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

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Man and Meaning: Dick Ranck, Painter and Sculptor

                                                                     Cave Work by Dick Ranck

There is a painting in this show that Dick began by looking at a photograph of the cave paintings in France. The beasts he eliminated, the wall is not discernable, the painting was then rotated to stand on end instead of in landscape orientation. There is what appears to be a golden figure before us, ¾ length, pointing to the left, the hand and lower arm not showing, in the direction of some atmospheric blue paint in the top left corner that we see over the shoulder. This blue mythic field also encompasses the area of the figure’s head, which is dreaming in a shroud of the world outside the cave to which it points, while also looking at us and looking around inside the cave. Myth and mythology are by this sign conjoined, and it is the ennoblement of man that the works of this show attempt to convey: The ennoblement of the riddle solver, who is himself a riddle. Socrates is this man’s first exponent.

In all these visions the task of man is explicitly made large. Wood sculptures emerge from the animate spirit their original yoke or crotch or bend or branching suggest. The modern is as primitively rooted as in ancient times, Ranck suggests. Both terror and tenderness take turns. The myth of fear is as real as the myth of courage. The suggestion in such work is that the real is indeed mythic in its very nature, and not able to be broken down into surface realisms, or the representation of banal exteriors.

There are test models for the Trojan Horse here and there, reminding us of vehicles our cars attempt to duplicate, complete with splitting wooden wheels, and a recalcitrant technology that nature undercuts. This is like the god in the machine, a thing long ago laughed off as a theatre device, but nowadays a more visible result of our courageous stories. Think Industry foiled by Global Warming; the car foiled by rust; the body aging from time’s use.

The work of Gauguin has to come up in looking at these, and you realize that Gauguin was intuiting abstraction in his own way. Dick Ranck paints with less distraction by an exotic region across the Pacific. His wilderness is the woods of Vermont and Maine, his abstraction the sky and what the mind plays out of it, or on it.

In this you have both light and air, some exaggeration of the Id’s wide wishes, the ego’s drive, the toys of children, and the embrace of love.

The generation of tattoos and Red Hot Chili Peppers that thrashed about to wild music during the Super bowl halftime show the evening of the opening are all coincident with these deeper meditations about our wild natures. If not civilization, then Liberty must stem from and be ordered by these ungovernable spirits.

John Sevcik

                     At Richard Rosenfeld Gallery
                              Throughout February 2014


Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Naked and the Nude

“No man in my country has seen a woman naked and painted her as if he knew anything except that she was naked. No woman in my country is naked except at night.”

                       – William Carlos Williams, in the essay A Matisse

“In the french sun, on the french grass in a room on Fifth Avenue a french girl lies and smiles at the sun without seeing us.” So concludes Williams after looking at a Matisse on a 5th Avenue wall in New York.

The  poet is not alone in noticing a peculiar difference between American versions of the nude and the continental traditions we have come from. We speak of the figure, as if something about the human being were mechanical and cast-like.

The Matisse that occupies Williams’s attention shows the result of an afternoon Matisse spent outdoors with a model who accepts the artist’s gaze with the same equanimity as she does the rays of the sun. France calls her a nude.

I can think of a few nudes in French art that meet our gaze – Olympia by Manet; that Ingres with the long torso looking over her shoulder at the viewer – but the lack of self-consciousness is indeed the difference, and why wouldn’t it?

When the Platonist sees the figure, it is the human soul. When the Puritan sees the figure he sees sin, guilt and judgment. And when we paint the figure, we are less able to appreciate human goodness, because our belief in things has continued as a backwater reaction against humanism.

You might well say, what of the 20th century? Where did humanism get it right in Europe? It was Puritan and Protestant America that had to come to the rescue and end the carnage of those wars with more carnage of the figure, the figure of mankind.

Although we somehow know the human body is beautiful, because it is an essential aesthetic anyone can appreciate, the sadness is that the beauty of us is not a sufficient defense from harm or war. Alone, this fact is astonishing, often to doctors more than artists.

While I long had an aversion to Philip Pearlstein’s paintings, even to the way they were made in cells, as in a sort of prison, I have been changed by what they struggle to show me. While close to the French model in Williams’ Matisse painting, Pearlstein’s models do not smile at the sun, nor even gaze; instead they wait until their time is up.

This doomed prison of time, of being observed, reminds me so much of Norman Mailer’s Pacific War novel “The Naked and the Dead.” But the dead who were really on our minds after the war were the dead in the concentration camps. To me Pearlstein is heroically rescuing body after body from time, from death, and there is no French sun, no sun at all, just the passing of time as at a resurrection or a wake.

It is the work of art to manage all that lies beyond words, the heavy truth, or the joy transcendent of life.

What nude appears in Eric Fischl’s paintings? Again the wrestling with our Puritan demons. He is either saying “Life includes this; accept yourself in this. All that is human is good.” Or he is saying “You are disturbed by your consciousness of the human experience.” Now what?

You cannot say the honesty of art in America is wrong. On the contrary, we are perhaps uncovering more than what clothes hide. We are studying the human being in its self-conscious truth. Perhaps an uncluttered, uncomplicated enjoyment of sunlight is less taxing on our eyes. But the humanism we seek is one that must defend mankind by revealing to the utmost who we are in our own blessing.

Chivalry, invented in Provence by the French, may have been created by men for women, or by both for both. It is possible that chivalry alone conferred the trust French models show Matisse, and he by that design is trustworthy. He likened his relationship to his adored models as a love, one in which they shower flower petals on each other. There is both a sensual admission to that metaphor and a chaste regard – a charm – which we have heard about and found difficult to master.

But mastery is possibly the problem. It was a dream of the 19th century to establish human will as the spine of mastery. Again, the 20th century saw the fall of supermen and mighty wills. Coincidentally, almost in opposition to this trend, artists painted more loosely, found fresh paradigms, were exiled for not being salon masters. To accommodate them – and Matisse is a prime example – we loosen the definition of master. Now we mean not will, but discovery; not the old done better, but creation from the intuition; not contests, but contributions; not the artist’s ego, but the charm of the subject.

We have given ourselves over to this study of our times through art, not because artists lead us, but because art and we lead them. They are, after all, made of us, in our situation in time.

To think back to medieval painting and our early tradition of the figure/ground relationship, we understand it as a formal problem – yes. But it is also a matter of feudal importance. Land and the person on it – who is bound to it by fate, history, fealty, narrative, loyalty, economics – is an essential feature.

In neoclassical France, the figure/ground relationship follows a different tack. Where the Middle Ages once burst the confines of feudal obligation by the appearance of miracles, modernizing France places dreams of past glory against the ground of time. The anachronism of Socrates is declared lifted and the past is here to help as a form of Academy in humanism, philosophy and the arts.

And between these Ages, Neo-Platonism perfects the Italian Renaissance by replacing the clothed figure with the nude. This, then, is the most natural state, unadorned with the diamonds and gowns that make bachelorettes squeal with material glee on our television flat screens.

The figure/ground debate in America shifts from even these trappings. Olympia, a prostitute shown regally luxurious by Manet, is followed in America by a scrutiny of Balthus for evidence of child sexual abuse.

In fact, the matters of our last 20 years in America are nowhere found more aptly than in the portraits of Anne Harris, which answer the sarcasm and ironies of John Currin’s vision. These paintings by Harris are paintings for our time, mostly of women, and girls, by a woman artist. Here then is the long awaited move – a humane face for the question of what we mean to ourselves. The figure/ground relationship is almost non-existent in the traditional sense. What we notice is the figure’s psyche – the consciousness looking out with some unease about herself, about us, about her fate in being contained in the body. They are spiritual, if you like that term; they are of the school of the naked. They are true as the naked is true, and they are still seeking to be understood, as our human sisters, as what we are, as how we live bewildered, wry, alone,  although horribly public.

Indeed, it may be art that one day makes us incapable of war, incapable of not understanding one another. This is the process begun long ago, the process of art and artist seeking to understand more than anatomy, more than the naked or the nude.

John Sevcik

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Bewildered: the paintings of Anne Harris

                                                                   The Red Robe by Anne Harris

Anne Harris paints portraits of what we look like in the morning, bedraggled, half conscious, before the beauty has been reapplied – the beauty not only of make-up, but of zest and faith in material culture. In a bed robe as if going for the newspaper, our mother or wife or neighbor is confronted by an empathetic look, horrified for a moment by not the absence of a mask, but the presence of her native mortality.

The dishevelment need not be strictly early a.m. It can be a return from a party, in front of the mirror before going out, dressed up but not up to it. It is the moment inside the pit of the stomach, subjective, aware, undisguisable.

These are not simply cultish or ironic portraits. They are not the fetish of our feared inner state of bewilderment. They are the “if you, then also I may be so vulnerable.” This is the way they work on us, through empathy for the subject, which boomerangs to ourselves. The work of this circuit is enabled by how well they are painted, how deep their expressive humanity, even how horrified their burlesque of self-recognition is.

They go where theatre, or great cinematic moments can go, directly past the critical to the felt sympathy of an inner secret. The secret revealed is that we are humanly disappointed, with ourselves, perhaps with our world. You could place these figures in a Beckett play – at the moment the light goes up, and the protagonist confronts us with all that in the end matters, our going out in the dishevelment of bedclothes, of tossing in the stream of time alongside fallen dreams and the dread of what is next.

John Sevcik