Friday, August 21, 2015

26 & 27 Painting the Art of - Karla Klarin © 2015

26 Frank Auerbach

Although I have known the paintings of David Hockney and Lucian Freud for years, I just recently learned about Frank Auerbach's work by reading a first rate book about him by Catherine Lampert (Frank Auerbach - Speaking and Painting.)  They, along with others (Leon Kossoff, R.B. Kitaj, Francis Bacon etc.) are referred to as the "London School."

                                        Frank Auerbach

I think Auerbach and Freud are the best of this English group.  Auerbach's paintings, along with Kossoff, bring to my mind the Bay Area figurative painters from 6,000 miles away (David Park, Joan Brown, Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff...) of the same time period (1950's onward).  

It is near impossible, despite all the blathering by academics and critics over the decades, to explain what makes a good painting - GOOD.  So, speaking for myself, a good painting surprises me.  It is not predictable.  In a good painting I see that two things have been combined-skilled creative action and underlying visual logic.  Though this might sound contradictory-it isn't.

Auerbach's paintings are the result of 'months of labour and struggle' and that is apparent by the layers of "scumbled" paint on his surfaces.  The hard to pinpoint faces and locations are held together by what Auerbach calls a "secret internal geometry."

It is this contentious balance of what I call "internal logic" and spontaneity that, when done well, results in a visual surprise that somehow makes sense.  This is what I call good painting.

27  Where DO painters come from?

What do Jackson Pollock, Thomas Eakins, Alice Neel, Arshile Gorky and David Park have in common?  They were all born to be painters.

15 years ago I was teaching a summer art class to 8 year olds.  Out of 10 kids one little boy stood out because he ran into class, every time, hellbent on getting to work on the day's project.  He was as we Californians say-stoked.  Stoked to make art.

Painters are born not made.  The passion for drawing and painting (and sculpting) is there when artists are children.  You can't instill or "instruct" this degree of desire (need)-it's there or it isn't.  They want to grab a crayon or they don't.  They want to make a picture or they don't.

I've never been able to develop any interest in "conceptual" art.  In fact I'm  puzzled by it.  But that's okay-it's not like we painters need any more competition-so I'm glad conceptualists are putting sharks in formalthehyde and having amplified orgasms in galleries.  We painters just go on painting.  

It's a legitimate struggle to become a good painter and if one does reach that point, it's still nearly impossible to earn money from one's paintings.  It takes years of frustrating experimentation to reach maturity as a painter.  Families are often justifiably appalled-"You want to be a painter!  Are you crazy?"  It's good that it is this difficult because if you can't face it-find something else to do.  It's Darwinian.

I was recently at an art store.  I saw a young man nosing up and down the same aisles as me.  I noticed him because he was tall, handsome, muscular and had a maroon "USC MBA" t-shirt on.  Not the typical male art store shopper.  I didn't exactly ask him what he was doing in an art store-but it was something along those lines.  He was very nice and told me - "I love to draw, I've always loved to draw."  I said, but you're in the USC MBA program?  "Yeah" he said, "I'm kind of an outlier there."  Yeah, I bet he was.

In ten or twenty years will he be the head of his investment banking department or will he have succumbed to his inner demon-artist and be living a cobbled together life in a funky studio as a painter or sculptor?

I wouldn't hazard a guess.  I know what makes sense.  I also know that painters are born-not made.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

24 & 25 Painting, The Art of - Karla Klarin © 2015

24  The Biiiiiig Rock

A very big rock moved to LA in 2012. It's not like it moved by itself (now that would have been interesting!), LACMA spent 10  million bucks to bring it here from its original SoCal desert home to its fancy new home on Wilshire Boulevard.  A lot of people lined up to witness the arrival of this very big rock via truck.

It is a very nice big rock and I'm sort of a big rock afficionado.  I've seen some pretty big rocks up close: Yosemite (Half Dome!), Arches (Delicate Arch), Zion (the Three Patriarchs), Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Mexican Hat and those mothers of all rocks-the Mittens of Monument Valley.  Actually these are not just very big rocks-they are MONSTER rocks.  Monolithic Rocks that inspire silence.  Sort of like seeing the Sistine Chapel.  They are stoically magnificent.

The very big LACMA rock with the walkway underneath is an excellent addition to big rock culture.  But more than the rock, I like the couple of acres of flat decomposed granite that surrounds it.  Because for the LACMA rock it's all about "context." (A much loved word of art curators.  Context.  Go figure.  That means that if you return our new big rock to its home in the desert, it's back to being just another not very special big rock.)  That wonderful flat emptiness emphasizes the very bigness of the big rock.  (And in spite of its name, "Levitated Mass" is not really levitated at all, it's sitting on a couple of shelves.)

Levitated Mass, Michael Heizer, LACMA

Half Dome, Yosemite NP

At the end of the day, I'm not sure how wise it is for artists to compete so directly with mother nature.  Mother nature is always going to win.  

25  Painting, Seriously?

For paintings to be important, they need to be taken seriously.  For them to be taken seriously, the paintings need to be serious.

One of the oddest aspects of much contemporary art is that it doesn't want to be taken seriously.  It is often jokey, without skill or aesthetic rigor.  Oddly enough, the lack of these very qualities seems to accelerate success in the art marketplace.

Over the past few years I've read 25 artist biographies.  I thought I knew quite a bit about 20th century art before my reading binge.  Hah!  Nothing beats a good bio to take one to the dirty meat of the matter.  I was fascinated by the sometimes demonic behavior and sad melodrama of these artist's lives. 

But more than that craziness, I am left with a surprise- i.e. in the past artists took their work seriously.  SERIOUSLY.  They took their craft of painting or sculpture seriously.  They took art history, whether embracing or rejecting it, seriously.  They took their subject matter (whether abstraction or representational) yes, you guessed it, seriously.  Making art was not an intellectual amusement or a career.  It was life.  And sometimes it was death.

Today I rarely see this depth and passion in the belief of the importance of "fine" art.  I see quite a bit of at-arms-length cynicism, sloppiness, an oddly cool intentional stupidity and lack of skill in much of the most valued art made today.  

These are Warhol's children and grandchildren.  Mass-produced low brow imagery popped out of factories.  Billions of dollars worth.

On the other hand let me mention Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967) the painter of what are surely among the most serious paintings of the 20th century.  But what a funny guy!   Below is one of his cartoons about abstraction.  Imagine the cartoons he could draw today.

                                                        end of post 4, (24 & 25)

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

21, 22 & 23 Painting the Art of - Karla Klarin © 2015

21  The Hand

I was wandering around the Uffizi Gallery last year when I saw this hand.  I've seen thousands of marble sculptures from the Italian Renaissance.  For the most part they are  beautiful.

But amongst the dozens of sculptures lining hallways and exhibition rooms this hand caught my attention.  I could look at it everyday for the rest of my life and never tire of it.  It is the smooth hand of youth.  It has not yet been damaged or worn by life.  It is relaxed in death (notice the wound on the torso to the left).  The beauty of this hand is so unassuming that upon close inspection it is stunning to see how exquisite it is.  It is a stone hand sculpted by a living human hand.  It is a physical contemplation sculpted by one human 500 years ago about being human.

22  Words

"Theatricality may be put in tension with this received epistemology because the temporality of the theatrical is the logical corollary of the stability of sculptural space, as the undifferentiated space of the world at large is the corollary of the differentiated space of painting..."

This is a quote from a 1974 art magazine.  I have no idea what it means.  When I was young I forced myself to read articles containing sentences like this.  Then I decided that the problem wasn't that I was stupid, the problem was that these writers didn't know how to write.  I gave up on art magazines 40 years ago.

I think there are too many words.  They are everywhere:  newspapers, magazines, billboards, advertisements, books, bumper stickers, pasta boxes, tattoos on bodies, blogs!    It's exhausting.  And then in the late twentieth century words invaded visual art.  I don't want to read visual art.  I want to just see it.  I want to feel it.  I want to decipher it.  I want my eyes to soak it up like a sponge soaks up spilled coffee on my kitchen table.

But I don't want to read it.  As soon as I see words plastered on "art" I turn around and walk away.

                                               Bruce Nauman

23  Theater of the Burn

Los Angeles burns on a 20+ year cycle.  The canyons, hillsides and forests.  Desert winds kicking into high gear in the fall is the usual reason.

In 1970 I was a teenager living in the middle of the SF Valley-which naturally, being a valley, is surrounded by several small mountain ranges and national forests.  

1970 was the year they all went up in flames.  I remember standing outside our house spinning around and around and on every side flames lit up the hills.  I wasn't afraid the fires would get me, after all I could just jump into our swimming pool if the flames got too close.  So I watched for several days until it burned itself out.  In this weird fantasyland known as LA, the wolf is always at the door.

                                                     end of post 3, (21-23)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

17, 18, 19 & 20 Painting, The Art of -Karla Klarin © 2015

17  The Goldfinch

I have struggled with the question of what makes "art", well, "art", my whole adult life.  I remember a bar stool conversation I had with a high school friend nearly four decades ago about this question of why one painting is art and another isn't.  My friend maintained that it is a subjective judgement.  I maintained that it wasn't.  I understand that there isn't any kind of, and never will be, objective standard for what makes art, art.  But not every brush of paint put to canvas becomes art.  In fact very little of it does.

So how do we know when something someone creates enters the territory of ART?

Part of the problem is that the term "art" is used for any and everything, no matter how trivial.  If it isn't the "art of tattooing" it's the "art of cake decoration" or the "art of tree trimming."  If everything is "art" then nothing is art.  So now, I will turn to another source.

Below is a quote from Donna Tartt's recent and exquisite novel, "The Goldfinch";  in this quote the main character, Theo, is reflecting on his years of coveting and protecting a small painting of a goldfinch by Fabritius.

"As much as I'd like to believe there's a truth beyond illusion, I've come to believe that there's no truth beyond illusion.  Because, between 'reality' on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there's a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not; and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic."

18  Culture Days with Chris

I have a 15 year old son who I have taken, of late, to dragging to museum and gallery exhibits and openings and the occasional theater performance.  Would I have been surprised if he had resisted in a moody teenager kind of way?  No.  But he hasn't.  When I say let's go to a friend's gallery opening or a new installation at the Getty, he heads to the car and jumps in.  "Okay Mom, let's go.

                                                Chris at the Getty   

So began our "culture days."  

At openings, art fund-raisers, gallery or museum exhibits he is usually the only teenager.  Lots of gray-haired heads and his gold one rising high above them.  He shakes hands with my friends and says, "It's nice to meet you."   He wanders around looking at the exhibited work, cataloging it in his young absorbent brain.  Sometimes he'll reference an earlier show we've seen or point out something he particularly likes.  

Just as our 22 year old daughter did, Chris grew up in my studio.  His computer table is planted next to my drawing table.  He isn't a stranger to the processes of fine art or artists.  But now I want him to learn about the larger context of art, the business and history of it as well as the creation of it.

Recently we saw the J.W. Turner exhibit at the Getty and he compared it to the James Ensor show of some months earlier.  

Do I want him or his sister to become artists?  NO, absolutely not.  Do I want my children to value art and make it a part of their grownup lives?  Absolutely yes.  

                                                                            Chris and Soutine at the San Diego Museum of Art

19  Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976)

I went to SFAI to study photography.  I lasted one semester in the dark basement photo labs.  Because of the chemical smells, the frustrations of making a good print (very difficult by the way) and the posturing of the photo guys who incessantly talked about and examined their equipment (cameras and lenses that is)-I lost interest very quickly.  I switched to painting and went even deeper into the bowels of the school to the painting studios, taking with me some limited knowledge of the history of photography, including some familiarity with the work of Imogen Cunningham (who still lived near the school when I was there in the early 70's.)

                                                    Imogen Cunningham

By the time I saw her, Cunningham was a very small elderly woman with a puff of white hair.  Occasionally I watched her slowly walk up one of the hills near the school.  She always wore a black dress and black shoes.  She leaned forward into the hill and was very steady.  She was a legend in photography; a member of Edward Weston's SF circle (Group f64) and a good friend of Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), she was a determined and serious photographer from a young age (in 1907 she was a lab assistant for Edward S. Curtis in Seattle).  Nothing deterred her; not motherhood nor an unhelpful husband. The photographic world was, unlike painting and sculpture, fairly welcoming to women.  Not that an unwelcoming photo world would have stopped her.

Her work was stark and elegant.  Her black clothing and white hair echoed her beautiful black and white prints.  As my eyes followed her on the occasions she walked by, I wanted to talk with her but never did.

20  Learning to paint the hard way

On one end of the learn to paint spectrum there is something called a "paint by number kit", easily found in toy stores.

On the opposite end of the spectrum there is "learn to paint by jumping off a cliff."  

For a period of time from the late 1940's through the 1970's, SFAI was the place to go to jump off the cliff.  It was the kind of school that perfectly fit students who didn't like following directions (like me).  There were no class assignments or grades (pass or fail.)  The unspoken assumption was that if you wanted to become an artist you might as well start figuring it out for yourself now rather than after graduation.  There were a lot of class critiques-which could get a bit hairy, and in class teachers walked around while we were painting or drawing and tossed off observations or suggestions as they walked by (one painting teacher, who shall remain nameless, told me that if I really wanted to become an artist I first had to become a mother.
"Yeah, right old dude," I thought.  Today I'd just say, "fuck off.")

It would be very hard to find a college art program today that is this self-motivated.  This teaching philosophy was put in place by the school's director, Douglas MacAgy, in the late 1940's.  At that time the school had a large number of WW2 vets who wanted to be left alone to paint, draw, sculpt.  Not hard to imagine those guys saying "fuck off."

For some students the lack of structure was too much so they left.  And some who stuck around did the very least to graduate.  But by and large, most of the students ran with the freedom and used it to learn what they needed to learn so they could become who they needed to become.

                                                      end of post 2, (17-20)