is literally required reading for art students. As such, it is essential for any artist considering the possibility of painting nudes to come to personal terms with the messages Carol Duncan has delivered.
In her article ‘The MoMA’s Hot Mamas” Carol Duncan posits the notion that the prominent display and location of several iconic depictions of nude women “specify the museum’s ritual of spiritual quest as a male quest, just as they mark the larger project of modern art as primarily a male endeavor” (172). Not merely milestones presented in a linear presentation of the history of modern art, they are, in Duncan’s words “artifacts of power”(171). As a result, the work “forcefully asserts to both men and women the privileged status of male viewers- they alone are intended to experience the full impact of this most revelatory moment” (176).
I find this view to be problematic. Should I feel excluded from the pleasures and insights offered by the works of Romare Bearden because I am a white male and thereby cannot enjoy 100% participation? Am I to scratch my head in bewilderment and turn my back on Mary Cassatt’s images of motherhood- a state forever denied me by my gender? Obviously not. Like most museum-goers, I appreciate the fact that the miracle of art has allowed a medium through which someone other than myself can communicate something about their life to me.
Far from being open-minded, however, Duncan’s interpretation of these works is decidedly one-sided. In the space of no less than two pages she makes the case that DeKooning’s Woman I is incontrovertibly a timeless Gorgan-type to be overcome. I would argue that the subject matter is more an armature from which DeKooning to hang his paint on, in much the same way that Jasper Johns made use of map imagery. Is it really any wonder that the painting has an aggressive appearance, given the look of DeKooning’s other work during that period? A calm and placid image was simply not in his vocabulary at the time. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is similarly reduced to one interpretation. Painted in different styles, each woman represents a different whore-type across human history, in the end forming one timeless archetype of woman. As Duncan puts it, “the awesome goddess, the terrible witch, and the lewd whore are but facets of a single many-sided creature, in turn threatening and seductive, imposing and self-abasing, dominating and powerless- and always the psychic property of a male imagination” (176). Seen through my eyes, the painting takes on less dangerous overtones and looks like an early cubist experiment… but then again, maybe that’s just my ‘male imagination’ talking.
In “Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth Century Vanguard Painting”, Duncan specifically addresses what she sees as the public’s perception of the link between the avant-garde and freedom. In her words, “ the presence of innovation makes a work ideologically useful because it demonstrates the artist’s individual freedom as an artist; and that freedom implies and comes to stand for human freedom in general.” (31). While she does go on to say that ‘the banner they waved was for free, individual self-expression and the rehabilitation of the flesh” (47), her condemnation of how they chose to express that freedom becomes very clear in her assessments of paintings featuring the nude in nature done by the Fauves and by members of the Brucke.
Through Duncan’s eyes, the fact that depictions of nude females in these return-to-nature scenes far outnumber depictions of naked men is evidence of a general cultural assumption that women were closer to nature, while men were seen more as agents of culture. This is an interesting theory, although a number of other factors may be responsible for the relatively few male nudes seen in works of this type at this time, most of which have to do with money. First and foremost, as a young and avant-garde group, they were not exactly raking in the money necessary to hire models. I would reason that it may safely be assumed that many of these works were done from life, with the artists’ wives or mistresses modeling. These are scenes of idyllic beauty, many of which do not have an aggressive bent. Could it be that these artists deliberately avoided mixed-gender scenes in deference to the mores of their times? Certainly, the presence of both nude men and women would have sexualized these scenes considerably. Avant-garde or not, I do not find it inconceivable that these artists might have taken their patrons’ tastes into account.
Short of that, perhaps they just painted what they wanted. Is there no room for fantasy in the art of man? One must cow-tow to the prevailing social order? Are artists to present a vision of human existence free from sexual drive, desire, and tension- because that, in itself, would be a fantasy.
Regardless of how one interprets these works, however, it is undeniable that these are very real emotions these artists are conveying. Whether or not one agrees with the messages they impart does not detract from their success in communicating them to other humans. As Duncan states (sans source or evidence), “feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability before mature women are common (if not always salient) phenomena in male psychic development” (174). Well, if so, why bridle at their depiction? . If a painter, avant-garde or otherwise, is not to indulge himself, then to whom does he owe allegiance? To the bourgeois ideals and pressures they railed against? Or to the societal ideals of a woman living thousands of miles and roughly a hundred years of day-to-day human history away? Artists are not equipped nor should they be charged to become visual polemicists or social engineers; that is the role of the propagandist.
Duncan presumes that the presence of female nudity in so many ground–breaking works was a calculated choice meant to link the creative urge with male sexuality. I would like to propose a different underlying motive. Artists, particularly painters, apply themselves to the ideal of being Timeless. It’s tied up in their very medium. Witness artists’ attention to archival materials, the exact mixture so-and-so used, etc. In no other profession are its practitioners so caught up in the tools, methods, and materials used by their forebears. So, too, with the subjects artists undertake. Consider the still life: what really, on the surface, could possibly be more boring than yet another a still-life? Yet a painting never stands alone. It is always seen within the purview of art history. The very fact that thousands of other still-lives have been painted over the millennia breathes life into new ones.
Nudes, too, trade in this association to the past, especially nudes in nature. With their lack of connection to fashion or other clues that would indicate a specific moment in time, nudes allow for a Timelessness few other subjects could hope to attain. Nudes in nature remind us of our time in the wilderness, braving the elements, and of our own artistic history. Evocative of both our natural and our cultural histories, it is an ideal form for establishing a link between the past and the present. For the painter, the nude affords a unique opportunity to measure oneself against the past and its heroes.
Many of the nudes Duncan decries may have their motives in clichés associated with masculinity, but not in the way she supposes. It is artists’ innate insecurity and spirit of competition which drive them to take up antiquated materials with which to banish the spirits of their predecessors. To sweep the art of the past under the rug, the artists of the avant-garde had to beat its practitioners at their own game. What better arena than the human figure, arguably the most difficult of subjects? In treating an old subject with new methods an artist’s innovations are made all the more clear.
In the end, artists must trust themselves and not doubt their intentions. Familiarity with the work of critics like Carol Duncan is an essential component of an artist’s growth, but care should be taken to avoid the temptation to self-censor that these works might encourage. One wonders if some of these essays have become in Duncan’s words, ‘artifacts of power’ in their own right. How many great nudes and expressions of sexuality from either gender have gone unpainted out of fear for critical reprisal? If artists are too scared to reveal something honest about themselves then wherein lies the worth of their record? Whitewashing one’s conscience to sanitize one’s work does a disservice to art and bears false witness to the human condition.
Duncan, Carol. “The MoMa’s Hot Mamas”. Art Journal Summer 1989: 171-178.
Duncan, Carol. “Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth-Century Vanguard Painting”. Artforum December 1973: 30-39.
Monday, August 13, 2012
So just got back from Cleveland, where my wife and I were visiting her family. Started this painting on the second day of the visit, after having told everyone how excited I was for grad school. Here it is after the first session:
I stood out in the sun (Cleveland's pretty hot- who knew?) for the next couple of days with this thing. While I didn't finish it, I was able to get enough down so that I'll be able to finish it from memory sometime soon. At any rate, here it was after the last session:
And a closer look:
Not there yet, but I'm glad I stuck it out and was thankful to able to leave with my
Thursday, August 2, 2012
My first real life encounter with George and his work did not disappoint. Still painting and every bit as much the curmudgeon friends’ tales had led me to believe, he is, in a word, fierce. There was no shortage of work, both new and old, to look at. It was something else to hear the behind-the-scenes action.
First of all, while I knew they were all painted from life, I had no idea of the lengths to which he’d go to finish it all from life. From houses being repainted halfway through a work, to shop window displays being changed two or three times, to a guy wielding a jackhammer ten feet away from him for an hour, George Nick paints what he sees and will make major changes as they pop up without hesitation. “Nothing’s gonna keep me from painting”, he says. He strongly encourages students to work from life, not photos. “It’s harder,” he says, “but the rewards are there”.
I’m pleased to report that he had some nice stuff to say about my work (for real- I’d be lyin’ if I said any different). He also, of course had a lot to say in terms of how it could improve. Of the duck (and of a few other paintings, primarily still lives) he said he liked the main object, but had problems with the cast shadow and the background. Granted, it wasn’t done, but I could see what he was getting at. He said he’d like to see as much effort and concentration expended on every square inch of the canvas. “No hard parts and then easy parts- I want it all to be hard for you.” In truth, I kind of like how my objects emerge from their surrounding chaos, like they’re coming out of the Void. I see them as metaphors for perception, with the primary object becoming our object of focus and the rest drifting back into the universe’s general detritus… And yet, George Nick is George Nick. While I do intend to explore my ideas concerning object/Void further, a little more focus and hard observational work spent on my backgrounds is certainly an idea worth pursuing. His comments on the painting above certainly helped to bring it to another place.
Sunday, July 29, 2012
I've since put in additional sessions (I'll post photos of them soon) but this is
how he looked when I brought him to my mentor, George Nick, a few days
ago. A finished duck and comments on my first visit will follow shortly.
Sunday, July 22, 2012
Saturday, July 21, 2012
So here I am on the beginning of my MFA journey, standing in front of my work on the crit wall:
And here's my most recent artist's statement:
And here's my most recent artist's statement:
It intrigues me that, for all its maddening variety, it is in the human nature to accept the world in its totality, and, sometimes, to experience a sense of oneness with it. Each of my paintings represents an effort to encode the shifting complexities of the world and our place within it. Through the layering of brushstrokes and the decisions they represent, I work to create an organic whole suggestive of much more than the sum of its parts. My faith in painting rests on the conviction that any subject, no matter how simple or commonplace, may come to stand for not just a piece of existence, but the whole wide world.
I find inspiration in the works of artists like Frantisek Kupka and John Singer Sargent, whose freshness of application gets at the vitality of life while also representing its totality, whose work represents a response to Nature as a whole rather than an amalgam of its particulars. Although their works were often the products of many long hours of toil, reflection, and revision they still read like one singular burst of creation. Without being overtly political or resorting to histrionics or sentimentality their work speaks to the human experience in a way that I find continually fresh and, above all, sincere.
Art maintains its relevance in the face of crushing modernity because it is an interface through which the past can inform and interact with the present. You share an experience in viewing a great work of art, even by yourself, because implicit in the encounter is the fact that the artist looked upon the same scene when they took a step back and judged their work complete. That moment when all of a work’s elements crystalize is a magical one. As viewers we reconstruct that moment in time; you are looking at a painting with the painter, at sculpture with the sculptor. For this reason, I generally prefer artists whose work reveals its process, for it allows the viewer to more vividly recreate its inception.
I have also been work on a series of large-scale collaborative works with my brother, Nathaniel Meyer. Narrative in nature, they tell their tales through a shared set of symbols gleaned through years of exposure to the same graphic media and social world. Other than the one-and-a-half years that separate our births, we, as brothers, have spent very little time away from one another. As siblings we have experienced and been exposed to much in these last thirty-seven-odd years. Our father being a painter, we also both received our early artistic training from the same man. In short, we have much more in common than our genetic makeup. It is this common core of experience and understanding of one another that allows us to create the collaborative work shown in my portfolio.
As we have shouldered the yoke of responsibility and respectability that comes with adulthood for more than a few years now, it is only natural that this collaborative work would deal with themes of Choice and Escape. As for what the future holds for our collaborations I can only hope that they will continue to be a successful mixture of nature and nurture.
-Matthew Meyer, 2012
I look forward to seeing how both my work and the aims behind it evolve as I move through the Art Institute of Boston's Master of Fine Arts program.