Sunday, May 12, 2013

I Did It! I Bought Two Artworks During Open Studios!

When I agreed to write portraits of local artists for the Silicon Valley Open Studio website and this blog, I knew that it would be a growth process for me. My orientation was completely toward the enduring art of museums and I had never given much attention to the local scene. Nor was I a big collector of art. I've always had friends who were artists, and I have purchased a few pieces that I especially liked by artists I had known for a long time, but our home is dominated by prints of famous works by Picasso and Renoir and others. I knew that in order to be a responsible reporter on the local art scene I would have to open my heart and mind to art that hadn't been stamped with any museum's seal of approval, and I would have to consider the premise that locally produced art can enhance your environment.

When I interviewed each artist, I tried to see what was best about their work, what made it unique, but when it came time to make choices, then we entered the realm of my personal taste and my personal space. Looking around my house, I noticed that in my bathroom there is a small gimmicky metallic image of a mermaid that I had ceased looking at years ago: here was a likely space. In the bedroom there is a medium-size print of a work by Maxfield Parish that doesn't show up well in the light condition there; that was due for replacement.

Given those particular sizes, when I started my Open Studio visits I knew which artists were likely to have pieces in my price range. And considering the personality and style of the artists I met, I knew who I wanted to acknowledge and encourage.

The first week-end of Silicon Valley Open Studios, my husband and I went up to the Peninsula Museum of Art and the Art Institute in Burlingame. This is a long drive from our home in Sunnyvale, but many artists at the Institute had their studios open—and the Museum was open as well—so it was worth it. I especially wanted to follow through with sculptor Ruth Waters, who founded the museum and institute. I wasn't planning to buy any of her work—large wood sculpture made for modern mansions and community spaces—I just longed to see it again and to run my fingers along its airy curves. This is work that could and should be in major museums. Ruth had re-arranged her showroom to feature a work called Community that had been on display somewhere else. This work alone made the trip worthwhile—it is beautiful and inspiring, and the level of technical innovation is awesome, literally. My photo didn't turn out so well, so I grabbed an image from Ruth's website; it doesn't show the fact that the large upper element is connected to the lower element only toward the center while the rest of it 'floats'.

Community by Ruth Waters
Photo from Ruth's website
After that, I visited the other artists I had interviewed for my piece on the museum and institute; I wanted to show my respect and to see how they had arranged their studios for the occasion. I took an interest in several artists whose work I hadn't seen before; I had a few good chats and even a joke or two. I was watching for work outside the usual path, with some unique obsession, and I found some. A few artists did work that just didn't appeal to me, so I skipped it. My husband took an interest in different artists. We were there a couple hours. It was an enriching experience. We started the afternoon with lunch at a nice café in the shopping mall just across El Camino Real, so it was a pleasant outing for us.

Yesterday, Saturday of the second week-end of Open Studios, was my day for serious shopping. The afternoon was warm and drowsy, and my husband dropped off watching the Giants game. I bolstered myself with an iced latte and headed for the studio of colored-pencil artist Denise Howard, less than ten minutes from my home.

Although Denise has been a professional artist for only a few years, she has developed incredible skill with colored pencils, a medium which is fairly new as a fine art practice. She had arranged her work in a pavilion on her patio, and I was happy to see it in natural light because the colors were more true and natural. I looked carefully at each work, peering into the details as though I had a magnifying glass. I was thinking about that space in the bedroom, which really needs a vertical about two feet tall. Nature is the theme of the room. Denise's subjects include beautiful close-ups of butterflies and flowers, and some mysterious still lifes, but they wouldn't fit in. The work that spoke to me for subject was a close-up of a tree. I'm a tree-worshipper anyway, and Denise showed true appreciation for an extraordinary example. The original is out of my price range, but Denise cleverly had quality prints of various sizes in a bin. For your reference, I got 11x14" print, matted, for about $70. The photo from her website shows the color better than my own.

Tree of Character by Denise Howard
Photo from Denise's website.
Then I came back to my own neighborhood to attend the Open Studio of my neighbor, Christine Oliver, who got me involved with Open Studios in the first place. Christine has a spacious studio and a lovely, shady yard which she shared for the occasion with two painters, a photographer, and a jewelry-maker. The scene was quite lively and I got into interesting conversations with the other artists.

When it was near closing time, I closely surveyed Christine's paintings, displayed on the walls of her studio. I've been following Christine's work a long time. She has treated many different subjects in several different mediums; in the past few years she's been doing small to medium watercolors and collages.  The first thing I noticed was her latest work, a large seascape in acrylic—larger, fresher, freer than any previous work, clearly a new stage. The California coast is such a familiar subject that it is hard to present in a fresh way, and I spent a long time considering why this view was different. This painting is too new to be documented.

Then I started looking for a small watercolor I had noticed when I interviewed Christine for her portrait. She had rearranged her work, so I had to scan the entire display to find it. When I picked it out, I said, "I'll take that one." Christine was so surprised that she got a little flustered. The color combination is a little edgy and fits in my bathroom just right; the natural subject has been abstracted in a spontaneous manner; the technique is a mysterious bag of tricks. It's a modest piece, but I think it represents what is special about Christine's talent. At $100 for an original work, it was a steal.

Pond with Cattails by Christine Oliver
Photo from Christine's website
Lucky me, Christine and her husband Paul invited myself and my husband to a hamburger feed that evening, with neighbors old and new, which brings us back to where we started. For me, Christine is the glamorous neighbor who hosts fabulous parties, but she is also an artist of merit and substance, and she boosts the art community by volunteering as Communications Director for Silicon Valley Open Studios. Christine got me involved in this project, helped me develop my approach, and encouraged me all the way through. For me it was a growth process, both as an art lover and as a writer.

This completes this phase of this blog. At present my husband and I are planning a journey to see the art museums of Canada. Next year I may look at adding some posts about the local art scene, but who can tell about next year. Tomorrow I'll take my new art to the framer! Hurrah for local art!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Planning Your Open Studios Tour

It's almost here! Silicon Valley Open Studios takes place the first three week-ends in May. Now's the time to set up a date with your art buddies to go out treasure hunting. You can find the schedule and get maps to the artists you are interested in from the SVOS website. In the left column there is a section called Plan Your Tour, where you can look up the artists by last name.

Did any of the artists I covered in this series interest you? You could drop by to say hello, even if you don't plan to spend any money. Even more than sales, artists need attention for their work. Their art is their gift to the world. Your attention, appreciation, and admiration completes the gesture.

Can you remember the artists I wrote about? They were getting mixed up in my mind, so I thought I would write a brief review.

My Neighbor, the Artist: Christine Oliver does watercolors, collages, and a mix of the two that may include small symbolic items.

Here's Looking at You, Chick
Christine Oliver
Photo from Christine's website

When Pigs Fly: Jaki Ernst makes a wide range of whimsical book arts and crafts.

Finial Primer
Jaki Ernst
iPad photo

Layers of Clay: Martha Castillo makes abstract prints using liquid clay as a print medium.

All that Jazz
Martha Castillo
Photo from Martha's website

Golden California: Maralyn Miller paints the landscape of Northern California in acrylics, oils and pastels.

Golden California
Maralyn Miller
iPad snapshot

Putting His Own Spin on Reality: Ed Lucey favors water-soluble oils for a variety of subjects ranging from landscapes to still lifes.

Contented Cows
Ed Lucey
iPad snapshot

Carving Out Relationships: Ruth Waters carves abstract sculpture from wood. She recently founded the Peninsula Art Museum.

Ruth Waters
iPad snapshot

A Bright New Art Destination: The Peninsula Art Museum and Art Institute is a great new resource to Burlingame and the surrounding area. The Institute includes studios for over 25 professional artists, and most of their studios will be open during Open Studios.

Peninsula Museum of Art
Photo by Dan L. Smith

When is a Painting Like a Jar of Jelly?: Kay Duffy is a watercolorist whose work is dominated by her interest in nature.

Mt. Diablo
Kay Duffy
Photo from Kay's website

The Beauty is In the Details: Denise Howard uses colored pencils. She has treated a wide range of subjects, but she tends to emphasize close-up treatment of nature.

Tree of Character
 Denise Howard
iPad photo

I have my plan together, with three visits scheduled. My husband agreed to be my art buddy. I'm really looking forward to it.

Don't wait to see what happens. You know you have to make a plan or it won't get done.

Monday, April 22, 2013

"But I Only Sell to My Friends!"

The camellia bushes outside my office window give the world their luscious pink blossoms in the midst of winter when the weather is so unpleasant that I seldom venture outside to admire them. I always think it is very brave and generous of them to cheer up the dark time when so many other plants are sleeping. Camellias don't care, presumably, whether we admire them or not. Their whole thing is to realize their nature.

Artists, too, are driven to realize their inner nature, but for people there is the concomitant need for attention. The work must be seen, it must be appreciated, it must be purchased.

My specialty is art history, and from it I've learned something important about the art world at every level: friendship circles are at the core. If you study how a museum got a certain painting, you will often find that a famous artist donated it, especially in the 20th and 21st centuries. Or the painting was acquired by some wealthy collector because it was suggested by an artist who was helping to build his or her collection. Even at the very highest levels, the art world functions just as it does here in Silicon Valley. At every level, artists hang out together, learn from each other, give their work to each other, and purchase work from one another. At every level, artists form associations to promote their work.

That old devil Self-doubt makes a local artist whine, "But I only sell to my friends!" Who can understand what you are doing better than another artist? Who can better imagine how clever your technique is or how much time and effort it takes? Having your work purchased by another artist is along the lines of winning an Academy Award; it is acknowledgement by your peers.

I just realized I've been assuming the artist's friends are also artists. That is very likely to be true; but what about non-artist friends?

There is a quality at the base of painting, or by extension any work of art, that is not generally recognized by art critics or historians: personality. To put it in a formulaic way, up-tight, rigid people tend to make up-tight, rigid art, which in turn will be attractive to up-tight, rigid people. Of course, it can't be reduced to formulas like that, but your art inevitably reflects who you are, so people who like you are more likely to like your art.

As a writer, one thing I find painful is that I'm not a great writer. I suspect it is human nature to be creative, but creativity can be measured on an infinite scale. My idea of the very greatest writers would be Marcel Proust or James Joyce; the distance between their level of talent and mine would be measured in light years. It is humbling. On the other hand, comparatively few people can understand either of those writers. You have to be almost as smart as they are to get it. People at less lofty levels of intelligence are looking to read something less challenging. Even more to the point, people with that a prodigious talent are generally not available for everyday writing tasks—like reporting on the art scene in Silicon Valley.

As for art, most of the works we love to see in museums would not be at all suitable for our homes or offices. Not only is the work too expensive, and probably too large, but it just wouldn't look right. It comes from the wrong place and the wrong time; however smart these famous masters might be, they know nothing about our world here in Silicon Valley—how we live, the types of frustrations we face, or what we value. The local artist produces art from our own world; that gives it unique value. You could compare it to music. Most people are drawn to the music of their own generation; you can just relate to it better.

Each artist has her or his own audience. It isn't a question of better or worse art. Each artist radiates to a particular segment of the world around her. The artwork creates its own community.

When you present an artwork for the world to see, it is not like you are a student getting critiqued. It is more like putting your hand out in friendship; a work of art is more like the smile on your face. If a person comes to look at your art, it is like they are returning your smile—they want to strike up an acquaintance. You opened the conversation with your art; they are responding. Now it is your turn. How can you encourage their interest? I'm sorry to bang on here about an obvious point from How to Win Friends and Influence People, but it's your turn to take an interest in the visitor. I mean, beyond their potential as a buyer, beyond their need to be educated about art values—what kind of person is she or he anyway? You just might find somebody you would like. Is your friendship circle so full that you can't admit another, if only for the time being?

Nevertheless, I think that all artists should emulate the finest artists in one respect: they should use their art to explore and express their inner world. I'm not talking about art as therapy. I'm saying art can be used to explore ideas and feelings. An idea might be as abstract as the relationship between primary colors or it might be as socially concerned as depicting a homeless person in front of Safeway. You might want to express the wind in the trees, or how humans are recklessly destroying animal habitat. I hate to hear an artist say, "I could never paint that. It would never sell." This attitude will seriously limit your growth as an artist. It is all well and good to keep developing your technique, but true growth comes from making your art work for you. Growth as an artist comes from exploring your eccentricities, indulging your obsessions. In this serious, soul-destroying world of conformity and conventionality, making art is about having fun. If you have a thing for painting roosters or fish or feet or topographical maps, go for it. Give in to your inner child, or teenager, or fisherman, or ancient Chinese scholar, or mad hatter. Go with it, work it out, see where it leads; that is what I mean by exploring your inner world; that is the path of development as an artist. You can trust me on this one: You are just as likely to find your audience by being your true self as by being "salable," which only means being "just like everyone else, but with my own twist."

Let's get real about money. Only a small percentage of people can make a living by making art; better you should make friends. Selling your art is a sign that someone likes it, but your artwork is making a contribution to the community even when it doesn't sell. People need art in their lives, not just beautiful art, but meaningful art. The art you make is meaningful to the people in your community. Art builds community. Your visitors may not take any artwork home in their hands, but, like the beauty of a camellia in the winter, they absorb it in their minds and hearts.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Beauty is in the Details

The Art of Denise Howard

Artist Denise Howard taught me about a whole new art form—colored pencils. I thought of colored pencils, like regular pencils, as a medium you might use for a sketch, a chart, or perhaps an architectural rendering, and I thought of them as making rather pale, ineffectual lines. I didn't realize that colored pencils are being used to make fine art, nor that they can produce deep rich color and tantalizing textures.

The Intimate Stargazer Lily
Grab from Denise's website
For Denise, colored pencils—and graphite pencils—are the perfect medium for expressing her art philosophy, which is surprisingly clear and consistent. Denise thinks beauty—whether in nature, people, or objects—resides in the details. People miss out on the beauty of the world because they don't look carefully enough to perceive the details. "What I like about colored pencil is that it lets me bring those details into artwork, and if it's in artwork, people notice it," she explained. People might take reality or a photo for granted, but the fact that some aspect of reality can be conveyed so convincingly—so movingly—in colored (or graphite) pencil brings in the wow factor. She said, "They zoom in close on the drawing" to marvel on both the technique and the subject. This was definitely true for me—I found myself putting my nose right up to the pictures and poring over them as though they held the secret to a hidden treasure. Denise said, "I'm hoping that by noticing the details in my artwork, people will start to pay more attention to the world around them and look for details there, too. So the next time they see a butterfly, a leaf, or a frog, they'll look at it more closely, because the beauty out there is in the details, to me."

Gulf Fritallary
iPad snapshot
Detail of Tree of Character
Moss, lichen and hollow give this old tree a lot of character
iPad snapshot

Detail of And the World Faded Away
An accordion player in Siena Italy who played complex classical music.
iPad snapshot
You could say a passion for detail integrates the two sides of Denise's personality, for she is the classic Silicon Valley example of a software person with an artist hidden inside. Although she made a lot of art in high school—even earning spending cash by drawing commissioned portraits of her friends—she also had an aptitude for math, so in college she pursued a joint major, ending up with bachelor's degrees in both Art and Math/Computer Science from a university in her home state of Missouri. After she started her career as a software engineer, she became too busy to make art, but she was always conscious that something was missing in her life; the need to create something beautiful kept nagging at her. "Finally the urge to return to my art became too strong to ignore," she says in her website, so she made a commitment to pursue art and to treat art as a business. For awhile, she had a work situation where she could devote one day a week to art. For awhile she had no job, and thought it might be time to become a full-time artist, but when Intuit, a software company in Mountain View known for its happy employees, offered her a position developing a new application for the Mac, the opportunity was too good to turn down, so now she is back to working full-time. She maintains her art career by working on it nights and week-ends.

Perhaps it is more accurate to say that being organized and systematic is what integrates the programmer with the professional artist. For instance, instead of searching through her huge collection of colored pencils for the exact shade she wants, she saves time by referring to a chart of her own design that shows each shade by the number on the pencil.

Not only did Denise develop her drawing skill to a professional level with remarkable speed, but right away she joined the Colored Pencil societies in both the U.S. and Great Britain, and at present serves as President (and webmaster, temporarily) of the San Francisco chapter of the Colored Pencil Society of America. She has already won several awards and had three of her drawings published in periodicals featuring art made by colored and graphite pencils.

Denise's website is up-to-date because it is integrated into her art practice."Part of the fun for me when I finish a drawing is to put a photo of it up on my website," she said. To her, the point of making art is to create something that resonates with people. Each work on her website is accompanied by a brief comment and information about the materials she used. She also offers some of her drawings as prints on note cards, which would make a really classy gift. Most of her work is available in prints of different sizes. This is a link to her website:
Denise Howard

I grabbed some photos from Denise's website to show the range of subjects she has tackled.

Parsons at the Beach
A commissioned double portrait using a scene from a movie

Eugene's Time to Rest
Denise's father, aged 82, at the end of a day's work on the farm

Standing Out in the Snow
Denise's father's tractor is always at the ready.
Like any artist, Denise is a little obsessive about technique. She made a point to show me the pencils she is using on the graphite work currently in progress, and to call out the size of each. She wanted to be sure I understood that there are two types of colored pencils, wax-based and oil-based. Furthermore, wax-based pencils can be used with wax-based pastels, which are artist's crayons. The way she gets such rich colors is to build them up in layers; colors literally blend on the paper. She was particularly excited about her new heated drawing board because when marks made with wax-based colored pencils or pastels get warm, they melt, making it possible to manipulate them like paint.

Denise Howard in her studio
iPad snapshot
A portion of Denise's supply of colored-pencils
iPad snapshot
Denise's colored pencil chart with succulents
iPad snapshot
It was hard to tear myself away from Denise's studio. The afternoon was warm, and both the French doors and the picture window were open, admitting a mild breeze and the twittering of finches around the feeders hanging from the giant jacaranda in her back yard. The back yard has a vegetable patch and innumerable pots of succulents. The front yard is a low-water garden of native plants, presently featuring crowds of California poppies in translucent orange. The garden is remarkably successful, and I asked if she had hired a landscape designer. No, she designed it herself, after lots and lots of research into the best plants for the purpose.

Low-water, California-native garden
iPad snapshot
Some folks say, "God is in the details." Others say, "The Devil is in the details." I can't get into talk about mythical beings. I'm with Denise on this one: "Beauty is in the details."

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

When is a Painting Like a Jar of Jelly?

The Art of Kay Duffy

Watercolorist Kay Duffy gave me a jar of mulberry jelly that she made herself from mulberries she picked from her own tree. What a rare treat in Silicon Valley! Kay said mulberries are so tender that she has to wear rain gear to pick them because they shower her with juice.

The tree stands not far from the picture window in her studio. When she is not painting outside, Kay works at a long bench where this window gives her a view of the fruit trees on her property in woodsy Saratoga. It's a big place—maybe a half-acre; big enough for a few fruit trees, a large terraced flower garden, a petanque court, and even some untended, natural area. Wouldn't you just kill for that much natural space of your own? I tried to imagine her three children playing there when they were growing up. Petanque is a French form of bowling with hollow metal balls that requires a clean sandy court; Kay says the family still loves to gather there for a game. Kay and her husband have lived there fifty years; it was they who planted the trees that now tower over their patio.

A small part of Kay Duffy's large garden
The scene from Kay's studio window
On the workbench is a scene at Hakone Gardens.
In addition to tending her own land, Kay was concerned with the land around her, which was rapidly being subdivided for houses in the 1970s, so she became one of the early proponents of the establishment of open space and served as an elected director of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District for twenty years. In the 1990s Kay was president of the Hakone Foundation, which preserves and manages Hakone Gardens, an Asian estate and garden in Saratoga, and she founded a program of arts education there. (She still teaches watercolor there twice a month, plus an occasional class in collage.) Consistent with all this, hiking and biking are her favorite forms of recreation.

Kay brings the sensibility of a person constantly involved with nature to her watercolors. It is a way for her to express the joy of fruit trees blossoming in the springtime, the lively grace of an iris, the subdued mood of the fields and marshes around Moss Landing, or the magic of a rose-hued sunset over Mt. Diablo. Kay calls her style "impressionistic," meaning that instead of being concerned with literal reality, she wants to show how the subject impressed her.

Mt. Diablo
Photo from Kay's website
Kay likes to work in a quick, spontaneous fashion that finishes a painting in a sitting or two, just the sort of thing a busy community activist and mother could tuck into the occasional quiet moment. Therefore her brushstrokes are broad and loose, with generous sprinklings of white space that create a fresh look. She uses a variety of techniques that allow her to indicate aspects of the scene without actually rendering them. For instance, she may use a masking material like rubber cement to prevent certain areas from receiving color; she may use a razor blade to scratch into dry paint, creating highlights and shadows; or she might wipe the paint lightly to create a convincing impression of rain. She may supplement watercolors with gouache, an opaque form of water-based paint, and she sometimes likes a light coat of acrylic as a background.

Kay learned to paint by making workshops, with both local and nationally known artists, a regular part of her life. These teachers constantly inspire her to experiment with technique. She also has a degree in chemistry from Syracuse University and worked as a chemist in the valley until she started her family.

Kay's favorite thing is to paint out of doors, and she frequently joins one of the watercolor groups she belongs to for an outing to some scenic place. Recently she came to Sunnyvale and painted a delightful impression of our Heritage Orchard, one of my favorite places. Her kit for painting outdoors always stands at the ready. She carries paint, palette, brushes and water along with her personal gear in a duffle bag in one hand, and an easel with a backboard to support the paper in the other. When she first gets to the scene, she explores the area to find a focal point and take some reference photos. She can lay in the basic composition during that outing, then refine the effect in her studio.

Kay Duffy with her outdoor painting gear

Sunnyvale Heritage Orchard
iPad snapshot
In addition to depicting local scenes, Kay has painted in the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Alaska, and Ireland, and she did a very nice series in France. In addition to nature, she paints structures, city scenes and an occasional portrait. She did some unusual work in which she tried to depict movement, such as an eagle flying, dogs howling, and dancers leaping. But the majority of her work is dominated by landforms and vegetation, whether at home or abroad.

River guide on a painters' tour of Grand Canyon
iPad snapshot

Kay swears this cactus really did have all these hues.
iPad snapshot
Aran Walls, a scene in Ireland
Photo from Kay's website
In her most recent phase, collage and abstraction frequently press to the fore.  These compositions typically combine watercolor with scraps of published pages and hand-made papers, some of which she makes herself. She's rather keen on shiny papers, and has even been known to throw rick-rack in a "painting." Often she will integrate all these elements so that you might not even be aware of the collaged material except as it enhances the textures in the painting; other times the fun is in picking out the different materials. Collage lets her express the more playful part of her personality.

Detail of collage combining hand-made papers with watercolor
iPad snapshot
When is a painting like a jar of mulberry jelly? When it is a gift from the fresh and natural world of Kay Duffy.

My iPad snapshots don't do Kay's work justice. You can see better examples on her website: Kay Duffy.  There are also good examples on a blog by watercolorist Chris Beck.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

You Can Learn a Lot from 'The Girl with the Pearl Earring'

You can get a quick overview of the Golden Age of Dutch art at the de Young's current special exhibit called 'The Girl with the Pearl Earring.' This is not a blockbuster show that will leave you gasping with delight. There are only thirty-five paintings, but each one is carefully chosen to represent the art trends during the 1600s when the Netherlands peaked as a world power. These paintings are a small part of the collection of a museum in The Hague called Mauritshuis—pronounced Maurits' House; this magnificent seventeenth century city palace is undergoing a two-year renovation and expansion. The show runs through June 2. Since no photos were allowed, I grabbed some images from the internet.

The painting by Johannes Vermeer called The Girl with the Pearl Earring is justifiably the centerpiece of the show. It is referred to as 'the Mona Lisa' of Dutch Art and is presented in a small dark gallery by itself—in the manner of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. You may find this portrait even more appealing. There's no inhibited mystery about this girl's expression; looking over her shoulder with limpid eyes and moistened mouth, her expression is almost a come-hither look, yet she seems pure, innocent. The light in her eyes and on her lips is amplified by the highlight on the improbably large pearl dangling from one ear, and it seems to come from within. Even though her presence is so strong, this girl was a dream of Vermeer's. It is a type of portrait that was very popular at the time known as a tronie; instead of representing a specific individual, a tronie portrayed an idealized type. Thus the turban, the earring, and the simplified but exotic robe are a costume chosen to express Vermeer's dream of pure beauty.

Girl with a Pearl Earring
Vermeer; Internet grab
Gerrit von Honthorst had a similar intent with this even more flamboyant tronie evoking of the joys of music. His fantasy maiden again has an inviting smile and exotic garb; the image is sensuous but somehow innocent. Her expression is so bewitching that you don't notice the exquisite rendering of the hands, the touchable silkiness of the fabric, or the wisp of lace at one shoulder.

Honthorst; Internet grab
Rembrandt was very fond of the tronie. He frequently used himself as a model, or he would get an old gentleman of his acquaintance with an interesting face. He would dress himself or his model up in a fancy hat and exotic costume. Portrait of an Elderly Man, one of Rembrandt's last paintings but not a direct self-portrait, may be said to represent the opposite of the Girl with a Pearl Earring. Painted in a loose style that expresses the old guy's tenuous hold on life, this tronie portrays a disheveled senior—his cheeks reddened by long years' enjoyment of good Dutch beer—clinging to the arms of his chair, disappointed by the past and mystified by his approaching demise.

Portrait of an Elderly Man
Rembrandt; Internet grab
Actual, specific portraits were bread and butter for most artists in Holland in the 1600s. Flourishing commerce had built up a prosperous middle class whose members had a fad for having their prosperity memorialized in paint. In order to properly display the sitters' wealth, the painters developed phenomenal skill in rendering lace, silk, velvet, and embroidery. Portraits were frequently commissioned in pairs representing a married couple. This exhibit had an excellent pair by Frans Hals.

Portrait of Jacob Olycan, 1625
Frans Hals, c. 1582-1666
Internet grab
Portrait of Aletta Hanemans, bride of Jacob Olycan, 1625
Frans Hals, c. 1582-1666
Internet grab
Another good source of income for painters was the still life, something decorative to add a little class to the homes of prosperous merchants and government dignitaries. Expressing opulence and abundance, paintings of fantastical bouquets were very popular. Bouquets combined flowers from every season and continent in improbable but gorgeous arrangements. Lest the viewer get carried away by so much beauty, the artist typically threw in a few insects to remind us that flowers are part of nature's food chain, and subject to decay. One of the most successful painters of floral still lifes was Rachel Ruych, who was also one of the earliest women painters to be come successful and famous.

Vase of Flowers,  1700
Rachel Ruysch, 1664-1750
Internet grab
Another important type of still life presented symbolic collections of table-top items. Painters vied with each other to paint the most convincing depictions. Wealth was indicated by silver and crystal, intellectual interests were shown by books and instruments, and quiet introspection suggested by long-stemmed pipes. Again, however, these righteous folks liked to keep things in perspective with reminders that material pleasures are transient. The crystal goblet has been overturned; the oysters have been eaten; nothing is left of the lemon but the rind. Just in case you don't get these subtle hints, some painters would throw in a skull to make the point obvious.

Vanitas Still Life, 1630 by Pieter Claesz
Internet grab
This preference for the mixed message continued with a popular genre that illustrated moral sayings. Jan Steen did several terrific paintings of this type. Himself an innkeeper who loved to depict an uproarious feast, he tried to excuse or justify his very appealing scenes of debauchery with some moral message made popular in a proverb. The painting below illustrates the proverb "As the Old Sing, So Twitter the Young," which we know because the old lady in the center, swathed in scarves and blankets, is pointing to this title on a sheet of music. The scene is a sort of baptism into debauchery. The old guy on the left is wearing a baptismal cap which should be worn by the baby's father. Instead of holy water, a waiter is ostentatiously pouring wine directly over the head of an infant in its mother's arms. A jovial fellow on the right—a self-portrait by the artist—is offering a pipe to a young lad. Clearly the young people in this family will follow the example of their elders. What comes through here, the moral message or the people having fun? A youngster plays a bagpipe to rev up the merriment; the beautiful hostess wears a gorgeous getup and warms her feet on hot coals; fancy foods are laid out; lovable pets are part of the scene. To me, the appeal seems stronger than the lesson.

As the Old Sing, So Twitter the Young, c. 1670 by Jan Steen
Internet grab
Some artists developed a specialty in depicting interior spaces and typical domestic activities. The first goal was to get a composition that showed an exterior scene through a door or window, and then to get the perspective and the light balance just right. Artists reveled in fool-the-eye renderings of brick walls and tiled floors. The master of this style was Pieter de Hooch. In the depiction below, he throws in a little puzzle about the activities of the characters. A man is smoking, a woman is drinking, a child is carrying coals for the man's pipe. Is the man the householder or a guest at an inn? Is the woman a servant? If so, what does it mean that she is drinking the man's beer? Is this a come-on? His right foot almost nudges her foot. Is this a hint?

A Man Smoking and a Woman Drinking in a Courtyard, c. 1660
Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684)
No survey of Dutch art would be complete without mentioning landscape. Dutch artists are handicapped by the low light level typical of their country; they are not blessed with warm sun that brings out nature's best. While the sky may have amazing clouds, the viewer frequently must peer into a shady scene below to appreciate the details. The museum sent a superb example by one of the best landscape artists of the day, Meindert Hobbema. This is not a real scene, but a composite representing rural life. What enchanted me about it was details you probably can't make out in this photo. In the lower right we see a fancy gentleman on a fine horse, accompanied by a young attendant and several dogs. He is the local landowner, which we know because two tenants by the side of the road doff their caps to him. In front of him, in a detail so small you wonder why the painter bothered, is a man carrying a rack of live birds, presumably hoping to peddle them at the next cottage.

Wooded Landscape with Cottages, c. 1665
Meindert Hobbema
Internet grab
Art flourished in an extraordinary way in the Golden Age in what we now call the Netherlands. In the previous century, Italy had dominated art and the church had been the main patron, causing a preoccupation with religious themes; the only relief was work commissioned by private connoisseurs and that tended to treat the mythology of the Greeks. But during the Dutch Golden Age, general prosperity produced a well-educated and literate middle class with a taste for secular art that reflected their own lives and values. Painters developed subjects that had hardly been treated before: there were more people than ever who could afford to commission portraits and greater interest in decorative paintings like still lifes and landscapes. Artists gained increased opportunity to express their personal interests.

Every painting in this show is an excellent example; if only there were more. Also it would help if some sort of narration like this one were available. Very little wall text was offered and the audio guide was weak. I knew this history because I've toured all the big art museums in the Netherlands, including the Mauritshuis, and have a good grounding in Dutch art. Since the exhibit would serve as an introduction to Dutch art for most people, it would be greatly enhanced by providing some context.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Can Women Make Really Great Sculpture?

For a woman artist, it is even more daring to become a sculptor than a painter, and although there were famous women painters as early as the mid-1500s, it is rare to see a sculpture by a woman that was made before the 1800s. As we travel around the country, I make a point to collect images of sculptures by women. I took all the photos in this post during our 2012 art journey.

Among the first notable American sculptors is Emma Stebbins, 1815-1882. She was raised in a wealthy New York family and encouraged to study art from an early age. During the 1800s there was a sort of fad for American sculptors to study in Rome and Emma was part of that. In Rome she was able to pursue a bohemian and lesbian lifestyle that would have been less tolerated at home. What I like about her is that she depicted idealized working men, as opposed to mythical figures.

Industry by Emma Stebbins
Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington, NY
Commerce by Emma Stebbins
Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington, NY

Another member of Stebbins' circle in Rome, Harriet Hosmer, made sculptures of mythical figures, which are more typical for the 19th century.

Zenobia in Chains, c. 1859
St. Louis Museum (2010 photo)
One of the most popular women sculptors in American museums is Anna Hyatt Huntington. Although she could do excellent mythical figures, she is more well known for her naturalistic depictions of animals. Anna was encouraged to develop her artistic talent by her father, a well-known professor of paleontology and zoology. Anna was at the peak of a successful career in 1923 when she married Archer Milton Huntington, heir to a railway fortune, scholar of Spanish literature, and philanthropist. She continued her career and he built special venues for her work.

Reaching Jaguar, by Anna Hyatt Huntington, 1876-1973
Metropolitan Museum, New York
The woman who has done the most exciting treatment of the female form is Harriet Whitney Frishmuth, who generally worked in bronze. She has the distinction of having studied with Auguste Rodin in Paris. Her slender figures are typically stretching toward the sky.

The Bubble, 1928 by Harriet Whitney Frishmuth, 1880-1980
Crystal Bridges Museum, Bentonville, AR

In the 20th century, women sculptors virtually abandoned the figure and made mostly big bold abstract works. Louise Nevelson may be considered an early re-cycler as her sculptures are typically formed of scraps of wood from a lumber yard. She unified and dignified them by painting them a single color, usually all black, but sometimes all white.

Night Zag Wall, 1974 by Louise Nevelson, 1899-1988
Crystal Bridges Museum, Bentonville, AR

The most respected of British women sculptors is Barbara Hepworth, who is generally over-shadowed by her male contemporary Henry Moore. I really like her smooth, simple forms.

Sea Form (Atlantic), 1964 by Barbara Hepworth, 1903-1975
Dallas Museum
One of the most innovative American sculptors of the 20th century was Louise Bourgeois. Instead of working within one basic style like the other sculptors we've considered, she was constantly experimenting with new forms and materials. In the 1950s she was making vertical forms from painted wood and giving them scientific-sounding titles.

Quarantania I, 1953 by Louise Bourgeois, 1911-2010
Museum of Modern Art, NY
To her great credit, she continued to innovate into her nineties. In 2001 she designed a work to serve as a gateway to the Williams College Museum of Art that consists of a series of sculptures on a landscaped hill. The sculptures are eye-like forms with benches for seating on their back sides.

Eyes, 2001 by Louise Bourgeois, 1911-2010
Williams College Museum, MA
A big favorite in California is Ruth Asawa, who is still living. Born in southern California to a Japanese family, she has been a renowned artist and educator in San Francisco for several decades. Although she first achieved major recognition for her public fountains in San Francisco, most of her astonishing work is done in wire.

Untitled, c. 1970 by Ruth Asawa, b. 1926
Crystal Bridges Museum, Bentonville, AR

What is an American name? At Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas, a visitor puzzling over a large, macho-looking, wall-mounted wood sculpture exclaimed, "Ursula von Rydingsvard is not at American name." What is typically feminine? She went on, "Surely a woman didn't make that! It looks like it was hacked out with a chain saw!"

Unraveling, 2007 by Ursula von Rydingsvard, b. 1942
Crystal Bridges Museum, Bentonville, AR

Crystal Bridges gives very good coverage to women sculptors; I took several of these photos there.

One of my favorite contemporary sculptures was made by Liz Larner, who was born in 1960. I've only seen this one work by Larner, but from the internet I see that she is from California, and she works with a wild variety of forms and materials.

2001, 2001 by Liz Larner, b. 1960
Albright-Knox Museum, Buffalo, NY

In the last few decades, artists are less likely to create free-standing, single forms, and more likely to produce installations with multiple pieces. Artists don't stick with one material, and they don't necessarily fabricate the project with their own hands. A major breakthrough for artists in general was to realize that the idea or vision is the main dynamic in any work of art. The idea may be so large or so complex that a team of specialists is required to realize it, or the material may require some industrial process.

Although she is generally considered a painter, multi-talented Judy Chicago was a major pioneer of installation art with a work on women's history that she created in the 1970's called The Dinner Party. Chicago's idea was that women have been generally left out of "his-story": they don't get a place at the table. So she imagined a triangular table for thirty-nine of the most important women in history, thirteen on a side. Each woman was represented by a placemat embroidered with symbols and a plate formed in a symbolic shape. To bring this idea to reality she assembled a team of women who were already well-known in their crafts; part of her vision was to celebrate women's traditional crafts.

The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago
Photo by Dan L. Smith

Detail of The Dinner Party
Photo by Dan L. Smith

My favorite installation artist is Allyson Shotz. She is pre-occupied with fluidity and reflected light. She might express that in any medium, and her work requires a team of software guys and another team of installers. I have seen three magical installations now that use different arrangements of fresnel lenses to play with the ambient light. However, a major show of Shotz's work that we saw in Indianapolis on our 2012 journey included giant photos of computer-generated bubbles streaming through space plus a couple of mesmerizing animated movies.

Allyson Shotz
Indianapolis Museum of Art
If you would like to see more photos of sculptures by women in American art museums, you can go to my website.