Friday, July 23, 2010

The Secret Power of the Artist Playing the Curator

I concluded my discussion of three roles of the artist advising the artist to wear the Curator's hat. Any artist who's been at it more than a few years tends to take really good care of their work.

Above is a photo of the four paintings I wrapped up in bubble wrap yesterday in preparation for their trip up today to Isalos Fine Art in Stonington, Maine. I wanted to make sure they arrive in mint condition so I make an overly sturdy box and then carefully wrap each piece so it can't wiggle around during the trip and get nasty scratches anywhere.

I learned all this the hard way.

Below is a picture of my flat file where I store work on paper that hasn't been framed yet. I purposely keep it out of my basement, which has been attacked by the water gods several times in the last fifteen years I've lived here. (I also run a dehumidifier in the basement 6 months a year to keep the paintings stored down there dry and toasty).

I've a unique vantage point as an art instructor at the Maryland Institute College of Art since 1973 (actually my title is Professor, but I don't think it fits. "Artist who Teaches" would be more accurate, but that doesn't sound sufficiently fancy). I've watched many hundreds of young artists and am fascinated by how they handle their work once they've created it. Honestly I'd say the clear majority are either neglectful or down right abusive of what they have created. By the end of the semester you'll see in all but a handful of portfolios significant or egregious damage. And lots and lots of "lost" work. Did their work get up and wandered off in the night when it couldn't sleep?

I have two rules for myself:

-Don't lose any work.
- Take care of my work.

They work like a charm.

The neglect of one's artwork I think is indicative of an unconscious ambivalence about either succeeding or a fundamental lack of confidence that one has a genuine talent worth preserving.

The reality is actually very different I feel. One has to find one's talent and then develop it. Talent isn't static or absolute. It has to be loved and nurtured, fertilized, and exercised into something durable and dependable. Musicians practice, often unimaginable long hours a day.
The more they practice, the more talented they sound. Isn't there a lesson here for visual artists?

The talent of a visual art isn't an idea. Rather it is something one sees. It has a physical presence. Paintings sure do, and they are as easy to scratch or dent as butter on a warm day. Remember people turn to art as a release from their routine. They want to be transported to another realm and swept with new emotions. Damage to artwork short circuits this magic. So does keeping your art locked away in a vault. You have to send the work out of your studio to be looked at. When it moves its vulnerability skyrockets. Your job as Curator is to learn everything you can about how to move work safely and how to pack work for shipping.

One thing that helps enormously is putting a frame on the painting if you possibly can. A frame is first of all a bumper (like they used to put on cars). It protects the work from the inevitable collisions it will face. Wrapping paintings in heavy transparent plastic sheeting wards off scratches, and putting heavy cardboard over the front and back of a stretched canvas cuts way down on the pokes and punctures. This is an incredible hassle for the artist. But doing this hastens the day when your work will be so valued by museums that white-gloved attendants lovingly cradle its every move like it's the Mona Lisa.

Then there is a deeper side to the Curator's role.

Growth and success as a painter are tricky things. We've all had days where we've been remarkably effective at solving some thorny problem. Painting is legendarily difficult, yet sometimes we're able to perform like genuine masters of the art. Other days no. My own explanation for this fickleness of results is that creating on the highest level requires the active cooperation of our whole personality. This includes that mysterious realm of ourselves that we can't control, often simply labeled "the unconscious." I think it is quite real and is perhaps the biggest part of who we are. I also think it's where a big part of our "talent" resides.

The unconscious is funny. It sits back and watches us. Sometimes it decides to help us out with what we're doing, other times it refuses. Classical mythology is full of stories of the mortals pleading with the Muse to come to their aid. Those tales accurately describe our psychological predicament. Our creativity and deepest insight often seems to behave like the Muse of old- it (though I think of it as she) wants to be wanted and valued. And I think she waits to be invited into our studios as if she wants reassurance we will value her contributions. Surely demonstrating that we will care for the results of our joint labors together in making a painting are going to help her get in the mood to come to the party. This means caring for our work once it's done. Treating our work like it is important and is worthy of care puts us in a better frame of mind for making work in the future. It opens the door to possibility. Neglecting your work, letting it get stained or scratched or whatever pushes that same door shut.

Make the Muse feel welcome in your studio. Take care of things to show her you value her creativity. Treating your work well is going to make you a stronger artist because it gets the Muse on your team. I think you'll make a beautiful couple.

Here's the crate out on my door step right now waiting for the nice FedEx woman to come and whisk it to the great north of Maine to Isalos Fine Art in Stonington.

Bon Voyage!

Part III- Curator

Philip Koch, Memorial II, oil on panel, 6 1/2 x 13", 2010

Philip Koch, Edward Hopper's Rooms by the Sea, oil on
panel, 5 x 7 1/2", 1991, repainted 2010

I'v said there are three roles for the successful artist to master- Explorer, Magician-Builder, and Curator.

The Curator is the part of you that is the caretaker of your work. There is a physical side to this that I'll be returning to later.

Tellingly "Curator" comes from the same Latin root as the verb "to cure." As an artist you are the Curator of your vision. Likely as not it appears to you at first in bits and pieces. You gather them up, dust them off, and fit them together as best you can. Gradually you assemble them into something you can rightly call a vision. Making a painting is like making fine wine. It grows at its own pace and comes fully into season only when it's good and ready. Usually it takes way longer than one would like. A very big part of playing the Curator is to develop one's patience. Or at least learning how to act patient when that's not what you are feeling.

A reality most painters face is it also takes time for one of your paintings to find a home with a collector. You're charged with storing them safely in the meantime. While you do, you have to visit the herd to see how they're faring. This is a good thing. It provides you the opportunity for a second look at a piece long after your initial enthusiasm for it in the heat of its creation has cooled. You'll see a piece differently, and very often see something you can do to make the piece better. I think this is part of being a curator of your vision- taking the extra steps to refine a painting and clarify the chords of colors and teams of shapes that make the piece extraordinary. "Settling for" is rarely in your vocabulary.

I go back into very many of my pieces in just this way and almost always succeed in nudging them up to a higher level. There's a special power that comes from seeing with a fresh eye. Put your work away. Leave it unseen. Once you've forgotten all your preconceptions about it you can look again and see with your sharpest talents. A curator cares for work over time. An artist has to act like a curator in coming to know exactly what he or she was after in a particular piece. It can time weeks, months, or longer until you deeply understand what it was you were trying to say.

Of course you want to be critical in examining your work you've stored in your studio a while, but you also want to care for your openness to the work's potential. Vision and enthusiasm are delicate things. They need to be nurtured, sometimes like a tiny newborn, until they can grow strong enough to go out into the world. Taking your ideas seriously, caring for them, making them grow into something greater over time- that's all part of the Curator's job.

Above are two oils I re-painted just last week when I had them out in preparation to send them off to a gallery. When I looked at it again, I decided Memorial II had an overall very blue color to it. And generally it hugged a middle grey tonality a little too much. I moved into the sky, lightening it up and pushing it more towards a neutral grey. For heightened contrast I added the long flame of pink-orange cloud just above the horizon. And the lightest highlights in the water were nudged closer to pure white.

Edward Hopper's Rooms by the Sea was a small color study I painted some years ago during one of my residencies in Hopper's old painting studio on Cape Cod. This piece had served as the basis of a large studio oil. Looking at the study for the fist time in a long while, I realized I had let too much warm color creep into the shadow behind the big foreground door. I installed a cooler shadow in its place and created a much more telling space. The door now stands away from the wall more convincingly, and overall the closer studio room feels farther away from the yellow bedroom. It got a lot stronger.

There's a second side to this coin. The physical care of one's paintings. I'll talk more about that in the following post.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Part Two: Magician-Builder

Philip Koch, The Birches of Maine, oil on
canvas, 40 x 32", 2008

Making a painting is a double-edged sword. On the one hand you have to dive deep into that hidden part of yourself where your feelings lie. On the other, you have to pull yourself out of yourself and instead inhabit your materials and your tools.

The first part is the hardest I'm convinced. Visual art isn't primarily about ideas. Of course when art is powerful it stimulates us to think of all kinds of things, often all at once. But at its heart it is about visions. Personally I think the closest equivalent we have all experienced are the vivid dreams we have when we're alseep. Their action unfolds usually in a series of wordless images often accompanied by strong emotions. We are usually the stars.

A painting isn't literally a dream, but when it's powerfully painted, its spaces and shadows evoke the feeling that you are entering another realm. Even when it's an extremely rendered realist painting, there is still a sense that it exists in a special universe of its own. The artist has to come up with hundreds of new combinations of shapes and colors to make even the simplest painting. The right choices make their envisioned worlds palpable and irrefutable.

Artists call this inventing. Always there are passages that have to be pulled out of the thin air and made to fit the evolving painting. In my painting above I started out with the urge to paint a dense forest but one where there was an exuberant liveliness. Most of all I wanted the birches in the foreground to dominate. Scratching around for ways to simplify the arboreal multitude, I hit on the solution of darkening the sky and background trees way down. It worked.

There is always a "something out of nothing" surprise when you finally find the missing color or movement the painting has been needing. I like the word magician because I think it captures some of what's so remarkable in this fleshing out of the artist's vision so it carries real authority.

None of this proceeds like Merlin tapping his magic wand and commanding something to appear. Rather we have to work with our materials and our tools.

"Magic Wand?"

The most beautifully developed vision remains just a pipe dream unless the artist can get it out onto the canvas.

Like masons, we spend an inordinate amount of time with trowels in our hands. There is a cosmic rule that the pigment never comes out of the tube just the way you need it. Instead you spend by far the majority of your time mixing specific colors. I have spent literallly years of my life with a palatte knife swirling around and mixing to get just the right hue. In a way it is a meditation.

Something amazing gradually happens. Over time, you find your conscious mind seems to step back and your eye and your hand take over making the pigment choices. The same is true with your choice of brushes, grounds, medium, and so on. You build connections with your materials and tools that are so deeply rooted in your experience even you don't understand them.

I like the image of a stone mason building a wall. If you've seen good ones at work, it seems like they do it by feel alone. There's an elaborate dance between the mason, the mortar and the stone. The craft of it and the craft of painting are close. You get to a point where you're guided as much by instinct as much as by your knowledge.

I said before the artist has to be a magician, and now I'm saying we have to have a deep mastery of our craft. We are after all master builders of artworks that showcase our vision. I'm thinking of getting a business card printed listing my profession as Practical Magician.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Three Roles of the Artist, Part One

Arnold Boecklin (Swiss, 1827-1901) Isle of the Dead

Got to thinking the other day about the different hats an artist must wear. You can boil it down to three:
  • Explorer
  • Magician-builder
  • Curator
I'd like to talk about all three, but pick them up one at a time. First I'd like to say a little about the role of the Explorer. Artists have to be explorers of a very special type.

Art is a tool to help us make sense of our experiences out in the world. And it helps us to understand and come to peace in our inner lives. The above illustration is a painting that impressed me very much when I was a student at the Art Students League of New York. One of the five different versions the artist painted of it is in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Boecklin's painting is a chilly, although very beautiful, reminder that none of us has unlimited time. Our lives begin and then end. There's an imperative to make the most of the time we have. Artists, it seems to me, are charged with the mission to seek out the images and symbols they find out in the world that are the most meaningful. Boecklin uses his somber reflection on islands and stillness to produce this wonderful elegy in paint.

Artists start by putting more energy into exploring our surroundings with our eyes than most people do. In time, it pays off. We might for example discover a remarkable chord of colors looking at the shallow waters lapping above the sandy bottom of the ocean. We need to study it, look at from all possible angles, and see if this is a momentary fascination or whether there is something enduring and significant in what we've discovered. If there is, our job is to somehow pick the idea up, dust it off, and find a way to present our finding so others can see some of what we've seen and felt.

So much of an artist's training (endless hours of struggling to draw, mix just the right color, become a master of a certain kind of gradation, etc.) helps to open our mental doors wider. We train ourselves to see more than ordinary people. Trust me, it's hard work. It's also worth it.

Then there's a second side to our role as explorers. We have to turn our gaze inward as well.

I've always been struck by how emotional we humans are. I can recall sitting in a movie and being so moved by what I was seeing on the screen than my face became wet with tears. Then I looked around and realized everyone in the theater was crying softly along with me. . Who hasn't had this experience? We can't help but be responsive creatures

Artists have to sort through all the images they're so busy studying and storing in their imaginations. Always the question is "What have I seem that moved me the most? And then "How can I work with that image, or shape, or set of colors in a way that will move others?" Key to this whole undertaking is a finely honed selectivity. Probably ninety-nine percent of the things I enjoy looking at have to be rejected as not good enough. We need the sharpest of eyes, but just as much, a keen awareness of our emotions.

My own paintings draw heavily on my experiences as a young boy on the forested shore of Lake Ontario where I grew up. Those were days of exhilaration, delight, and also of some terrible sadness at times. I can't think of those times or feelings without sensing the deepness of that forest or the striking imagery of the wide expanse of the Great Lake's waters. Karl Jung said our psyche is composed of "feeling toned images." I make paintings employing those landscape images that resonate so deeply in my heart.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Different Threads in my Studio

Philip Koch, Northern Sky: Orange II, oil, 15 x 22 1/2"

Philip Koch, Orchard, oil, 16 x 24", 2010

Above are two of the 21 oils on paper I just shipped off to George Billis Gallery in New York. Both were completed this year and are about the same size, but in mood and handling, they couldn't be more different.

Let me explain.

I've always loved going back into older paintings to see if I can't make them stronger. My batting average over the years of doing this has been pretty good- I'd say well over 90%. With odds like that how could you not keep re-visiting and re-arranging things. At the same time, it's critical that I maintain a sense of forward momentum too. So I like to be working on brand new projects too. As my color sense has evolved over the years towards more intense colors other changes have been afoot as well. I've stopped painting directly from life, preferring to work from vine charcoal drawings I've done outside, or sometimes out of my head. All these tendencies are clearly apparent in the top painting.

I got into this newer practice for color reasons (wanting to discover alternatives to painting so much of that yellow green that's actually outside), but this led to other changes as well. For one it pushed me into seeing more in terms of silhouettes and more simplified, essential forms. The new oil on paper Northern Sky: Orange II is a newer version on a small oil I finished just two weeks ago. I wanted to try it at a slightly larger scale before committing to a really large studio oil version, a little like warming up before a big athletic competition. Artists don't usually talk about practicing, but I think it's something we all have to do to be any good. We're not so different from athletes, dancers, or musicians after all.

Orchard, the other image above has a very different story. It began way back in the 1980's and was painted from life in the Bershire Mountains in western Massachusetts. Typical of those years, I was using a much smaller set of brushes and focused a lot of the differing patterns generated by the tiny individual leaves.

Never quite satisfied with it, I kept going back into it making adjustments here and there. Between changes, I'd hide the thing away in my basement storage racks so I wouldn't keep obsessing about it. It's good to forget about a piece in progress. It clears your mind to see it in the fresh way you need to to pull it together and finish it right.

Naturally the colors that had started out far more naturalistic started getting some of the newer color sense of my more recent years. The trick was to add the new changes yet keep them in an active dialogue with the older colors and details. I think it worked out pretty well.

Just the other day Jane Burns, Director of the Midwest Museum of American Art sent me copies of the handsome ad for their current show of my work the Museum had placed. It ran in the ArtsEverywhere section of the South Bend Tribune on June 25. She wrote to tell me they've had lots of people coming in to see the Museum and my exhibition. Naturally this made me smile.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

More New Children and a White Cat

Brought five new pieces back from my framer yesterday. I feel like a proud mama who's just bought a new suit for my little boy and wants to parade him around to show him off. Like the new suit, a new frame casts a grown up light over the paintings. Especially so with the smaller oils as these were. Above is The Reach, 10 x 15".

And here above, in its fetching new attire, is Quiet Shore: Yellow, also 10 x 15". My frames are custom made in mahogany by an artist who really knows what he's doing with precise woodworking and who takes real pride in his work.

I realize my blog has been negligent in the last few months in terms of posting images of little animals. To rectify that I took a picture of my neighbor's cat Isabella yesterday gorked out on the doorstep in our East Coast heat wave. Isabella was the subject of one of my blog posts a few months ago. She tends to hang out in my garden, hiding in the bush nearest my bird feeder. Wonder what she's up to when she's doing that? But yesterday the heat just got to the gal and she had to get some z's. I tried to approach without waking her, but she snapped to attention before I was anywhere close. How do cats do that?

OK, back to art....

Below is an oil I have been working on on and off for a couple of years. I finally got it to where I wanted it, but realized I needed to change its title. It was called Full Moon, High Tide III but that seemed too confusing. I wanted something succinct. While I sat rummaging through possibilities in my mind, a woman who lives with the neighbor who owns Isabella the cat walked by holding the hand of her little 1 1/2 year old daughter. The little one is a real sweetheart. He name is Luna. Bingo!

Philip Koch, Luna, oil on panel, 8 x 10", 2010

This is a painting that's based on one of the walks I took under a full moon while staying in Edward Hopper's former painting studio up on Cape Cod. We go there in the fall when the little town of Truro is mostly deserted. At night then one sees the night sky without most of the distracting lights of the summer cottages. The light of the moon shining down on the clouds feels solemn and monumental. One realizes how big the sky truly is.

Philip Koch, Towards Evening, oil, 13 x 21", 2010

And here's a painting begun outside of a road winding its way around the swell of a hillside. From where I painted, the road presented an elegant arc as it rose to go around the hill. It was nearly sunset and my eye was caught by the way the one shadow cast across the lower right roadway ran diagonally across the painting exactly parallel with the far edge of the hillside.

It's a small thing to discover, but little nuggets like that can provide the magic glue that visually holds a painting together. When you think about it, that's one of the things that draws us to art. So often all of us feel our lives are too fragmented and confusing. We long to sense a world where the differing and unique forms come together and dance as one before us. Our job as artists is to keep looking such connections and then sharing them through our painting.

Friday, July 2, 2010

At the Newborn Nursery

Philip Koch, Northern Sky: Orange, oil on board, 7 x10"

Philip Koch, Winter Oaks, oil on board, 8 x 10", 2010

Here's two new arrivals. Mom (that's me) sure howled a lot during their delivery, but she's alright now and the new babies are doing fine. They are resting (and drying) in the newborn nursery.

The top painting is done from memory and is another one of my hymns to the setting sun. That's one of those grand themes that so many landscape painters get seized by. I'm no exception. I'm reminded of the old line from Winslow Homer- " The sun shall not rise nor set without my notice and thanks."

The second painting is one I've been playing around with for a long time. It originally had a grey sky and an empty far distance. But the oak seemed lonely standing there in its field. I played around with various moves to give it a better supporting cast and came up with a brighter blue-green sky and a row of very dark pines for the background. I believe the oak murmured thanks.