Friday, February 26, 2010

Art and Emotional Life

All paintings are tools to help us feel more fully and to imagine more clearly. So too with this one. It is a new painting I did as a reconsideration of a plein air oil I painted two summers ago on Deer Isle, Maine. It has very stated darks, never hard to find up in Maine. But also two different kinds of highlights- a cool white light on the distant horizon and a warm foliage in some foreground bushes. All three of these differing notes of color produce their own unique personalities. The painting ties them together into a lasting relationship.

Usually our moods are a whole mixture of things, some promising and others troublesome. The state of Maine has attracted artists to its coast for centuries. Probably more than anywhere else on the eastern shore of the US it combines some of the most awesomely beautiful coastline with some of the most awful weather. It rains a lot. When it's not rainy, the fog can roll in and obscure whatever you want to see for days on end. Yet even with that, and partly because of it, Maine remains a fabulous place for painters.

As so often happens, I began this painting with my portable easel set up on location only to have the weather change and I was left to try remembering what it was I was after. You can end up painting the landscape you'd like to be seeing more clearly through the mists. A little like an ink blot test, you strain your eyes and start imagining what it is you think you're seeing. A lot of the subject can end up being simply projected from your less conscious side out onto the landscape. When a painting works well, there is a lively conversation between the artist's interior and the actual exterior world. In trying to describe this quality in words we often fall back on "moody" or "soulful."

I like paintings that celebrate visual excitement, new discovery, and rich complexity. But it has to feel genuine, and to do that, the art also must make room for more difficult emotions- uncertainty, change, and even a sense of anxiety or loss. I think what people are looking for when they turn to art is a reaffirmation that there is a place for all these feelings in our experience. And they look to art to show them it is possible to achieve balance between the exuberant and felicitous side of living and the places where sadness and difficulty lie in our lives. A good piece of art does that. It finds a way to bind together visual delight with more somber strains of beauty. I think that in doing that it offers us great comfort.

Monday, February 22, 2010

More from an Old Friend

I had so much fun looking at Rockwell Kent's engravings for the last post that you'll have to indulge me with a few more. Above is Night Watch. When you think of it it is remarkable how the artist can draw a nude sailor leaning against his ship's mast looking completely at home and at peace. If you question this, I recommend you strip off all your clothes and go sailing and see how you feel. Kent I think is trying to say we humans can feel at least for a few special moments at one with the universe. And his considerable talents as a composer help us to feel some measure of exactly that looking at this marvelous print.

Notice how Kent's sailor does a unique sort of dance with the sails and the rigging. His lower leg is a long gentle arc that mimics the curve of the shadow on the mainsail at the left and the edge of the jib sail at the right. The man leans back, parallel with the diagonal lean of the mast, implying he and the ship are moving together on the voyage. But at the same time the sailor is a little separate from the ship- Kent makes one of the figure's upper arms a vertical line that runs parallel to the sides of the print's frame. Similarly, the closer thigh moves in a straight horizontal across the composition, parallel to the top and bottom edges of the prints. I think artists do well to echo the edges of the frame within their work. When they do their other choices to stress curves and diagonal movements feel more deliberate. Deliberate is a feeling that well describes so many of Kent's moves. He's a powerful draughtsman.

This is Drifter. Like the first print, a brilliant moonlight rakes down on the figure at perfect angle to simplify and reveal the solid volumes of the sailor's body. I don't know about you, but I've never seen such a brilliant moonlight outside of Kent's engravings. But having seen it, it lives on in my imagination, lighting things up more than a bit. Thank you for that, Rockwell.

This is Fair Wind. Kent places the sailors feet in the water as he perches on the bowsprit. Notice the way the jib sail and the sailors body mirror each other and share a common axis. Also both are the only highlighted forms in the print, with the sky and waves held down to a darker set of tones.

And this is Flame. Undoubtedly my favorite print ever. I remember coming across it my freshman year in the Art Library at Oberlin College and feeling my jaw drop. Is there any other piece of art that celebrates being alive as well as this amazing image? I think I'm especially partial to it as it reminds me ever so much of the huge bonfires we enjoyed as kids down on the rocky shore of Lake Ontario where I grew up. All sorts of driftwood was regularly deposited by the frequent storms, so building fires was easy. Being kids, we loved overdoing things, so we would compete to see how high we could get the flames to climb. Kent no doubt had similar memories of watching the sparks rise up into the night sky and disappear.

One final touch I just love in this print- the man's lower leg submerges his foot in the water. Carl Jung the psychologist would have loved this image of a man whose personality was fully in touch with all the major elements- water, land, fire, sky. It is a perfect portrait of psychological wholeness. And it's a damned fine print.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Back East and Back to an Old Friend

I'm returned from last week's adventures out in Washington State and have settled back into my painting routine in my studio. Good to be home.

Speaking of coming home, I want to show some images of one of my favorite sources of inspiration, Rockwell Kent's wood engravings.

Art is a tool to help one get more in touch with themself. Ironically we find hints of our innermost personality and history outside of ourselves in the art work that has been done by others. My family when I was four settled on the rocky shore of Lake Ontario outside of Rochester, NY. Back then it was very rural and on a clear night the sky was ablaze with thousands of stars. Once I was old enough to "camp out" with my childhood friends, one of my absolute favorite things to do was to lie on my back and gaze at the heavens, sometimes for hours before our chatter would die down and we'd eventually drift off to sleep. Occasionally we'd be treated to showers of shooting stars.

Above is a sailor out at sea similarly gazing up at the night sky in one of Kent's engravings. I discovered this image when I was a college freshman, just starting out on my serious journey to become an artist and realized immediately I was seeing a little piece of myself in Rockwell Kent's imagination.

Below is a fabulous depiction of Moby Dick breaching the surface to arch his back against the night sky. It display great power and at the same time real delicacy.

I've read that more than anything else it was the publishing of a new edition of Herman Melville's book containing the masterful series of illustrations by Kent that propelled Melville into the front lines of American literary history.

Better than almost any other artist I can think of, Kent found a language to speak about the drama and romance of the natural world at night. Wood engraving, with its preponderance of black, was perfect for his vision.

I'd like to leave you with one of my favorite Kents, the engraving he titled Godspeed. We're all traveling in that little ship he depicts, and his imagined angel wishes us well on our journeys. I don't believe in angels, but the feeling this angel stirs up in me is one of the most real things I know. Kent had a gift for engraving. What an amazing gift he gives to all of us who have the good fortune to see his work.

Kent published a wonderful series of engravings illustrating his voyage (and shipwreck) to Greenland in his book N by E. Seeing the landscapes engravings in that book some dozen years ago was a major prod to my own work to move into some more visionary terrain

Saturday, February 13, 2010

An Old Friend and "Old Friends" in Washington State

This man is the largest collector of Philip Koch paintings on the West Coast. If you measure by square inches, he may be the largest collector of Koch oils period. This distinction belongs to Frank Baron, MD, a successful dermatologist from Mercer Island, Washington. Here he is with one of my paintings, Beaver Pond, 42 x 63". Frank was a friend of mine from undergraduate days at Oberlin College.

In 1970 he became one of the very first people to buy one of my paintings, an atmospheric and moody oil portrait I had painted the summer before in Rudolf Baranik's painting class at the Art Students League of New York. I think Frank spent all of ten or fifteen dollars on the portrait. When my wife Alice and I traveled out to Washington last week for the show at the Clymer Museum of Art, he came over to Ellensburg for the gala reception.

Maybe we all get a little eccentric over the years (many think I've always been that way). In Frank's case this has involved broadening his resume to include "chicken farmer." After the reception he gave Alice and myself a guided tour of his secret passion, his chicken farm in the little mountain town of Cle Elum. It proved to be more than I'd expected, with dozens of chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys running all over the place. Previous to that afternoon I had known zero about chickens. The tour was a complete hoot. What impressed me about the birds was their beautiful coloring and textured feathers of course. But even more than that when you're surrounded by forty big birds you get a palpable sense of the collective life force that seems to flow through the whole flock. It's a side of nature I'd never been privileged to see before. Next time I buy eggs at the supermarket they won't look quite the same old way to me.

Dr. Frank Baron, chicken farmer

Here's a bunch of chickens huddling under some heat lamps (they're no dummies, the Cascade Mountains are chilly in February).

Here's one of Frank's turkeys all puffed up and hoping to interest one of his female cohorts in some barnyard romance. The colors on his neck were almost unbelievable.

One thing I wish I'd gotten a good photo of were the marvelous array of different colored eggs the birds produce- ranging from almost a pale green blue grey through yellow ochre and burnt sienna colors. Eggs of course are delivered to us from these feathery creatures with an improbably perfect geometric ovoid form. You wonder "how did they do that?"

Egg shells have a surface covered with thousands of tiny pores, almost like porcelain skin, that is a delight to feel against your fingers. Painters I'm convinced do their best work when they love the surface they paint upon. Years ago I discovered the elegant eggshell like surface on Ampersand painting panels. I do a lot of my paintings on them for just that reason.

That evening Frank and his wife Wylie hosted a dinner party at their home for us and a few of their other friends. Their place is lovely and I photographed some of my pieces hanging on its walls. This oil is Two Porches, a view from a hilly street a few hundred yards from my home in Baltimore.

Here is an oil of a 19th century farmhouse in Norfolk, CT (no longer remember its title).

And here is Wylie in front of the big Sycamore by the Stream, oil on canvas, 45 x 60".

Finally Frank took us over to his dermatology office on Mercer Island. Here's two of the group of paintings he has hanging there. The first is Solace, one of the first oils I did in the late '90's directly from my imagination that showed the influence of my then new interest in soft pastel chalks as a source for color.

Also hanging in the lobby is a slightly earlier oil painted up in Norfolk, CT of birch trees. It's approximately 27 x 18".

Thursday, February 11, 2010

More from the Clymer Museum of Art

Here are some additional photos from our trip out to Washington State to attend the gala reception Mia Meredino, the Musuem Director, and her staff at the Clymer Museum of Art organized for their showing of the traveling Unbroken Thread: The Art of Philip Koch exhibition. This is the fifth venue on the show's seven museum national tour. It continues through March 27. The Clymer Museum proved an unexpected delight with beautiful exhibition spaces, elegant high ceilings and very professional installation all around. We couldn't have been more pleased with the warm hospitality we received from all we encountered (is it true that West Coast people are just nicer than we jaded East Coast types?).

The Museum is named for the famous illustrator and painter John Clymer who was originally from Ellensburg, WA. Clymer was probably best know as the artist who painted 80 Saturday Evening Post magazine covers, nearly as many as the East Coast artist Norman Rockwell. A large number of his paintings are on always on display at the Museum. It will be celebrating its 20 anniversary next year. If anyone is in the area, the Clymer is definitely worth a visit.

Mia Merendino also organized a well attended artist's talk and reception over at the Art Department at Central Washington University the night before the Museum reception. I taught painting at the University back in 1972-3 and this was my first return to these old haunts. Much fun.

Driving out from Seattle to Ellensburg we passed the above vista. It got me thinking about the turn my painting has taken in the last dozen years towards a more romantic and dramatic vision of nature. My year living out in Ellensburg was my first exposure to the more extreme scale of the western mountains. Though its influence didn't really appear in my work at the time, I think it was cooking away slowly in the back of my mind, only to emerge much later. Very often it takes time, sometimes a long while, before one can integrate a new experience into one's creative work. Looking back on my trip the last week, I realize Ellensburg, Washington played a much bigger role in my imagination and my painting than I'd realized.

Here I am in the Clymer Museum standing between The Birches of Maine, oil on panel, 40 x 32" at the left and West from Monhegan, oil on panel, 28 x 42" on the right. While at the reception, attended by some 250 visitors, at least a dozen people commented they thought the work had been painted in Washington State. I see their point.

And above I am standing next to Equinox, oil on panel, 30 x 45", a painting where I had consciously put in a far distant set of snow capped mountains direct from my Western inspired memory banks.

The Clymer Museum has a great set of street level display windows for their gift shop. They are displaying the catalogue for the Unbroken Thread show published by the University of Maryland University College and written by the art historian Eva J. Allen.

Finally right across the street from the Museum is a little park. Here my wife Alice converses with one of the local residents.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Clymer Museum of Art in Washington State

Just returned this morning (at 3:30 a. m.) from our trip out to Washington State to attend the opening reception for the Clymer Museum of Art's exhibition of Unbroken Thread: The Art of Philip Koch. We were fortunate to get home as we dodged snowstorms that closed the Chicago and Baltimore airports. And today was devoted to digging out cars.

Will have more to say about the trip tomorrow, but for now just wanted to post a few photos. Above is the drive from Seattle over the Cascade Mountains, which frequently look as if they were designed by an over-achieving Walt Disney, only much better. The sense of scale is awesome.

Above is the front of the Clymer Museum of Art, located on a beautifully restored 19th century city block in downtown Ellensburg.

And here I am standing at the entrance to the exhibition. Behind me is my oil Otter Cove, oil on canvas, 44 x 55".

Right now I'm pretty exhausted so I'll call it a day. But I'll have more photos and some observations tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Pastels at the Baltimore Museum of Art

Jean-François Millet, French, 1814-1875
19th century, (c. 1870-1874)
Pastel and conté crayon
Sheet: 695 x 937 mm. (27 3/8 x 36 7/8 in.)
The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Helen and Abram Eisenberg Collection, BMA 1964.24

Last Saturday I braved a little snow storm to go to the Baltimore Museum of Art to hear Rena Hoisington, one of the Museum's Print and Drawing Curators speak about the history of the pastel medium. Glad I did.

Above is a photo of Rena talking about one of the most amazing pieces in the BMA's Collection, a big Millet pastel of a woman standing out with her sheep in a moonlit field. Rena is an expert on pastels and is a specialist on 18th century French work in the medium, in particular the work of Maurice-Quentin de la Tour who she wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on.

Art historians are a hoot. They share with artists almost lunatic levels of enthusiasm for particular artists from the past. The less well known artists can often be especially delighting to learn about, so it is a good idea to listen to what art historians have to say. They know a different side of the art world than do studio artists. Rena, no slouch in this department, knows her stuff.

One of the things she pointed out is that Millet's pastels were a big influence on the other later 19th century French painters like Degas, which I hadn't realized before. The BMA's Millet Shepperdess is an amazing piece. It has a mysterious restrained light from the moon that just kisses the lightly sketched-in backs of the individual sheep. In it Millet achieves a remarkable solidity with his flock of sheep, hardly employing any details at all. It's a triumph of understatement. The shepperdess stands in a humble and yet quietly monumental pose. Millet adds a wonderful series of unexpected shapes to her figure by adjusting how her cloak opens down her front. Like any really good draughtsman, Millet has a superb eye for design.

Another thing Rena talked about was that pastel was only able to flourish when it did in the 18th century because of advances that were made in the late 1600's in manufacturing glass in larger and more clear sheets. Pastel's strength is its amazing texture- dusty, crumbling, and always ready to smear- that gives it an unrivaled richness of surface. But it is like making a deal with the devil as it comes with a cost- pastel being extremely susceptible to being bumped or rubbed. It literally has to be framed under glass if it is to be out on display.

For me as a long time painter, discovering pastel was a huge shot in the arm color-wise. Below is one of my pastels drawn on location in Edward Hopper's former painting studio on Cape Cod during one of my residencies there (my wife and I will be returning for our 13th stay there this Fall). It is the view standing in his diminutive kitchen looking toward Hopper's bedroom. What had caught my eye about the scene was the light flowing into the room from the doorway at the right that leads to Hopper's painting room. The doorways in the house have the original oversized black metal doorknobs that set up a counter rhythm to the broad wooden planes of the white doors. Pastel is a perfect medium for this piece as it allows me to make the strokes of my crosshatching quite prominent as they change direction across the paper.

Philip Koch, Truro Studio Bedroom, pastel, 14 x 7", 2004

Below is a pastel I used to study color possibilities for a large oil painting that is out in Washington State right now in the Clymer Museum of Art's showing of my nationally traveling exhibition Unbroken Thread: The Art of Philip Koch. (In fact, I'd better cut this short as I have to go pack to fly out there tomorrow for the opening reception at the Museum and to give a talk at nearby Central Washington University).

Philip Koch, The Birches of Maine, pastel, 10 x 8", 2007

And finally below is one of my earlier pastels that served as the basis of a large oil painting of the same title.

Philip Koch, The Promise, pastel, 8 x 10", 2000