Thursday, December 30, 2010

Defending an artist who may not need defending- Edward Hopper


Edward Hopper, Route 6, Eastham, oil, collection Swope Art Museum

Lisa Petrulis, the Curator at the Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana sent me a review of the Whitney Museum's current exhibition Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time (through April 10, 2011). Parts of the review I liked, other sections I disagreed with. But it did set me to thinking

What a tribute to Hopper's art that people all these years later are still so engaged with him (how many other painters from the '30's and'40's are getting such attention these days?). 

The writer of the review I mentioned above declares this early Hopper oil Soir Bleu to be "terrible." I don't think it's one of Hopper's best.  The man at the far left and the standing woman feel like Hopper left them unresolved. The grease painted clown however I find tellingly beautiful. I wonder how many painters today could knock out something comparable? At another point in the review at least one of Hopper's gems, the oil New York Interior, gets singled out for praise.

A danger to avoid when writing about art is getting stuck
with what the painter has painted for us rather than how the painter
painted the thing. The real psychology and emotion in a painting is
found in its chords of colors and the choreography of its shapes. A painting after all speaks to us on an unconscious level as well as in ways we're aware of. Just like the rhythm of certain songs makes you want to get up and dance, the rhythms of colors and shapes can impel us to feel. This is why we often have to reach for that nebulous term "talent." Some painters are just much better than others at composing their paintings in such a way that your eye becomes captivated and delighted.

That's why the Swope Museum's Route 6, Eastham is such a masterpiece. 

First off, it has that late afternoon sunlight that Hopper painted so
well. His lights and shadows breathe an almost living pulse into
everything they touch in that painting.

You can look at that rambling New England "add a room on when you
need one" architecture and see Hopper pulling them together into a 
whole. A lesser painter would have given us a fragmented mess. 
Hopper could be saying to us " look, things that seem like they could 
never connect to each other sometimes can". 

Hopper had an eye that discovered so many of the surprises of the
visual world. He had the tenacity and talent to put them into a form 
the rest of us can apprehend.

While it isn't included in the current exhibit at the Whitney Museum, Swope's Route 6, Eastham, will be included in an upcoming traveling exhibition revolving around the theme of the artist's painting and the preparatory drawings used to make them. 

Monday, December 27, 2010

Caspar David Friedrich

My friend Stapleton Kearns is doing a series of blog posts on one of the key landscape painters who influenced both of us, the British artist John Constable (1776-1837). Born nearly at the same time was the other giant of 19th century British landscape, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). There's another painter who was a huge inspiration to me when I was just starting out as a landscapist, the German Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). Funny how all three came into the world so close to each other.

Friedrich (by the way, my middle name is Frederick, does that count for any extra art points?) excelled at creating some of the moodiest landscapes ever painted. By the Sea above poses three women on a boulder watching the voyage of what seem like ghost ships. One of the engines of this painting's expressiveness is how it contrasts a cool light on the far horizon against a glowing subtle warmth of what I take to be the rising moon. Notice how the figures in the foreground are grouped close together to tightly frame that little piece of empty space between them. The women are imagined as pyramid-like silhouettes. Their diagonally leaning sides contrast against the purely vertical pull of the ships' masts. 

Many commentators point to a wistfulness, longing, and melancholy in Friedrich's work and that is there. But he is a rich enough painter to have addditional layers of meaning too. One of the things he does very well is to force the viewer to look up into the sky in each of his paintings. In all four of the oils I've posted here notice how he pulls you up into his skies, as if he wanted to lift your spirit.

This winter scene of a ruined cathedral is a case in point. Again he elegantly handles the contrast of a cool blue grey lower sky played off against a warmer color in the heavens at the top. 

The paintings have a delicious crispness of forms- look at the sharp spindly branches of the trees combined with the most delicate and palpable atmosphere. Friedrich makes you feel the misty air as it moves in and wraps around the forms in the distance.

Below is his painting Riesengebirge, and again you feel the atmosphere gently cooling off the warm colors of the foreground and softly lightening up the darks as one travels into the far distance.

For me there's an unmatched sense of mystery to Friedrich's paintings. He makes you feel the vastness of the earth and the nearly limitless space of the heavens. I find these paintings are the emotional responses by a man who had a deeply romantic heart. 

Being a painter isn't an easy job. Artists must spend a lot of time in isolation and it can be lonely. Often to get a painting to move forward involves considerable struggle. Something that has helped me keep wind in my sails over  decades of painting is knowing I am part of a long and honorable tradition of landscape art. Each generation sees reality a little differently, and so our task as lanscape painters today is a little different than was Friedrich's or Constable's. But those painters from our past give us their wonderful broad shoulders to stand on as we paint how we are seeing the world.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Seven Day's Review of Philip Koch's Edgwater Gallery Show

Art Review in 12/22/10 Seven Days, Vermont's weekly alternative newspaper 

Tiny Treasures

Art Review: "Petite" and Philip Koch at Edgewater Gallery

Full Moon by Philip Koch

Middlebury’s spacious Edgewater Gallery has a stunning view of the Otter Creek Falls from its back window, and there’s plenty of dramatic work on its walls, as well. The venue is celebrating its one-year anniversary with more than 100 small works in an exhibition aptly titled “Petite.” The show is stylistically eclectic, but the caliber of the work is uniformly high.
Boston artist Ellen Rolli paints with heavy impastos and close color harmonies. “Pink Intrusion” is a 12-by-12-inch nonobjective abstraction made with a broad range of reds, from a pink bordering on lilac to a deep, red-wine hue. In the same size, the acrylic-on-canvas “Break Away” presents a field of dark yellows with patches of cerulean blue, red-orange and various greens stirring the atmosphere. Rolli creates lush, bright images using raw colors of similar intensity and value.
“Delivering the Hay, Morocco” by Jan Roy of Newburyport, Mass., is a 14-by-14-inch painting that portrays a sandstone escarpment with a tunnel running through it at the lower left of the scene. A truck heaped with hay bales looks tiny in relation to the scale of the mountain. In Roy’s portrayal of mass, context is everything. Juxtaposing the small truck with the broad mountainside makes the whole image seem larger than it is.
Janis Sanders is a plein-air painter working in eastern Massachusetts. “Rust & Reflections I, II, III” is a group of three 5-by-5-inch canvases — essentially a triptych, even though the pieces are priced individually. Together they offer a panoramic view across a bog with a channel moving toward the upper right. A crystal-blue sky is reflected in the placid water. There is marsh vegetation the color of straw, and a stand of rust-hued trees at the horizon. Sanders’ palette of just three main colors condenses the landscape into essential shapes and forms.
Ellen Welch Granter of Brookline, Mass., paints a lot of birds. Little songbirds are a recurring theme on her website. In the Middlebury show, Granter’s 12-by-12-inch “City Silhouette” presents five songbirds over a gold-leaf background. It’s an elegant composition, with birds dotting the canvas like a little archipelago.
In addition to “Petite,” the gallery is presenting an exhibition of 15 paintings by Maryland artist Philip Koch. The featured artist of the month, he’s got some small works, too. “Full Moon” is a 7-by-10-inch abstract landscape showing moonlight falling across a shoreline. Halos of lunar light hover at upper left, indicating a moon just beyond the borders of the piece. That technique is used again in “The Red Whisper”: The 30-by-40-inch oil has an unnatural crimson sky, and its light source hangs directly above a stand of pines centered in the composition. By making light seem to emanate from just beyond the perimeter of his picture, Koch heightens its expressionistic mood.
The artist cites Edward Hopper as an influence, but Koch’s work is more mystical. Canadian painter Lawren S. Harris, of the Group of Seven, seems like a closer match. The firmament of Koch’s 7-by-10-inch oil-on-panel “Northern Sky” is a golden yellow, with strands of gray cirrus cloud wafting over a rocky peninsula. These cloud forms are reflected peacefully in the water.
The 16-by-20-inch “Deep Forest Pool” has more traditional autumnal colors of a birch forest in the foreground, but its background is nearly black. White and gray tree trunks hold the composition together like the bones of a skeleton.
Edgewater is a dynamic gallery that will most likely continue to show excellent works in its second year. It’s a well-curated space, and the visual competition of a waterfall nearby shouldn’t be too difficult to overcome.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Heading North to Celebrate the Winter Solstice

Here's a painting perfect for today's Winter Solstice- Lawren Harris, Isolation Peak, oil on canvas. (Harris was a Canadian landscape painter active in the earlier years of the 20th century. He's sort of a northern equivalent of the American regionalist painters Charles Burchfield and Grant Wood)

I grew up on the extreme northern border of the U.S. on the shore of Lake Ontario. As kids we imagined that if we so much as put our toe into Lake Ontario we were leaving the country. My mother had gone to school in Toronto and seemed to have warm memories of the experience, so I imagined that across Ontario's waters this place called Canada must be something special. In a way it is. The farther north you go, the lower the sun hangs in the sky. On sunny days the shadows are poignantly long and sharp- just the stuff to excite the painter's eye. 

It's fascinating to compare the above Isolation Peak with the Lawren Harris below, Mt. LeFroy. Both start out with the same basic composition of a triangular peak smack in the middle of the canvas. But then Harris, a master of inventive design, went to work. Snow is one of the bread and butter tools of a northern landscapist because nobody really knows what it's supposed to look like. This frees the painter up to arrange the snow any way they can to heighten the expressiveness of the painting. In Isolation Peak, Harris uses the snow on the otherwise sienna colored mountain to make a shape that's moving in a different direction than the mountain's steep pyramid. If he hadn't the shapes would have been too simple to generate the painting's enviable energy. I also love the contrast of the intense color of the exposed orange rock against the moody toned down blue and green greys of the rest of the canvas. 

Mt. LeFroy below uses a more pattern filled blanket of snow covering the mountain. It looks a bit like the folds of a hanging curtain. Again Harris goes against a too simple idea, throwing in a couple of unexpected shapes breaking the pattern in the snow. 

Harris is an intriguing guy. He can combine the most muscular massive shapes ( I think of a dumbed-down Arnold Schwartzenegger) with the most delicate and lace like pattern. Below are two small oils by Harris that have the look of plein air studies. In both the insistent patterning dominates, but Harris gives you just enough solid, empty areas to let your eye rest.

Lawren Harris is very little known in the U.S. That is our loss as he's usually terrific. Happy Solstice Lawren!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Cure for Impatience- Drawing

Here's an ink wash drawing by Rembrandt. Almost 400 years since the guy drew it and it still has things to tell us.

Look at the elegant anatomical precision of the woman's head at the left! (you can click on the image for a larger version).

Actually I'm pulling your leg. That head isn't particularly well drawn. But therein lies much of what is so good about this drawing. Rembrandt was using this drawing to help him discover what it was in this scene that he was most genuinely interested in. Instead of a polished finish we get the feeling the artist is groping his way forward. Initially he's not sure exactly what he's after.  He uses the time spent making this drawing to slow himself  down and sift through the possibilities. It's funny as one would think one knows what one likes. Yet art shows us our first answer may not be the best answer. 

So often a piece of art fails because the artist tries to do everything and ends up accomplishing very little. Rembrandt's genius lies in his selectivity. He's a master of what to leave out.
I think I'm attracted to this drawing because I'm a parent and am well acquainted with sometimes unruly little children. The kid is squirming all around. You can see Rembrandt at first drew the child in lightly and then decided he wanted to emphasize the energy in the kicking legs. So he goes back in with a darker line and traces the wonderful space between the kid's knees. It's his way of saying "look here." In comparison, the child's head is left very light and faint. 

Looking at the woman who holds the child, you see her firm resolve running through the emphatic diagonal that runs along her right leg and shoulder. The rest of her body, including her head, is left
far less resolved. Rembrandt refuses to overload her figure with distracting details. He goes back into the drawing and accents just the shapes that best express the feeling. Given his talent, he tends to find them in unexpected places.

The woman at the left is underdeveloped as she serves almost as a frame to the woman who struggles with the child in the center.  And off to the right is a shadow cast by the central figures. It frames the action from the opposing side of the drawing. Together they seem like wings that have spread wide open to reveal the big story in the center.

Often at the art school where I teach I'll come upon a student who's painting from a photograph they've taken. Their eagerness to get the thing done fills the air. Almost always there's trouble brewing with too many focal points. I want to suggest they do an ink wash or vine charcoal drawing first before they leap into their oil pigments. Art isn't about hurrying. Rather it involves taking the time to see something more clearly. Doing drawings of your idea before you paint it can be a way to slow yourself down. We need time to notice the things others overlook.

My wife Alice likes to tell people I'm the least patient person she knows. Fortunately early on I discovered drawing and how it slows one down. Maybe I'm not the most patient person, but I do make lots of drawings (link to the Drawings page on my website).

Philip Koch, Near Middlebury, Vermont,
vine charcoal, 8 x 12", 2010

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Southern Vermont Arts Center

On my way back home from my exhibit at Edgewater Gallery in Middlebury, Vermont, I stopped last week in Manchester, VT at the Southern Vermont Arts Center. I'm glad I did. The place has a drop dead gorgeous setting on an old wooded estate at the foot of a mountain. My friend Christine Neill, a fellow professor with me at MICA and a very fine painter, has an impressive show of her semi-abstract watercolors on display there now.

Above is one of the Center's facilities, the Wilson Museum, which often shows works from SVAC's Permanent Collection. Below is one piece on dispaly, a modest still life by Luigi Lucioni, the Italian born American painter (1900 - 1988) who spent time painting in this part of Vermont. Titled Lemon and Beaker. I fell in love with it.

The painter has the look of a hyper-realist, but if one looks closely one realizes Lucioni was a master at abstract composition. He carefully adjusts the levels of darkness in his shadows to emphasize just his favorite silhouettes. For example, the shadow in the lemon is held to the lighter side to keep the ellipse of the yellow fruit in high contrast against the dark green glass beaker behind it. This is not an accident, but an essential part of the painter's expressiveness.

And here below is a larger oil by Lucioni, Birch Group, that was also on display. The artist seems to be telling us he's discovered some outrageous shapes in this stand of trees and wants us to come over and look at them with him. Here he borrows a lot from the wonderful 19th century French painter Theodore Rousseau, the best of the Barbizon School painters in my opinion, whose work so influenced the early French Impressionists. While very tightly rendered, it has a slightly spooky and other-worldly feeling to it. It's really good.

Below is a big atmospheric oil, Autumn Afternoon, by the 19th century American painter George Inness. Like the Lucioni above it is of a pasture, but it couldn't feel more different. Where Lucioni celebrates crisp, hard edges and clear silhouettes, Inness plunges in just the opposite direction. Just where the clouds stop and the trees begin is a obscured from us, which is just how he wants it. Often for Inness reality seems more about interconnectedness and the merging together of once separate things. It's a different side of reality than where Lucioni lives. We need to have both kinds of paintings.

And below is Silver Sea by the Frederick Waugh (American, 2oth century). I think his choice of title is exactly the color sensation he was after. One question I had when I first started painting was how do you paint moving water? The answer Waugh seems to tell us is that you don't. Instead you evoke the feeling of flowing water by carefully the choosing flat shapes that suggest that movement best. Look at the vertical wall of light surf that stretches all the way from left to right across the canvas. If you squint your eyes you can see Waugh designs it with an almost architectural feel, employing lots of straight lines along its outer edges.

The Waugh is also a reminder of the power that can lie in restrained color. It's mostly warm and cool greys, artfully played off against each other.

Finally here's an oil by the 20th century American Reginald Marsh, Majorette. It's a painting with more than a touch of humor to it. You get the feeling Marsh really enjoyed painting spheres.

I'm already planning one of my summer painting trips to New England for June. One place I'll be sure to stop at again is Manchester, VT to visit the SVAC. I'm already looking forward to it.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Edgewater Gallery, Wintery Vermont and a Lost Camera

I am just back from my trip up to Vermont for the exhibition at Edgewater Gallery in Middlebury. Took a whole lot of photos of my paintings in the gallery and planned to give you a personal guided tour similar to the post earlier this month on my current show at JLP Gallery in Baltimore. Then the Art Devil (a mythological beast devoted to derailing the plans of artists who I am coming closer to believing in all the time) took my camera.

Fortunately I do have a few pictures I took on my phone. Above is the waterfall in the heart of Middlebury. The water crashes over an 18 foot ledge and makes a fabulous roar when you walk into the Edgewater Gallery. The gallery is on the far shore in this photo, just to the right of the tallest brick buildings in the center. And in the gallery right next to my paintings is a big picture window overlooking the falls. It's an amazing space to show paintings. Edgewater by the way has only been open for a year in a handsomely remodeled space that was occupied for 30 years by the Frog Hollow Vermont State Craft Center. It's more than worth a visit.

My old friend Bob Wetmore from Cub Scouts in my hometown of Webster, New York came up to Middlebury for the show from Waterbury, CT where he's an orthopedic surgeon (he no longer sports the classic yellow Cub Scout neckerchief, but I'll suggest he start wearing one again to relax his patients before surgery). After the reception we drove into the mountains to go skiing.

My dad introduced me to skiing in Western New York and took me regularly on weekends during the last three years of his life. It's one of my fondest memories, partly for the time he chose to spend with me and partly for the chance to soak up the amazing winter landscapes as I rode the ski lifts. To this day those boyhood ski trips loom in a lot of my paintings. I stopped skiing once I left high school, but it always crept back into my life in daydreams and very often in the dreams I had while asleep.

Here's the view from the top of Okemo Mountain in south central Vermont. The winds unfortunately were very strong the day we skied. But despite the cold, it was great to see the surreal forms the snow sculpts on the evergreen branches.

And here below is an oil of mine, North Star, that I had painted nearly a decade ago strictly from memory of just such snow encrusted pines.

Ironically, one other memory I used to come up with North Star was from my old friend Bob Wetmore's neighborhood. Growing up there were years when Bob's house served almost as my second home. Near it was a little stream known as Shipbuilders Creek that emptied out into Lake Ontario. The image of a small stream emptying its flow into the great sea intrigues me. And I consciously thought of how Wetmore's stream might have looked in January as I did the studies for this painting.

Here's the good doctor himself after surviving a blowy and cloudy day of skiing with me. We were both a tad stiff after a day on the trails.

Vermont itself is spectacular in winter. I have a strong feeling it's going to be a destination for one of my New England painting excursions this summer. I did get some good vine charcoal drawings done while I was up there and will post some of that new work just as soon as I rustle up another camera. Below is a shot I took of the mountains just south of Manchester, VT on my way back to the airport.

Lastly Bob has been holding onto a T shirt he bought for me several years ago when the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston held its last big Edward Hopper exhibition. Our ski trip gave him the opportunity to finally present this hallowed gift to me. This morning as my sore body stumbled to the gym for Body Flow class, I modeled what the well-dressed gym rat should be wearing this season.

(photo credit: this was taken by either Ansel Adams or my friend Lora Gann, I can't remember which).

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Win a Philip Koch Oil Painting & Support a Great Museum

Here I am yesterday with Jennifer Chapman Smith who's Curator at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, Maryland. We're standing beside my oil Beneath the Pine. Jennifer had just installed the it in the Museum's lobby where it will be on view for the next two months.

The Museum is giving it away as one of their featured prizes in its Annual Museum Raffle on Jan. 30, 2011. For a $10 ticket you have a chance to win the painting, a $5000 Shopping Spree at R. Bruce Carson Jewelers, one week at a vacation cottage on Cape Cod, or one of a bunch of other goodies. And you get to support one of America's coolest regional art museums. Here's a link to WCMFA's website where you can buy tickets on line (you don't have to be present at the Jan. 30 ticket drawing to win).

Here's a better view of painting.

Beneath the Pine, oil on panel, 14 x 21", 2010

The painting was done out on location with my trusty portable easel in the Mount Washington neighborhood in northwest Baltimore. It's a view I discovered on my old jogging route on Dixon Road, about a quarter mile from my studio. It's a hilly, forested area that attracted me by its similarity to where I grew up in upstate New York.

The houses were originally built early in the last century by wealthy Baltimoreans as summer homes to escape the heat and industry of the nearby city. Now just regular people live in them. The trees have grown back and this particular house had a marvelously overgrown tree dominating its front yard.

There's a wonderful convention painters have used for centuries of placing the viewer in one spot and inviting them to peer over into an adjoining space. Usually it helps to change the color of the light as you move from one space to another. I've made full use of that device here. We're in a cool dark shadow looking though the barrier-like tree to a lighter golden light on the white house.

There's a psychology to presenting contrasting spaces like this. Think how often we leave our present moment to recall a meaningful past event or just to imagine a different condition than the one we're in right now. The imagination is something that travels. Landscape painting's enduring mission is weave together spaces to give the viewer a resonantly poetic journey. I like to think of a painting as a mental springboard that gives some extra height and distance to the wanderings of our emotions.

Most of all in the painting I liked the pine tree. It was huge and its heavy limbs drooped under their own weight. The tree is almost all diagonals and I selected for special emphasis the ones that echoed the slope of the hillside. Notice how in the upper right corner the line of the roof runs exactly parallel with those diagonal limbs and the sloping ground. When I was beginning the painting I had positioned my easel in just the right spot to make that happen.

Writing this post this morning I got curious to see the house and tree again (it's been years since I looked at them). So I ran down the hill with my camera to take a look. As you can see there's been some changes.

Today is pretty cloudy and my painting was dependent on a bright shining sun to provide its drama. And someone has seriously cut back the tree so it no longer blocks the light the way it did in the painting. While they were at it they took out a whole line of shrubbery too. The white house in the distance has changed its colors too, now opting for light blue grey siding and blue shutters. I had loved the cherry reds in the older shutters. Were I painting it again today I think I'd lie and change them back to red.

In a way I find these changes a tiny bit upsetting. When you make a painting you have to get passionately involved with your idea or it won't work. And once that passion has cooled with time I discover I want things to stay completely unchanged, waiting for my return. Obviously that's not going to happen. At least we have the painting to stoke our memories.