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