Friday, May 28, 2010

Cool Museum! Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Just back from a trip to Virginia to see some art museums. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond just reopened after a big expansion project. I was curious to see what they'd been up to as I'd visited the place a few years back in their previous incarnation and enjoyed it a lot. But the new place was huge and in a word, "wow."

It is much bigger now, huge for a city of Richmond's size, but they have a pretty powerful collection, so it is great to see them have the expanded gallery space to put it to use. In particular, I loved seeing so many new walls devoted to their early 2oth century American paintings. That's a period that sometimes museums don't devote a lot of space to. Not so here.

Above is me standing next to one of VFMA's gems by Edward Hopper (I'm delighted to report I'll be going up to stay and work in Hopper's old painting studio on Cape Cod for my 13th time this Fall!!). Hopper was one of my great teachers. It was his example that turned me from painting colorful abstractions towards working as a realist painter.

This is a painting I used to study in reproductions as I loved the contrast of the fading natural light against the glow from the electric lamps inside the apartment windows. One of the things Hopper does so well in this painting is an almost endless series of subtle gradations in the grey brick building from warm to cool grey and from slightly lighter to just a touch darker tones. It makes the walls seem to breathe a sigh with the fading of the day. Very tender and very beautiful.

Here's my friend Rockwell Kent, the famous printmaker and activist doing an oil, Greenland Summer. Kent was a contemporary of Hopper and shared with him a delight in strong sunlight, long cast shadows, and very solid concrete forms. The female figure in the foreground is very beautifully drawn and has to be seen in person to really appreciate it fully. I alway prefer Kent's wood engravings most of all, but of his oils, this is one of his strongest in my opinion.

I just loved discovering this oil by an artist I'd never heard of (and now I'm wondering "why not?"). It's by Thomas Fransioli (American 1906-97) and titled St. Andrew's Church, Roanoke, VA, 1951. So often all we see from that period in museums or the art books is abstract expressionist painting. Here we see there were other branches growing on the tree of art that decade that were just as interesting. I love this painting. It has a mystery and stillness to it that feels deeply authentic. This is the sort of thing you hope to stumble across when you visit regional museums.

Here's my wife Alice admiring a superb Thomas Hart Benton painting about American colonial history. Benton had a sharp eye for the expressiveness of flat shapes and the empty intervals between them. Look at the space between the lower left figure's head and neck and his upraised hand. They frame a section of another figures green long coat the has a perfect shadow shape breaking up the interval. I always think of the picture puzzles I put together as a kid (my family was heavily into the 500 piece kind) when I look a paintings by Benton. Individual forms in his paintings are a little rigid and stylized, but the overall rhythm he creates across the canvas is usually a real triumph, as it is here. Lastly, I love the strange dark green sky Benton came up with to contrast against the white ship's sails.

And just to show I don't ignore those Europeans, here's a great little sketch by the French painter Frederic Bazille, a friend of Claude Monet's. Bazille was dripping with talent but sadly his life was cut short while he fought in the Franco-Prussian war. Had he lived he probably would have given us a tremendous pile of masterpieces. Look at how much he made of the corner of his studio. There's a curious subtle bending of the perspective that leads your eye up and to the left as you rise up from the empty floorboards of the foreground. Imagine for a moment how the painting would have looked had Bazille taken all the little paintings hanging on the back wall away for a show. The emptiness of the front needs the decorative complexity of the back to feel right. This is a painting about exquisite balance and proportion. A lot of those 19th century French painters were pretty amazing in that department.

If you can, I highly recommend a trip to Richmond to check out the new VMFA. Amazingly, the darned place has free admission and even their parking garage is only three bucks. For someone used to the stratospheric prices in other East Coast cities, this is a surprise. But the real treat is the work in the new museum. I'm already plotting a second visit when I go back for a show I'm having at another Virginia art museum next summer.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

None of Us Is Really Alone

Above is an old favorite painting of mine, Summer Night by the American painter Winslow Homer. I used to think this was a fantastical sort of imagined scene. But then I went to visit his old studio in Prout's Neck, Maine. Homer's studio was right down near the water and was surrounded by a bunch of other summer homes at the time he lived there. Some of the others were owned by other family members. Illuminated by the light from one of the houses, the two dancing figures standing before the cool moonlit sea probably would have looked just like this. And I'd wager this was something Homer saw more than once in real life on summer nights during his years there.

That said, look the wonderful way Homer creates a warm light on the dancers and plays it off against the cool blue-green greys of the background. But painter that he was, he knew he had to tie the dancers somehow to the distant waves as well. Notice how their arms extend to the left at just the same diagonal angle he creates in the tops of the big wave at the right. Against all this he places a dark foreground sloping the other way. It works beautifully.

He got his start as an illustrator doing Civil War scenes for the press and went on to be a bridge into the art of the early 20th century. A mid 20th century painter, Fairfield Porter was someone who looked a lot at Homer. While I don't think Porter was quite as talented as Homer, he was a far better painter for having studied Homer's work. And he did some pretty sharp pieces on occasion. Below is a lovely little snow scene by Porter, unusual for him. It struck me that the space was similar to the Homer oil above, with a dramatic change in the light and color once one climbed the snow covered ridge. As you hike into the background you leave the hight contrast darks and lights and the blue shadows. Things warm up into a more grey green middle toned world.
Finally here's a slightly strange Porter, a view from eastern Long Island. I think he was enjoying the wide, stretched-out spaces one finds out there. There's a soupy haze blowing in off the ocean and it modifies all the distance towards subtle colors and light mid tones. Against this, Porter has a ball with the bright red and oddly shaped cottage and the ridiculously long early 1960's American car. The foreground has a great slightly purple grey light shadow, punctuated by just three bursts of sunlight. Look at how careful Porter is to make each of these spots of sunlight have a unique shape and personality. When he wanted to, Porter know how to really look.

Porter was friends with Eugene Leake, the guy that hired me to come to teach at the Maryland Institute College of Art and the school's former President. Leake was a very fine painter himself and owed much to Porter's example in finding his own style of landscape painting. Porter had two solo exhibitions at MICA, one just before I moved to Baltimore to start teaching there. I'm sorry I missed it. I think I would have learned something from seeing it. Just as I think Porter learned from looking at artists like Winslow Homer.

In a way we're all in the same boat, both as artists and as humans. If you look around there are countless examples of where one person has learned something of real importance from someone who has gone before them. That's why I take it very seriously when I pick up the paintbrush and start to work. There are more hands than just mine guiding that brush.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Learning from Claude Monet's Haystacks..

Philip Koch, Quiet Shore:Yellow, oil on panel, 10 x 15"

Here's a new painting. I was thinking about the composition of the oil below featured in the last blog post. Became curious to try it with a different sort of light altogether and used a slightly larger panel.

Philip Koch, Quiet on the Shore, oil on panel, 7 x 101/2"

I always feel there are more aspects to a place, or a person, than we can experience at one time. Explorations like these two paintings nod their heads toward that idea. Claude Monet is the most famous example of an artist trying out the same basic forms in many different colored versions. He did it with haystacks, a Rouen cathedral front, and poplar trees. Edgar Degas was even more fanatical with the idea, producing the same essential pose in seemingly endles streams of pastel drawings with each having its own unique color arrangements. He would use tracing paper and go at the same composition over and over. Degas said " Draw the same drawing ten times. Draw it a hundred times." Did he mean this literally? Probably not. But the force of his sentiment is clear.

Monet and Degas grasped the enormity of trying to wrestle with thousands of variables all at one time. For them painting wasn't a casual reach for an inspired idea. Rather they struggled for each inch of their progress. Their working in sustained series testifies to their relentlessness in pursuing deeper understanding.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Polished Subtle Silver in the Air

Philip Koch, Quiet on the River, oil on panel, 7 1/2 x 10", 2010

Here's a new painting based on the vine charcoal drawing below.

Philip Koch, Quiet on the River, vine charcoal, 9 x 12", 2010

Actually it's a re-working of a drawing I had posted last summer on this blog. It originally was of the harbor in Oxford, MD. Came across the drawing in my studio two days ago and realized it could be made stronger if I focused more attention on it's elaborate frieze of shapes at the left.

Back in I went, pulling out the entire right hand side of the drawing and pushing an off white sky much deeper in tone. I like it much better now, with its brooding atmosphere.Until I'd thought of a proper title I temporarily labeled the digital file "My Rembrandt." It made me smile to do so. There's a couple of beautiful Rembrandt paintings I had in my mind as I was developing it. But I'm not comfortable using that other artist's name in one of my titles for fear of being thought Im too old master-ish.

When we think of the Baroque era in European painting, dense swirling skies tended to fill the tops of their pictures. The thing is we still have skies like that where a churning, opaque series of clouds roll all around each other and through each other. They can be quite beautiful. And they can mirror well much of our internal lives.

I love brilliantly colored paintings and I do quite a few of them. But there is a quieter meaning in our lives too. As a boy growing up on the shore of Lake Ontario I loved collecting the colored stones on the beach. They were all smooth polished from endlessly being washed by the waves. Each sported a different shade of red, greys, blue. They came in an array from speckled multiple colors to faultlessly solid surfaces. A lot of my early lessons in color came from my collecting and sorting. To this day I keep a small smooth beach stone on the tray on my painting easel. I'll pick it up and finger it as I mix my colors. It wants to remind me about the subtle side of the world.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Could We Bring the Mountains Out of Arizona Please

Philip Koch, Sedona Mountain, vine charcoal, 9 x 12", 2003

Who are we ? is always the big question that art tries to answer. Trouble is it's too big.

Landscape painters break the question down into smaller pieces and tackle the fragments one at a time. Where are we? is a darned good place to start. Painters are extremely influenced by their surroundings, that's part of our job. I travel a lot in search of good material. Sometimes this gets me in trouble. Remind me to tell you the story of being taken in by the tribal police on a Native American Reservation to purchase a "Painting License" sometime. Other times you encounter things that feel a little too strange or foreign for you to know what to do with them.

The above drawing was done a few years ago in the Southwest in Sedona, AZ. The rocks there are world famous. I don't want to go back there for several reasons, but one of them was that while it was breathtakingly beautiful, it was too dry. I grew up back East on the shore of one of the Great Lakes. Winslow Homer was the first painter I ever heard of, even before Claude Monet. For the life of me, I need to either be near the water or think about water when I'm painting. So I did a series of drawing of the desert rock formations in Sedona and have been looking at them and wondering about them for the last seven years. My wife Alice keeps urging me to do some paintings from them, but I always respond "not yet."

Here's a second drawing of the same mountain-

Philip Koch, Sedona Mountain, vine charcoal, 9 x 12", 2003

And here below is a painting from just a few years farther back that's much more the sort of thing I feel at home with. It's painted in Wellfleet, MA near the landmark Uncle Tim's Bridge. (Edward Hopper did a nice watercolor from the island at the right, just about at the spot where it hits the right side of the picture frame). There were lots of mosquitos and gnats swarming around me as I worked. Redwing Blackbirds come and try to eat them. I'm used to that. It's the price you pay for painting tidal estuaries back East. In Sedona they don't have much in the way of bugs or birds. It is too quiet to paint there comfortably.

Philip Koch, Thicket and Marsh, oil on panel, 19 x 28 1/2", 1998

Underneath it all, I really like both kinds of sources for painting. It's just that I'm a lot more familiar and experienced with the wet version. I'm still chewing on this bone in the back of my mind. Sooner or later I'm going to figure out a way to combine these two very different worlds to make some new imagined landscapes. Maybe soon. Wish me luck.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Painting with Harrison Ford

Philip Koch, Lengthening Shadows, oil, 6 3/8 x 9 3/8"

Last week I started scanning old slides of some paintings I haven't seen in literally decades. I've just finished teaching my two classes at MICA and will be working on and off over the summer getting my old paintings' images in digital form. In the fall I'll be on sabbatical so the project will likely continue. Almost all of the work I've done since the seventies has long since gone to various collectors, and I honestly can't hold clear images of all I've done in mind.

My plan had been to hire a student to do the scanning, but already that seems to be going out the window. Truth is, I like the physical act of slide scanning. I feel like Harrison Ford in one of those old movies where he's opening up some dusty tomb and discovering jewels and silver. The real delight is I like most of what I'm finding.

It's funny but on seeing the old paintings again a rush of memories pulls me right back to the time and spot where I painted them. There's lots to choose from to paint outdoors. That's the promise and also the problem. As a painter you're asked to fall in love and then pare down the object of your affection to it's barest form. It's so much about selection and leaving out. If you try to put it all in you come home with a mess instead of a painting.

In Lengthening Shadows above I remember that I loved both the elegant textures of the two orange bushes and the intricate patterns in the yellow grasses. The small painting only had room for one of these ideas, so the wonderful grasses had to be painted in blandly smooth. You feel like apologizing to the grasses like you're trying to let them down gently. But you have to do it. You can only ask the viewers eye to juggle just so many balls at once. To overwhelm them is to lose them.

Philip Koch, Sunlight on the Water, oil, 8 5/8 x 12"
1981, Collection of John Hartje and Carol Camper, New York City

In the river painting above I remember there were three times as many vertically reflecting tree trunks in the water. But I liked the diagonal shadows sweeping across the water's surface more, so the reflections had to mostly go.

My other memory was that it was bitterly cold. Had the air not been completely still I couldn't have lasted that long with my portable easel. The water in the calmer parts of the river kept forming a thin skin of ice that would then break off with a sharp cracking noise, pulled downstream by the current. It was a cool music to paint to. Also amazing were several wet furry muskrats that paddled busily along the river edge, doing what ever one does to be a muskrat. Like most small mammals, they took little interest in my painting.

My paintings have evolved some since the early eighties when these two were painted. But what I'm doing now is built on all those small oil paintings I did out near the streams and frozen fields. Reality (or nature as the old painters loved to call it) has a four billion year head start on even the best of us. It pays to spend a long, long time studying her chords of shapes, spaces, colors and shadows. They are the stuff we are made of.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Why Artists Are the Best Cooks

Philip Koch, Passage II, oil on canvas, 36 x 48"

Here's a painting I like a lot. It's an imagined place that draws heavily on my memories of Lake Champlain, the Maine coast, and my old Boy Scout camp in the Adirondack Mountains in New York State near Tupper Lake. Nature flexes her muscles up there in the North, but she always keeps a charming twinkle in her eye too.

I was looking at a recent photo of my grand daughters at a friend's birthday party. Nora, the four year old, is happily wolfing down a huge piece of sugary birthday cake. Remember when you were that age? Sugar was bliss and more sugar could send you to an even greater heaven.

As you grow older your taste buds change, but I think those old appetites endure.

I was putting a second coat of hot rabbit skin glue solution on a newly stretched linen canvas this morning and suddenly found myself thinking about Hershey's chocolate bars. Looking down I realized the wet glue turned the linen just that old enticing shade of brown that Hershey's used on their wrapper.

It gets worse. Once the glue dried I put on a layer of the thick oil ground, spreading it carefully out with a palatte knife until it was smooth and even. It looks like nothing so much as gooey cake frosting, only heavier and richer. If you could eat this stuff (you can't) you die happy I'm convinced.

Oil paints are toxic of course and I really don't eat them, ever. But I think about it. Eating and tasting are things we humans just do with little worry about having any theoretical context. If it tastes good, we swallow effortlessly. I think that in many ways, that unmeditated frame of mind is closer to what an artist has to do with his or her eyes than anything else. Can you adequately describe the flavor of your favorite cheese or wine in mere words? But I doubt you let that stop you from enjoying them. So too with visual art- it's first of all an experience rather than an idea.

Here's a painting I recently scanned from an old 35 mm slide. It's now in the Permanent Collection of the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, OH. It was based on a plein air oil study I did on my first trip to go painting in Maine on my honeymoon with Alice in 1982. It's from a grove of young birch trees up in Acadia National Park. Near where I had set up my easel, a beaver pond was surrounded by the stumps of dozens of birch trees gnawed through by hungry beaver. These animals are smart. They know the proof is in the tasting. With that in mind, I mixed up my colors and went at those birches.

Philip Koch, Shadow Birches, oil on canvas, 36 x 54", 1995