Monday, April 23, 2018

Aphorisms, after reading Plato

Art is a form of discovery.

Where knowledge ends, art begins.

At the limit of seeing, a universe unfolds.

Facility will never blunder into a new world.

There is no evolution in art, just a succession of different artists.

What is behind the painting? What is inside the artist? What is inside us as human beings?

“Who are we, where have we come from, where are we going?” Gauguin)

What is the now?

If time stops in a picture, is that moment infinite?

If memory exists, why not a glimpse of the future?

Socrates claimed artists are possessed by a divine madness — inspiration.

Manet, described by his model, worked in a mad attack everywhere on the canvas at once.

The speed of the eye’s idea has been glimpsed in the work of photographers. It is as brief as a second, maybe a fraction thereof.

Paint for money and you will have money.

If you would study, study what you do. There is a truth and magic to each person.

The deepest things are the most protected property we own. Most people would prefer to remain private.

Art is essentially a profound vulnerability. You open yourself to view, and feel criticism will follow, but people appreciate you instead for speaking up for them, for showing the way.

What is this way we are curious about? Why does it stun us to see certain paintings? Why have we woken up? Why were we sleeping before?

The mind returns to elaborate, but the idea comes all at once.

The most difficult part is the waiting.

While we are waiting, the mind is working in secret.

The more you allow, the more you will do.

Leo Castelli began with one artist, then that artist’s friends, and so forth. Friendships curate everything, the way love curates the human genome.

Just because there is a sequence, doesn’t mean it is progress.

Individuals each bring something unique. This is the true cause of discoveries.

You were born as a new discovery of human life. So you will turn out in some way or another.

Life is a technology higher than anything else. It is protected by the force of cuteness. Love is its engine; tenderness its power.

Socrates spoke of two kinds of art: copies of copies and a philosophic creative art. The higher of these is the latter. And that is not all: such art serves the muse and knows the idea of beauty as well as the good.

There is a mystical source to inspiration which is best cultivated through the act of surrender. This makes art difficult to a person in the throes of ego. The evidence for this is that just when a writer or artist feels bereft of ideas or depressed or in a low ebb of energy, the fallow field blooms before him as if animated by some other force outside himself. Composers of music especially navigate between the antipodes of creation and uselessness.

John Sevcik

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Restless Spirit

Salon style art exhibits — why do they seem to work in Lascaux, but not in modern times? Is it that the framing of paintings, as well as rooms, makes too much of the repetition of the right angle? Is it that the proliferation of painting styles has less unity than the millennia-constant style of the ancient cave dweller?

Or is there something else, more pernicious to art styles and more stimulative to experimentation present in the salon style show? What, after all, happens when we assemble a wall of paintings by different hands in a large gallery? Our eyes begin a natural critique which speeds through our nervous system far in advance of any words we can conjure to describe it. The result can easily be a malaise, caused by the feeling that one or another painting subverts the high opinion we hitherto had of another that hangs next to them. Alone without companions nearby, that painting had once held you enthralled, but now, what tinsel and trifle is it when compared directly to a masterpiece next to it? And that masterpiece then falls by comparison to another painting above it? Horrors — soon an entire century of painting comes into question. 

It is perhaps this natural result of collective comparison and contrast — this free market in aesthetic criticism — that gave rise to modern painting in the first place. Perhaps without the 19th century's love of public displays of art filled rooms, without its Lascaux-like hallucinogen of nudes and drama and still lives and landscapes, without the exuberant wish to top plenty with even more plenty, without the never enough willpower of impressing to the maximum, without these drives, perhaps our young artists would never have cracked the code of their own discontent with what had already been done in art. 

It is exciting to think that more fascinating comparisons are in store for us, if we ever subject the twentieth and now the twenty-first century's art to a similar treatment, cheek and jowl, up there salon style, to encourage or irritate as the case may be. Perhaps the great reassessment of art and art history never really happened in the 1950s as we are told, but that the earthquake of reassessment happened a hundred years earlier.  

Un-compared, untested, unquestioned modern masterworks hang in isolation rooms, either enormously large to fill the eye and deny any room for comparison, or separate from the questioning appearance of any other styles of painting. Where in this have we really embraced critical thought, granted appreciation freely and autonomously instead of been forced by a megalomaniacal cult of one artist at a time being placed in the temple of our eye? 

Art history is perhaps only this worship and its discontent. The comparison will come along from time to time. The results will be creative and unpredictable. And all of it is exciting, for we are seen in our art and need it for steering. Don't ask me how or why, but this seems one of the existential truths of the human condition.

John Sevcik

Friday, April 21, 2017

Patrick Connors at Gross McCleaf Gallery

In the mid 1970's I met Patrick Connors at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, when he was a student and I was a young playwright and poet. His canvas, as I remember, was given to vague imaginary beginnings that had atmosphere and spirit in them, and a sublime feeling. He was, I felt, a romantic in the modern age.

As this exceptional show demonstrates, Patrick has since evolved to indeed become a new American Romantic.

Patrick's gift is devoted to the Philadelphia landscape, as George Inness was at first uniquely motivated by Montclair, NJ.

If you want to revel in the unique feelings of this romantic city that invented Independence and the Constitution, the rights of man and a devotion to learning, the life of economies and the life of the soul, you should check into the vision of this artist.

More is meditated on in this show than you will find at most galleries. There is a series of larger paintings that center on Laurel Hill Cemetery,  one in particular like an Arnold Bocklin, but also showing some debt to Daniel Garber's quarry paintings in its composition. These are not lessons in influence taken for technical reasons, but in the drive to evoke our native mystery of nature and civilization.

And then there are the small paintings that arise like transcendent moments of twilight over the Schuylkill River. These are some of the most affecting views I have seen of this lovely river's spirit. If you look at these paintings, you can feel why it is good to live here, and how much this region offers the sustenance of the soul.

Patrick Connors
April 5-28, 2017
At Gross McCleaf Gallery, Philadelphia

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Fred Danziger at Roger LaPelle Galleries

Fred Danziger began as a studio artist with some profound concerns about the nature of man. As the years passed, he leavened this into witty canvases that posed visual and verbal conundrums. They resembled Cornell Boxes but they were almost entirely painted, sometimes including a real object or two. He has always been leery of what he thinks of as the wilderness of the New York school and its attendant gallery system. That early vision of robotic and tortured anatomy perhaps made him an artist who couldn't see the charm of abstract expressionism.

As such, his last three years have been spent seriously practicing plein air painting. This is the work
in his current show at Roger LaPelle Gallery here in Philadelphia, his eighteenth show at the same gallery over a long career.

What is immediately moving about these paintings is their open wonder at the world, given us via Fred's gentle and non-ironic eye. These are clear visions of a grateful and innocent heart. They have an almost folk simplicity, combined with color work that is sophisticated, yet not obtrusive to the intent of showing and seeing.

This is a vulnerable show, not pretentious or self-important, yet by that grace it amounts to all that matters in art. The artist whose work will always beguile us is one so beguiled with the world in front of him.

This is a refreshing show that I am glad to have seen.

"Maine: place and time"
Recent paintings by Fred Danziger
Roger LaPelle Galleries
Philadelphia, PA
Dec 2, 2016 – January 29, 2017

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Leigh Werrell, Bettina Nelson and Mary Putman at Gross McCleaf Gallery

Beware the Bear, by Leigh Werrell

Leigh Werrell's paintings and Bettina Nelson's collages share the show's title of "A Likely Story," one of those clever word plays that has an ironic as well as earnest reading. Likely stories abound, and the seeking is a large part of the fun. It is why I write these occasional blog reviews.

Leigh Werrell's paintings include gouaches that notice life in the sense of environments peopled with explorers. People are simple, and the world is complex, you might think at first, while looking at these charming works. The paintings seem apropos our time and human experience. The charm is a little like the charm of Sarah McEneaney or Katherine Bradford.
One of the overlooked compositional schemes is that of cave paintings. Using a naturally occurring architecture of surprise turns and mysterious peril, those artists long ago made early installations. The caves were ready museums devoted to exploration and surprise discoveries, even the sort one makes in dreams. So it can seem that our era has revived installation, while also inspiring some new idea in the painter's notion of composition.
Leigh Werrell's paintings authentically and originally trace the adventure of youth in a new world, something art refreshes in us, but here really lets us notice and feel delight in. Her paintings may arise from that milieu of installations as well as the sense of a world filled with discoveries and discoveries to come.

Bettina Nelson uses the process of discovered things in her beautiful, small collage pieces. They achieve enough imagery that the mood can be assigned to both subject and means as an abstract expression.

The gallery itself is one of the more complex art spaces in the city of Philadelphia. The visitor ascends from street level up a central stairway. The furthest of the galleries repeats the strong classical aspect of that first ascent by the powerful one point perspective paintings of Mary Putman.  The way there meanders in a route of discoveries. Even the racks in another gallery upstairs from this add to the exploratory excitement of a visit. This architecture helps choose the work, and it is an interesting journey of contrasting and complimentary exhibits.
For information and the gallery's complete show

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Civilized Discourse

Giovanni Casadei, One Stem
Giovanni Casadei, One Stem, oil on panel, 7 x 9 in.

There is a light to civilization as well as a darkness. We forget in our critique of empires that what they protect and preserve comes from a sense of the good life.

Giovanni Casadei's beautiful still lives at Gross McCleaf Gallery this month benefit from the artist's sense of civilized life. His Mediterranean sense of cultivation came with him to America. Those who know him know his cooking and his craft approach to all phases of life, his tango, his communal and amicable spirit. These all gather people and friends to him, and the same warmth and passion emanate from the warm light of his paintings, like sunlight from a Florence or Sienna of the spirit.

The great change in these recent paintings come from a stronger admission of darks, of those mortal dangers in life against which he must level stronger impastos of light and color. The dynamic result is as poised and graceful as the artist, making order and calm and enjoyment the heart of life.

Douglas Martenson's landscapes in the neighboring gallery present a well chosen opposite to this. Where Martenson's world is outdoors, autumnal, and cold in temperature, Giovanni's still lives are the warmth of the home. They make a good pair of forces to consider and contemplate.

A highly recommended show.

Painting Arcadia, and Everyday Light
Through December 31, 2014
Gross McCleaf Gallery
127 S 16th St, Philadelphia, PA 19102
(215) 665-8138

Saturday, July 12, 2014

John Sevcik Talks about Art, Paint and History

John Sevcik talks about art, paint and history to afternoon Painting Studio class, 9-18-13, at Fleisher.

Present: Peter Chance, Ebony Collier, Julie Garrard, Monsceratte Fischer, eventually Bruce Segal, and Wendy Rush
I would like to begin by singing the praises of Rodin, whose museum I went to on my birthday to re-evaluate what I had long felt. There had been some mention in this class last semester, due to an interview of Kirk Varnedoe by Charlie Rose, that Rodin was only a sculptor for adolescent boys, and that now we were on to art about nothing. Rodin is about life, and many things besides romance. He is a compendium of humanity. Maybe heaven and hell are over for most people here, maybe pride is no longer practiced, maybe the great subjects of art are passé.

Even though you are painters, I am thinking of leading you over there sometime this semester to look at art that is about the human being, in human terms, by a great artist. What he does is like the movies at their greatest – he shows the human being in terms we can understand. And the movies learned all of this from sculptors like Rodin, and painters, who pre-envisioned scenes based on stories from the Bible and later scenes from fiction.

It is little surprise to me that the collector (Jules Mastbaum) who gave us our Rodin Museum made his fortune in the real estate of building the largest movie house chain ever. He saw the movies early in their history, and he believed in movies. So he became a movie house mogul. There is a direct connection between his love of movies, and his love of Rodin, in my opinion.  

Rodin is rightly judged the first sculptor since Michelangelo to reach so high. If I don’t take you, at least go yourselves. Go look at the sculpture of John the Baptist, at how his one eye is suspiciously looking sideways, frightened of what people think of him, and how the other eye gazes forward with the sureness of blind infinity, faith-filled.  And then walk around behind the sculpture and see the weak, suspicious, frightened shoulder, versus the powerful shoulder of faith. Rodin can demonstrate in the walk, in the manner, the split personality both of faith and doubt, crazy certitude and paranoid fear. It is a maquette for our time, considering what continues to go on in the name of religion.

Rodin is wrongly criticized. When he made “The Age of Bronze”, which stands outside in a niche of the wall, people – critics – declared it cast from life. My own teacher Lou Sloan at the Academy still told that story about the Academy’s original plaster cast of the clay model – that it was simply realistic, a life cast, and that was why no one liked it. There was no emphasis, no exaggeration. These are important questions about art, too, but the libel was continuing a century after it was started. And by a very nice man. Lou Sloan was one of the kindest of the instructors at the Academy.

But we are here to study painting.

The history of paint helps explain why we are here, and the nature of paint is available to us in all the old ways, as well as the modern one of direct painting. Remember that the large brush is the one to start with, even a rag or paper towel.

The application of paint to a surface by human motion is similar, yet unlike, other natural forces at work that weather stone, erode landscape, or build granite. If you’ve gone to the New England coast and seen granite, you will appreciate how colors – but no, you don’t have to go to New England. Everyone has a granite counter top now and you can see a polished cross section of pattern made by the actions of earth’s natural forces.

If you’ve walked along the beach near the surf, you may have noticed the line of spume where each wave ends to draw a beautiful varying arc which supplants, or joins, or is rewritten by a following wave; and that line seems organic and varies with beautiful sensitivity.

Now paint has a history in the hands of people, who first picked it up as dirt (iron oxide) and charcoal, and chalk, to draw in caves their memories of the world outside. Later, paint used a binder of egg yolks and made medieval paintings that are like modern acrylic paint, which was developed originally as a modern tempera paint – flat, matte, not built up in impasto. Then oil paint was discovered, which was used to glaze the egg tempera with filtering colors, achieving brilliance and control via transparency. Lapis Lazuli, a semi-precious stone, was one of the pigments milled down to create such glazes, and it was and is an expensive though permanent paint to this day.

Then oil paint succeeded in taking over on its own, and by a hundred years ago was almost modern as we know it. We now have opaque and transparent paints which were already used alternately in the same painting by Titian, during the late Renaissance.


What are transparent and opaque paints? Well, if you look down at the studio floor you will see many effects we use, even the old dirt and varnish in areas which imitate old paintings with darkened varnish. Edvard Munch, by the way, was not loath to admit that his own paintings were finished by the Norweigian weather in winter. His studio had no ceiling, no roof – it was like an open pen. People burned wood in wood burning stoves all winter there, the snow would fall through the smoke and carry soot onto the face up paintings and glaze them with a unifying shade of carbon.

Soot is much finer than the charcoal you use to draw, your vine charcoal. And we now know why, thanks to science, thanks to physics. We have long known carbon atoms make strong cages, crystals, like this (using fingers of hand), which are very hard and don’t smudge, break, or come loose. The carbon atoms are far apart and light goes through the crystal for reasons I and engaged couples don’t understand but wonder at.

Carbon atoms in sheets create graphite, which slides off and looks nice to draw and write with.

But charcoal and soot are related in this way: they are different sized balls of carbon atoms like graphite sheets rolled into spheres, and depending on how many carbon atoms per sphere you get varying sorts and softnesses of carbon for drawing. (By the way, the compressed charcoal I don’t recommend you use is made of soot and binder, and because the particles are so small, you cannot erase them out of your paper.)

Soot of very fine particles can be easily harvested from a wood burning stove flue, which I’ve done, and which is why I identify it as Munch’s preferred final layer. When you watch – they don’t exist anymore – a smoker with a cigarette, holding it like fashion, the smoke rising in a slender column, and then it twirls at the end? That’s the carbon atoms joining together into soot and conserving their angular momentum like an ice dancer who pulls in her arms to speed up the spin. You are seeing an effect of atomic motion, molecular motion, before your eyes, as you compromise your lungs with second hand cigarette smoke: more dangerous, by the way, than first hand cigarette smoke, because fluorescent lights make it radioactive. Really.

So is painting part of science? Is it only physics? Is drawing technology? And isn’t the mind and body of an artist made of atoms and molecules and their relationships to each other and those of the universe, its infinity and fate? Munch, in his open air studio, harnessed a natural event to add that believability old varnish often hid paintings in. If vague enough, the imagination of the viewer’s eye often improves a painting, or believes more fully what it thinks it sees in the paint.

Munch is the painter of – famously – The Scream, which is a perfect summation of Europe at the time: a place rife with neurosis and the discovery and naming of it. Why were women especially thought neurotically mysterious? Well, they may have wanted more say, the vote, independence, education, their own money . . . yet, Nietzsche  couldn’t imagine any of that – it was an open, unsolvable question cried out by tragic, clueless men in the dark (probably alone), “What do women want!?”

According to Freud they wanted sex, or a penis. To Jung they wanted an archetype to go with the patriarchy he didn’t notice. To Ibsen, Nora leaves home and shatters marriage and the 19th century. Munch, too, can’t figure out what is happening, and finally, not asking women’s advice, the men of the world convene two world wars and finally let women vote, though they still don’t hold many offices.

Now paint – the way you paint – is controlled by the times you live in. Even if you could not make sense of oppressed women in the 19th century, you could start feeling nervous, paint mermaids and Lorelei preying on single men, depict Nora shattering the Civil order by walking out of the home and the role of wife.

When Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner – very intelligent people – appear in 1950, right after the bomb has obliterated two cities of people in Japan, the world is tense with something new. And art gets it right away.

This floor shows the action of painters dropping paint, cleaning up. Here is a series of opaque white blobs, here the action of falling paint. Here someone wiped paint off – it was white and still shows through, leaving a graying ghost through which we also see the fogged over floor below – this is like a scumble. A glaze is a scumble that is transparent. A scumble is a glaze that’s semi-opaque, like this fog. (This is not technically true, but I say it to alleviate the fear and love people have for the lost art of glazing. I want you to understand these are thin layers of paint, first and foremost. How to achieve them is much easier, once you have demystified their existence.)

You look here and you see artists have left a series of marks, mark making. Unconscious? Intentional? Well, let’s notice this light green smear – like a cat’s face and body, twisting in space. The soft edges let you imagine it. Is it intentional? Is it in the science of dropping paint that falls at a speed and then gets wiped by some more conscientious student? Or is it the technology of intent?

Just a sidebar – science is complex – the all. Technology is a small part used . . . we’re not sure, yet: maybe wisely, maybe not.

I contend that just as remarks slip from our brain through words, cats appear from our towels, and brushes find faces and figures, or the universe in its atomic furies, or a landscape of the mind at that instant. It is as conversational, or at least as conversant, as I am with you, talking.

So even though I set up a still life here, I am more and more interested in the Rorschach of your time. Begin with paint, and let paint show you what you see, feel and think. It seems to always work, if you let it.

When I demonstrate a scribble drawing for my Thursday class, something from the last 24 hours almost always comes up. It may be the child alone on a sidewalk I noticed with worry while I was driving to class once, and then finding her reunited, though drifting from her parents, in my drawing demo.

The Rorschach of our time can be the scribble drawing a student of mine made as one of her first scribble drawings in my class; it displayed an animal auction that I recognized immediately as taking place at the annual Harrisburgh farm show, which was indeed where she saw that happen, in exactly the arena I remembered from her drawing.

It is like the cumulus clouds you saw in summer when you were young and had time, and how they are creatures or people, a rabbit, a person, a horse, a dragon, doing and changing into something else – all due to the activity of your imagination, and the true hints of form above you.

It is in paint itself that you can divine the time you live in and show each other all that matters.

Remember, however, that the truth may not be welcome in its time. Poetry magazine refused all submissions of love poetry. Emily Dickinson couldn’t get published in her lifetime. Van Gogh was a failure, if you measure it, as he did, by acceptance.

Now – ?  We all love them. They are finally safe . . .  and irrelevant. 

The past is past.

The present is yet to be painted.

                                                                                                            John Sevcik