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Friday, 5 June 2009

Looking at a Work of Art (1)

Two things happened this week to inspire this post. the first was that I came across a painting I made way back in my student days. It is mainly gouache on cardboard but there is some traditional watercolour. The paint is mostly applied with a brush in the usual way, but some of the watercolour is sprayed on with a fixative spray. There is also a little flicking on of the paint with the brush. It is a beach scene. Figures were drawn from life on a beach, but before being transferred to the painting the two outlines were moved closer together, producing not just a thinner figure, but a bulbous one. I was studying book illustration at the time and the painting was something of an experiment, not intended to ape what I and others were producing on the course, but obviously influenced by it. The colour, for example, was intended as decoration. This painting, not a success in my book, was included in my first ever exhibition - by which I do not mean it was a one-man exhibition! It was a student exhibition held in a pub/restaurant. The local press attended and made a vox pop of diners' and regulars' opinions of the exhibits. Adverse comments to do with my works, my mind immediately binned, as you would expect, so those that have survived were all positive. But not always what I would have wished. One I remember, for example, was of a woman referring to my beach scene in words something approaching: You know exactly what it was like to be on that beach. The colours tell you. Obviously, the colours suggested something to that lady, but they were not used by me to communicate anything about the beach. (That in itself, I guess, could become a talking point, but bear with me.)

The other thing that happened this week was my surrender to the temptation (first ever!) to write to the Times - see previous post - to comment on a painting. It struck me that in all the posting I have done on this blog in the last two and a half years, I have never discussed a painting. I have talked about schools of paint, genres and styles of painting, even individual painters, but never have I focussed on a particular work of art, as I did, of course, for my paragraph for The Times. (Do not fret thyself, I am not going to focus on my Beach scene!) Did that indicate a weakness of some kind, I wondered. And then it struck me that if so, then in this I am in good company, for I have long had a theory that when it comes to the visual arts, we English choose to talk in the most general terms possible: we would rather talk about Primitivism or Purism than, say, Amedeo Modigliani or Le Corbusier, and are more comfortable commenting on Henri Rousseau or Aubrey Beardsley than on Boy on the Rocks or The Eyes of Herod. And then, when we are forced down to the particular, to a single work of art, our first instinct, as so often in poetry, is to look for its meaning, for the symbol or for some effect of the colour on our emotions, its mood perhaps, something that will unlock the painting for us. The lady who spoke about my painting was - in my view - missing the mark, but she was responding in a long tradition, in the way she had no doubt been led to respond in the past, a very English way.

And so it was that I thought I might occasionally look at a single painting or sculpture - the danger, of course, is that I may lead everyone astray in a quite different direction. I have chosen for my first artist - yes, I confess it, I chose the artist before I chose the painting. I chose an artist who I believe does produce paintings with very definite moods... but - and I will come to the buts later... an artist who is a plein air painter - out in all weathers - responding uniquely to the natural scene. The painting I have chosen to focus on is one by Ivon Hitchens, A Lake and Outflow.

When I look at my Beach Scene I see a picture that might have been conceived in black and white and later thought to be in need of a bit of colour. When I look at the Hitchens I see a painting in which colour is integral to the original conception. It is integral because, though muted, it is the picture's light and that light is its space.

And then as I look at the picture my eye is first drawn in by the large, centrally placed mass of foliage, before running diagonally up and left, travelling along the outflow pipe above the small fall to the yellow rectangle, from where it travels back across the canvas, this time just below the top edge, until it reaches the end of the dark canopy. From this point it slides down the back of the curved mass with which we started. Reaching the bottom edge of the picture it is released into the secondary vista (as I will call it) which takes up the right hand fifth of the canvas. This is rather more naturalistically portrayed than one would expect from Hitchens, and the eye now travels up and back into the distance through a short flight of steps provided by what I take to be a boat, a sluice gate and a stream winding away into the distance. From the top half of the picture it is now led forward, down and left until it once more encounters the curved central mass. This time, though, it is carried over this natural obstacle by a bridge of light pigment to a more loosely rendered pool.

I speak of the eye being carried back (into the picture) and forwards (out of it), for the picture has depth. Not so its individual constituents, though. However round and bulky a mass of foliage might have been in its natural setting, in the painting it is a flat sweep of colour (sometimes just a squiggle of pigment). Typically for Hitchens, there is no moulding - except in the notable exception of that right hand vista. The trees, the canopy and all the major elements of the scene result from the painter's inner response to what is before him. It is a genuine abstract painting: he has abstracted from the scene that which created the internal response.

The areas of canvas left white are vitally important to a Hitchens painting. Try covering up the two lightning-like flashes splitting the bank of trees to the left of that vista. The eye now travels quite differently around the picture, for the most part travelling in circles around the canvas's major space and only taking the most cursory notice of the smaller one to its right. If I had left those flashes of white canvas where Hitchens left them, the integrity of that bank of trees would have been shattered, but try covering up the little scene to their right. The depth is not destroyed, as I would have destroyed it, for it does not come only from the perspective of that small vista, but also from the bank of trees in spite of (or because of?) those flashes of naked canvas.

The actual experience was therefore the source of the impulse, but the impulse was not some kind of reflex action. It was the result of prolonged reflection and it had to take its place in an architecture, a space, that he was building to contain it. The response rebuilt the experience, so that where some painters give us the shape, form and detail of, say, the tree that was before them, and where others present us with the paint that reinterprets the tree, Hitchens gives us the tree existing as paint.

To achieve this Hitchens developed a visual language that was personal to him. He explained that there are seven instruments in the painter's orchestra. They are:line, form, plane, shape, tone, notan and colour. There are also seven principles of composition: transition, opposition, subordination, rhythm, repetition, symmetry and balance. But he also said that all this was too formal and that: No amount of theory will make a painter. I try to understand my subject and find out what I want to say about it... remembering that in the end it will be the natural handling of the paint that will give me pleasure. And that is all I have to go by.

This last point is vitally important. It is in my opinion the outstanding quality of Hitchens's works. The quality of the paint and the way it was handled is exemplary. I have never seen the slightest sign or suspicion of him having tried to improve things somewhere along the line. This is a great problem for many of us non-geniuses, of course. We lesser mortals are completely vulnerable to the artist's greatest fear. It is a fear that besets us when a drawing or painting is really taking off and spreading its wings. Just when we should be feeling ecstatic is when it strikes hardest. It is the fear of uniqueness, the very attribute we should be open-hearted to welcome. Sometimes, too, when we have begun to lose the plot, when we are trying to rescue our lost vision, it will strike, often in the form of encouraging us to make it more like some other painting or some other person's paintings that most folk think good. I never get the feeling that Hitchens feared uniqueness.

And yes, to finish with one of my earliest points, there is a mood to the painting. In that sense it has a meaning outside the formal elements which comprise it, but they and not the mood are what was important. I do not get the impression that Hitchens began with the mood; he began with his individual responses to the various elements of the scene. It was the consistency of those responses which has led to the mood.


Rachel Fox said...

I like what you say about the tendency to talk about isms. Is it really just the English? I've always found it a frustrating business.

Dave King said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave King said...

I should have checked my reply more carefully before posting it. It should have said:
Maybe it's we English and you Americans, I'm not sure. I don't think they do it to the same extent on the Continent (of Europe, that is!), but I could be wrong there. I suppose they thought up many of the isms in the first place, now I come to think of it!

Stephen Dell'Aria said...

Terrific post Dave. I think your comments about how we sabotage our moments of uniqueness are very true. I feel that moment of courage can come upon us so fast we don’t recognize it and it becomes too late as we’ve already reshaped the thing into what others tell us is art. I also feel this moment of uniqueness is a difficult thing to do personally regardless of the chosen expression (poetry, music, painting) and also to detect in other artists but you have deftly perceived these conquests of confidence that makes Hitchens’ art noteworthy and caused me to better understand things about myself.

Carl said...

Hi Dave,
Great post! My Jr High School Art teacher Charlie Hergenhan ground one thing into all of his students. "find YOUR genius". Hitchens got it for sure. He did not bring any of that "art school baggage" to this painting. It speaks its own strong and universal language.


Carl said...

PS this posts speaks volumes to me in reagrds to my recent posting. I must remain me and produce work that comes from me as I journey and work with more instructors. I have plenty to say in my art and my work will reflect that. Thanks as always for making me think and for this great post. I can not wait to see what painting you chose next to blog about.


readingsully2 said...

I Dave. Great post. I just wanted you to know that I have a difficult time reading your blog because the print is so small. I did know if you realized it.....these old eyes you know. :)

Rose Marie Raccioppi said...

"To achieve this Hitchens developed a visual language that was personal to him. He explained... But he also said that all this was too formal... I try to understand my subject and find out what I want to say about it... remembering that in the end it will be the natural handling of the paint that will give me pleasure..."

This Dave is so very much the intent of my work. The "paint" and its line, form, tone... is a transcendence complete.

Cloudia said...

You've made me 14 again by showing it. You are a man of many talents:
Poet, painter, conjurer!
Aloha, Dave

Linda Sue said...

I scurried through your fabulous poste, knowing that at the end there would be an even more fab picture of the beach scene, I did not find it...something is wrong with my computor...I am taking it to the fixit shoppe tomorrow.

Adrian LaRoque said...

Poet, painter, conjurer!

A great achievement Dave!

Dave King said...

Thanks for that. I think you have drawn out an aspet I negleted to mention: the question of how we recognise the moment of uniqueness - or,indeed, the slipping from it.

That's got to be the most valuable thing you can put in to a work of art - yourself. (I consider the paint-handling to e an aspect of that.)

Sorry about the print size. (You can adjust it on your browser, though.) Will give it some thought.

Yes, absolutely so.

Thanks for that - I take it that 14 again is good, eh?

Linda Sue
I didn't want to deter folk by publishing it.

One more for the C.V. I guess!

Derrick said...

Hi Dave,

I have read through your description of the painting twice and find that I cannot "read" it in the way you suggest. The only part that I can see clearly is the right hand fifth!! Perhaps because, as you say, it is more naturalistic.

You will have seen from my own Saturday posts that I prefer what I would describe as recognisable images. Which would include the Beardsley and Rousseau, whether or not I like them. I guess I'm rather simplistic when it comes to art!

The Weaver of Grass said...

Hi Dave - I love your posts on art because they always make me think carefully before i write (not something I always do, in spite of living for my first twenty years with a poker-work picture which said "think before you ink") but to some extent I have to agree with Derrick on this one - where is the foliage? Or have i misread something?
Also - PLEASE put on your beach painting - I really, really, want to see it.

Helen said...

Good morning Dave .... I have read your commentary (twice) on Hitchens' art and try as I might, I'm having a difficult time "getting" it. I do appreciate the colors he used and against your blog background, they are especially lovely.

BRING ON the Dave King original please!!!

Ronda Laveen said...

The Hitchen's piece does feel that it came from gut response and reaction on to the canvas. I like the movement of the piece.

Dave King said...

I am beginning to think that you describe an almost universal experience. I very often find that my eye does not follow the circuits described by others when I try to read a painting such as the Hitchens. And others have told me that they find the same thing. Do you, though, find your own way around it?

Nothing wrong with preferring recognisable images, I suppose I do, when I come to think about it. I certainly would not paint an completely abstract (i.e. non-figurative) picture. I do find recognisable images in the Hitchens, though, and not just in the right hand section.

The Weaver of Grass
I like that: Think before you ink! Looks like I shall have to put The Beach Scene on at some point!

Do I feel I'm being pressured here? Thanks anyway!

As always, of course, to see an original Hitchens is something else. I find it quite impossible to drag myself away from one - except to go look at another, of course!

A Cuban In London said...

Like you, Dave, I looked at the left-handside of the painting first. The use of colours is mesmerising and it seems to me that two thirds of the painting left to right look chaotic, whereas the last third on the right-handside looks more balanced, symmetrical and placid.

Good selection. And now that you mention it, yes, the Brits (not just the English) think in terms of -isms' and -gate, as in Cheriegate, Browngate.

Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Rose Marie Raccioppi said...

Dave, You indeed spark commentary! Applause.

Your visits to Apogee Poet are so very valued. Tides of appreciation are brought to your shores. Thank you ever so much!

Jim Murdoch said...

I was going to skip leaving a comment but after reading through them I can see I'm not alone. I feel like such a Philistine (I even found a larger copy of that painting) but I simply do not get it. It bothers me that I don't especially when I know that the artist isn't trying to get one over on me. I have the same problem with a lot of avant garde music, I read through the liner notes and simply cannot connect.

Renee said...

Dave did you put your beach picture up?

My favourite of the three you show is the bottom one. I think that one is fantastic.

I am so amazed how you can go on about the paintings and it shows how much you know about art.

I seriously have no clue about art at all or what anything means. I just know what I like.

By the way the dream meanings seem the most real because they are. wink wink.

Love Renee xoxo

Fantastic Forrest said...

Dave, I hereby add my voice to the chorus demanding immediate installation of The Beach Scene on Pics and Poems. Surely you will heed our pleas!

I hear plenty of "ism's" - at least by some people - over here. And of course the "gates" scandals that Cuban in London refers to derive from the American original. We are so proud to have coined a term you all find worthy. I feel my patriotism swelling.

I have to confess, Jim Murdoch's comment pretty much sums up my sentiments on the Hitchens piece. I'm not sure what the colours tell me, but it's NOT helping me know exactly what it's like to be on that lake or outflow! Heh!

Dave King said...

A Cuban in London
Interesting, your use of the word chaotic. We're getting so many differenr readings of this painting, it's really fascinating. I nearly didn't use this painting because of that painting within a painting on the right - it's so untypical of Hitchens. Unique, so far as I know.

I'm sure we all find ourselves in that position with certain artists. Possibly too much to expect that we will connect with all of them. Doesn't make you a philistine, though - at least, I hope it doesn't! Hitchens happens to be a particular favourite of mine, has been since the first canvas of his that I saw. I have the problem you describe far more with music than with art. Music is harder for me to find a way in. I'm very pleased you did decide to comment. Thanks for doing so.

Welcome. I didn't put it up, no. But it looks like I'm going to have to! You seem fairly well clued-in to me. Thanks for leaving the comment.

Fantastic Forrest
Okay, okay, I surrender! I am feeling that I've let a lotta folk down on this one. I must go do what MR brown is doing just now - I hope: go look for a way out of the muddle I've made.

Art Durkee said...

American critical thinking for some decades has been just as mired in -ism as Europe. That's partly because the philosophies and -isms that come out of Europe are so often adopted without examination by critics and artists in the US. Those -isms that arise genuinely out of the American soil still seem radical, in the general artistic context, because they are unique voices within a maelstrom of -ism-driven opinion.

One truth of the American arts is that it is a maverick, rebellious upwelling that defines intrinsically American art as such. American artists are constantly, still, shaking off and rejecting the influence of Europe. Even at recently as 60 years ago, most arts and most art-teaching looked firmly at the European Masters tradition, not at indigenous American art. Even some of the American artists were within the Euro-American studio tradition, although they took it in new directions; one thinks of Thomas Eakins.

One thinks, in terms of more genuinely original American artistic uprisings, which may have emerged from within the Euro-American tradition but break away from it—or in a more maverick sense, ignore it completely even as they use its tools of craft—of artists and musicians and poets such as Charles Ives, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, etc. I don't think most folks realize how radical Dickinson and Whitman still are. Very few folks seem to realize how radical and genuinely American Ives was; in fact, we still haven't caught up with a tenth of his creative ideas.

American poetry did not even begin to break free of Europe's dominant influence, in my opinion, until the first poetry "scenes" emerged on the West Coast over the last century. The San Francisco Renaissance, for one. Poetry is still dominated by New York City, which is unable to break out of the Euro-American arts tradition, for the most part. (There are always individual exceptions.) If you seek an authentic American poetry you have to look in the regions far away from New England and the east coast cultural centers.

Throughout all this, critics still generate and reject -isms by the truckload. I've long held that -isms are useless except for museums and art history books. And -ism that tries to generate or dictate art, rather than to understand it afterwards, is going to create lots of bad, ideologically-driven art. That tension between theory and anti-theory is very strong in America; and America has also always had a strong impulse towards anti-intellectualism. Sometimes I think the reason French philosophy is so worshipped in American universities is not because it's particularly smart or useful, but because it's impressive; American intellectuals often strive to fill the cultural vacuum created by populist anti-intellectualism. That creates its own tensions, of course.

Barry said...

Thanks for your kind words of support on my recent post.

And for the fascinating discussions you evoke through your blog. When I'm in the mood to think, which isn't as often as I should these days, I come here.

Linda McGeary said...

Hi Dave, between work and being out of town a few times these past couple of months I'm way behind on checking all my favorite sites.
I just finished reading a book that made me think of you though, and wanted to pass it along.
The Wood Wife by Terri Windling. It's about a poet, or several. And art, and artists. And earth spirits, and the high desert.
I really enjoyed it.

Dave King said...

Thanks indeed for that feedback. I absolutely agree with much of what you say: the radical nature of Dickinson's and Whitman's work, for example; and the fact that -isms may be appropriately used in the museum and as apart of art history, but that that is about it. One point that occurs, though, is that in your regret (?) that artists have not looked more to their indigenous cousins rather than to European masters, you surely are not overlooking the fact that these artists are of European extraction and so maybe felt more in tune with Europe.

Thanks for those kind words, Barry. Glad to see you in any mood!

I, too, have been struggling to catch up, so know how you feel. thanks for the comment and the info'.

jinksy said...

Just had time to read this interesting post. It intrigued me, that my eyes instantly interpreted the contents of A Lake and Outflow with no reference to the title. I 'felt' the water, of course, but it seemed to be divided into natural water course on the left, but man-made to the right of the curved shape - which was definitely a figure looking on the scene from a higher viewpoint; a divider between indoors and out, maybe.

Art Durkee said...

One point that occurs, though, is that in your regret (?) that artists have not looked more to their indigenous cousins rather than to European masters, you surely are not overlooking the fact that these artists are of European extraction and so maybe felt more in tune with Europe.

That's a thorny question. It opens up issues of who is indigenous and who isn't—which is a big deal when you're talking with Native American artists vs. the waves of immigrants.

When I was living in Taos, NM, which is a major art town in the Southwest, where many artists live, there was a virtual apartheid going on. The Latinos looked down their noses at the Anglos, since the Latinos had lived there for 500 years—but the Taos Pueblo Indians laughed at both of their pretensions, having lived there for literally thousands of years.

So, you get into layers of distinction and self-definition that are sometimes thorny and not useful.

But here's the truth: After awhile, after several generations of ancestors being born on Turtle Island, you can safely call yourself native-born. My father's lineage can be traced back to Ireland, yes, but I'm the tenth generation of that line born here in the US.

I think it has something to do with feeling for place, of course.

But it also has something to do with how cultures change. New England culture is centuries old now; it has grown its own folklore and folksong traditions, separate from even if descended from the European immigrant ancestors. Yes, you can still trace the Child Ballads in Appalachian folk songs (in anthropology, this was once called the doctrine of marginal survival), but after people have lived on the same mountain for many generations, I think they have a right to call it their home.

So, while I am not overlooking your point, I disagree with it. US artists were not drawn to European art because they felt more in tune with it—although it shares many of the same mythic assumptions about the nature of reality and life—but rather because America was still a very young country with few traditions of its own, beyond the post-immigrant folk traditions already mentioned. No, really, what the imitation was all about was that everybody still believed that Paris (and London, but not as much as Paris) was THE center of art-making.

What American artists who created indigenous art were doing is twofold: rebelling against Europe's prior existing dominance of the arts; and looking at their local culture for inspiration–which even though it might ancestrally be derived from European immigrants has diverged far enough over time to have developed its own patterns and tropes.

For example, so much English pop music is based on the dance-hall and pantomime traditions—which did not make the trip across the Pond. Not even New England carries on that style of music here. Instead, we have bluegrass and country.

And that's only one example.

You have to remember: There were lots of immigrants who came to North America to GET AWAY FROM Europe's culture: to create their own utopias in the wilderness; to start over again; to make a new life here having rejected everything. Don't forget, a lot of immigrants to early America were forced exiles, religious heretics, the poor and criminal (Australia didn't get ALL the convicts), and those who were barely tolerated.

One reason America is so messed up about sexuality and public nudity, relative to Europe, was that most of the religious anti-body fanatics that Europe spawned came here to practice their beliefs in private—from the Puritans to the Shakers, and many many other such groups.

So lots of immigrant groups who came here did so because they rejected Europe, plain and simple. The artists' later absorption in European art scenes was actually a process of rediscovery, not the flowering of unbroken cultural ties.

Art Durkee said...

I just commented on two other blogs, yesterday, on two other points that are part of this discussion, if only because they're sidebars:

1. Most Europeans have NO sense of the sheer size or scale of America. Not even many of those who've visited. The continental mass of North America is so bloody big that those "American myths of the loner" are not just clich├ęs, because one can still find places to be just that alone in the US. New England culture is the closest analog we have to Europe, in terms of culture—but you can drop New England into Nevada, twice. You could drop France into Texas and it wouldn't make a big splash. Not even all New Englanders get it: I have a friend who's a New Hampshire native that can't wrap his mind around the idea that even here in the Midwest you can get in your car and drive for 6 hours and still only go ONE state away.

2. What we find that's indigenous art, in America, even if our ancestors were European, very much is tied to our land here: climate, geology, natural settings, and so forth. I don't think you can underestimate the impact both the size of our lands, and their intrinsic qualities, have affected our art-making.

Dave King said...

Art Thanks for all that, and sorry to have been so delayed in replying. To take your last point first, I was aware of the size of America, though only as a concept, so to speak. Never having been to it I cannot feel the sheer size.
Some of the points made in your first (second!) response were, if not completely new to me, at least put in such a way that they provoked new thoughts about the issue. I still need to think a bit about what you have said. My thanks.