Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Ratjen Collection II: Swiveling Perspective

So last time, we were strolling through the Ratjen collection of German drawings, 1580-1900, courtesy of the National Gallery. We have a few more to look at, but we can't cover them all. Give it a visit if you can. They've also got some Munch prints up - that's exciting too, right?

Consider this:

Johann Christian Reinhart, German, 1761 - 1847
Tivoli and the Temple of the Sibyl above the Aniene Gorge, 1794/1798
pen and brown ink with blackink with brown wash over graphite on laid paper
Wolfgang Ratjen Collection, Purchased as the Gift of Helen Porter and James T. Dyke

What did I find so interesting about this? First of all, it's very beautiful, and by my lights, Reinhart gave up at just the right point in the composition. That's important, knowing when to give up. Each of my paintings is about three brushstrokes worse than it could have been; it still takes me about three brushstrokes to realize I should stop. It used to take me screwing up an entire arm, but I've gotten better at saying, "This is hurting it - and I am not going to fix the present mistake." Reinhart appears to have planned to do everything, but he didn't, and I like the way he didn't.

But he has also done just a wonderful thing here. The Aniene Gorge curves around him, so that its left side is in shadow and its right side is in sunlight. As the eye travels across the picture, the angle of the objects relative to the sun shifts, and their lighting shifts. As a result, we have a deep sense of panorama. It reminds me of this:

This is a matte painting by scientific artist Chesley Bonestell for the 1950 movie Destination Moon, included in an excellent illustrated history of matte painting called The Invisible Art (I once matte painted the background of every shot in a short film, and I read this book in preparation for it).

Now, this moon matte painting has an interesting property - the entire image was never shown in the film. Rather, the camera tracked over it, but the changing angle of the light convinced the viewer that the camera was actually panning around 360 degrees of view. You see that light smudge in the sky in the middle? It's located at the point the sun would be right above the lens if this were a real shot - Bonestell has painted in a lens flare. But what's best about this painting is, of course, that it predates the moon landing by years and years...

I don't look at landscapes very much, and if any of you do, let me know if the point I'm about to make is wrong. The point is this - you don't see a shifting relationship of a single light source to depicted objects in compositions all that often. It produces a sense of turning of the head, of swiveling to take in an entire scene, rather than a sense that the head and eye are locked on one view. So that's why I thought Reinhart's little landscape was so cool.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Ratjen Collection I: Repetitions

I went down to DC the other week, to deliver this painting to a collector couple whom I am very pleased to have have it:

Rachel at the Cafe, oil on canvas, 30"x24", 2010

While I was in DC, I figured I would go by the National Gallery and visit a few favorite paintings, including the very one which inspired the Rachel painting:

The Girl with the Red Hat, oil on panel, 9"x7 1/16", Johannes Vermeer, 1665/6

But once I got to the gallery, I was diverted from my plan by the current shows, particularly an exhibition with the following catchy title:

German Master Drawings from the Wolfgang Ratjen Collection, 1580-1900

This show is up until January 8. Let's take a look at some of the pieces in it now.

How? I'll tell you how. I wanted to write about a few of the drawings in the show, but it turned out they weren't available on the Web (and I didn't buy the pricey catalogue, so I couldn't scan them for you). But I did find thumbnails of the drawings in one place - the press section of the National Gallery itself. Here, they offered to email you large copies of the images, if you happened to be a press person covering the show. Well, this blog is public, right? And some people read it? So, O happy few, I made my case to the National Gallery and they, in turn, sent me all the pictures my little heart desired. Thus, we're having ourselves a virtual stroll courtesy of the National Gallery. But do me a favor and drop by there in person if you're in DC and you're so inclined. Perhaps you could also loudly talk, while there, about how awesome this blog is.

So - as ever, maybe you're an artist, and maybe you aren't. Artists walk through galleries in a different way from non-artists. They tend to have three primary types of experience: indifference, artistic inspiration, and technical revelation.

An artist undergoing indifference speeds through the show.

An artist undergoing artistic inspiration tends to stand or sit some distance back from a particular work, and stare at it rapt for a while. Also, they may cry. Male artists can do that without seeming unmanly, because artists are special.

An artist undergoing technical revelation tends to have his or her nose as close to the work as the guards will allow, squinting at the marvels of technique the work is revealing.

I had a technical revelation sort of an experience at the Ratjen show. It wasn't even particularly that the revelations were useful to me personally. They were just really interesting. So let's start:

Johann-Evangelist Holzer, German, 1709 - 1740
The Arts and Powers Pay Homage to Emperor Charles VI
1732 pen and brown ink with gray wash, heightened with white, and blue-gray oil paint on brown laid paper
Wolfgang Ratjen Collection, Patrons' Permanent Fund

(It is worth clicking on this thumbnail to see the much larger file - I've never figured out how to post larger pictures on the main blog page, and the conversation below won't make much sense if you don't take a good look at Holzer's drawing.)

What's so interesting about this picture? Remember, this show was in the manner of technical revelation, not artistic inspiration. We aren't going to talk about the grandeur of humanity or anything like that, much. No, what's interesting is those rectangular boards the Arts are holding. I found they produced a marvelous sense of fluttering movement. At first, I thought it was merely the intrusion of flattened geometric objects into the deep and organic pictorial space. Actually, I lied to you - I had ideas for paintings occurring to me the whole time. Imagine collapsing truncated octahedrons and cuboctahedrons littering a frantic image:

truncated octahedron

truncated cuboctahedron

Of course, you go too far with that, you're straying into Dali territory:

Been there. Done that.

So then I returned to this question - why did those boards produce such a sense of motion? And I remembered a sight I think many of our American readers are familiar with - that shifting plane of metallic titles during the fakey "entertainment news" they play before movie trailers at Regal theaters. Amazingly, this is the best image of it I could find on the Web:

This clarified the phenomenon for me: the sense of motion results from the following - we have a form simple enough (a rectangle) that the mind can produce an ultra-rapid rotation of it in three-dimensional space. That is, when we see this rectangle multiple times in the Holzer drawing, we almost instantaneously interpret it in reference to a single Rectangle which we have available in our minds. We do not interpret these multiple rectangles Holzer has drawn entirely as separate objects. Rather, part of our mind sees them as multiple views of a single object; an object moving in space and time. So the drawing contains a sense of motion and fluttering because we have an intuitive sense of a single item moving around in it.

Compare the rectangles with this medieval Mary painting:

To what extent are you thinking of those angels as distinct entities? They are also easily read as repetitions of a single entity, seen in different ways.

It is relatively easy for us to distinguish objects that look different from one another. If you have a banana, an orange, and an apple, you would say you have three fruits. But if you have three identical apples - you'll still say you have three fruits. But the distinction is not as deep. You will also have a gut sense that you have three of one fruit; that, in fact, you have one fruit only.

This is an uncanny concept. We know intellectually that distinct objects are separate objects which must be counted separately. But when they look the same, we cannot quite viscerally believe that we are not looking at a single object. This is the point at which our concept of number itself becomes indistinct. When the object is very simple, the uncanniness is quite obvious - the Holzer drawing flutters uncannily. But when the object is complex, the uncanniness is subtler. The uncanniness of repetition is something I am partial to myself:

Gemini, oil on canvas, 48"x48", 2008

Emma Twice, oil on canvas, 48"x48", 2009

I have more to say about other drawings in the Ratjen collection - we'll return to the topic over the course of the week.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

There is Nothing You Can Offer Epictetus

Allow me to get all preachy for a minute - as if I weren't all preachy all the time. But artist Marina Ross had something interesting to say in the comment section on that post about scams. She was describing her own experience with a similar scam, and concluded thus:

they tend to target those they think are really desperate so try your best not to be

This reminded me of a few things. First of all, it reminded me of desperation. I've had experience with desperation as it pertains to many different things in life, but this being an art blog, let's talk about desperation and artists. In other words - let's talk again about something aside from art itself.

There are few things less charming than desperation. I've seen artists desperate to sell work. Any fool can sense desperation: the unctuousness, the obsequiousness, the anxiety to stay in the face of the collector, the constant direction of the collector's attention to the work, to this or that aspect of the work - the sweaty forehead and the shining eye, the smell of need. This is a profoundly uncharismatic position to find oneself in, a position depressing to collector and artist alike. It leads later to self-disgust, to self-recrimination. What it hardly ever leads to is a sale…

Proust reminds us that we tend to receive those things we want most once we no longer want them. Of course, he was talking about Odette and Albertine, but he might as well have been talking about art sales. I am in a lucky position, an extremely lucky position: I can paint what I like and treat fairly calmly with collectors, because I have never depended on selling art to make a living. I'm not independently wealthy, I just have the best day job ever (ninja assassin)(I'm not actually a ninja assassin, although that would be sweet).

In another way, I suppose you could say that I am unlucky, because I am not hungry for sales. Hunger is a very important force in art. Hunger gets you into shows, collections, and museums. But I think I am hungry enough for the important part - I am starving to be a good artist. And I will let the rest take care of itself. Personally, I find being broke kind of paralyzing.

Now, moving on from the specifics, I am also reminded of the story of Amyclas, as told by Lucan in the Pharsalia, an incredibly turgid epic he wrote about Julius Caesar from 61-65 AD. The Pharsalia is kind of a ripoff of the Aeneid, which in itself is a ripoff of the Odyssey. This makes the Pharsalia a photocopy of a photocopy, with all the problems that go along with that:

Great epic poet.

OK epic poet.

Really not very good epic poet.

But it does have this bit about Amyclas (book V). Caesar is wandering around a beach at night in lousy weather, trying to find a boat that will take him across a body of water. He notices the very boat beside a hovel, and knocks on the door:

Amyclas from his couch of soft seaweed
Arising, calls: 'What shipwrecked sailor seeks
My humble home? Who hopes for aid from me,

By fates adverse compelled?' He stirs the heap

Upon the hearth, until a tiny spark
Glows in the darkness, and throws wide the door.

Careless of war, he knew that civil strife

Stoops not to cottages. Oh! happy life

That poverty affords! great gift of heaven

Too little understood! what mansion wall,
What temple of the gods, would feel no fear

When Caesar called for entrance?

I first learned of this episode (and of the Pharsalia) from a reference in Dante's Paradiso (XI:67-9, if you must know). Apparently this story was a big deal in the middle ages, illustrating as it does the Christian principle of poverty. And what is the principle? That he from whom you can take nothing, need not fear you. Fear, in this sense, represents being compelled to stray from virtue. Caesar, who rules the world, can do nothing to compel Amyclas to depart from virtue, because he cannot take anything from Amyclas.

This is a powerful principle, but its true scope is clarified better by Epictetus. I had the great good fortune to run into Epictetus at an early enough age to be deeply influenced by his thinking. He was born a slave in Hierapolis, Phrygia (now, like so much else, a part of Turkey) around 55 AD, and eventually got his freedom. His thinking as a philosopher was strongly shaped by his experience of slavery. In fact, I would nominate him as a contender for all-time best generalization of one's personal condition into a universal principle.


Here's what Epictetus has to say about life, conveniently placed at the very beginning of the Enchiridion. I wouldn't try your patience with a long quotation if it weren't worth it:

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you will not be harmed.

Aiming therefore at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself to be carried, even with a slight tendency, towards the attainment of lesser things. Instead, you must entirely quit some things and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would both have these great things, along with power and riches, then you will not gain even the latter, because you aim at the former too: but you will absolutely fail of the former, by which alone happiness and freedom are achieved.

Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, "You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be." And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.

Well, that's nice. He's a Stoic (incidentally, a stoa is a porch; the stoics originally sat around shooting the shit on the porch. Me and my buddies used to get high and do that in Carrboro, but nobody called us The Porchmen).

But consider this: Amyclas is fearless because nothing can be taken from him. Epictetus is at peace because he understands that not only can nothing be taken from him, but nothing can be given to him either. His poverty is not conditional, but definitional. What is his, must be his, has always been his, and will always be his. It is inalienable. What is not his he disciplines himself out of caring much for. It comes and goes, but he never considers it as belonging to him. Many of the things he considers not his are things with which it is difficult to part: life, limb, land. He is truly fearsome in what he doesn't consider his:

With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things. If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.

In practice, he fell a little short of this degree of detachment, abandoning his famed solitude in old age to adopt an adorable smudge-cheeked orphan and shack up with some dame.

Mrs. Epictetus

Epictetus Jr.

But as a model of living, his idea is compelling, and some several people do seem to reach it.

I have not reached it. However, among the many things flitting around my mind, there is always some measure of Epictetus' idea that we are slaves with regard to many things, and ought to cultivate the detachment of slaves. In this lies freedom - freedom from desperation, freedom to choose and act.

I think this is important for the artist as well. Your art belongs to you. It is inalienable - it runs deeper than Epictetan action because it is, in fact, who you are. But all else is not yours. Sales and lack of sales - recognition and lack of recognition - respect and a good name or their absence - mortality and immortality - these do not belong to you, and you do yourself no good in depending too much on how they turn out. So long as you retain your sense of possession of your art - possession in the sense that you possess your soul - then you have everything you need.

I apologize for the sermonizing; I am not trying to teach you, but rather, to teach myself.


I'm lousy at a lot of things. But for some reason, I'm kind of good at getting into magazines. No idea why. Since October 2009, I think there's only been one month when you couldn't go to Barnes & Noble and pick up a magazine with something or other on me in it. So let me give you the December report:

1. The Artist's Magazine. I was a finalist in their figurative competition, so I got my name - woo hoo! - printed in their finalist list in the December issue.

2. ARTnews. This one I didn't get into through any virtue, talent, or skill of my own. Rather, the enormously generous Claudia directed one of their writers to me after being interviewed herself for an article on models and artists who work with models. The writer, Gail Gregg, also an artist, chatted with me for something like half an hour, and in a short article based on about 75 interviews, made room for me here:
Personal chemistry with the artist turns out to be critical to the success of a model—and to the work that emerges from a session. Many artists, such as Inka Essenhigh, say they prefer models who bring their own personalities—an “air of drama”—to a pose, rather than those who are more passive. Painter Natalie Frank seeks models who “have a kind of beauty that’s a little off, a complicated kind of beauty.” Pearlstein looks for those who are flexible enough to hold difficult poses day after day. And painter Daniel Maidman prefers models with “expressive faces and expressive bodies—which is not the same thing as beauty.”
This makes me very happy - there are lots of art magazines, but at least in the American market, three tower over the rest: ARTnews, Art in America, and Artforum. The article, called Nothing Like the Real Thing, is the first time I've been mentioned in any of 'em.

Why did Claudia think to refer the writer to me? Well, for one thing, she's super-nice. And also because, at the time, we were working on this, which I've shown you a couple times already:

Living Things Came From Her
60"x40", oil on canvas, 2010

Claudia has the expressive face and expressive body, but she happens to be beautiful as well.

I know you'll read this at some point, Claudia. You're the best. Thanks for everything.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Something Hinky

Perhaps I should work up a boilerplate text for the beginnings of posts apologizing for the long intervals between them. Save me some trouble - apologies as always for my extended silence. I've been busy...

This will be a brief and practical post. I have plans for some rambling and impractical posts though!

Down to business. Maybe you're a working artist. Maybe you're not. Get this: I was emailed by an art scammer. That's kind of like trying to scam a homeless dude, I think. Unless your name is Damien Hirst, odds are good that if you're an artist you're not exactly a high capital target.

High. Capital. Target.

Let me share with you the email I got from this misguided clown:
fromLouis Hayne loiushaynes@yahoo.co.uk
dateWed, Nov 17, 2010 at 7:00 PM
subjectInterest in your work

I was going to come over to the United States for christmas holiday and was hoping i could purchase some of your work in person and as it is i do not think i will be coming to USA but am highly interested in purchasing some of your piece so am thinking the best thing to do is have you send me some images of the piece you have available or website to which i can see them and i select the one's that interest me and we can work out payment.I hope to read from you soon.
Well, let's just say that I don't have a strong instinct for thinking that people are lying. Because I am myself pretty godawful at lying, as any number of my ex-friends will tell you. So I kind of assume everyone's telling the truth. Obvious signs of questionable intent such as, oh, three spellings of the sender name, one of them imaginary and the others covering two genders, the lack of specific address to me, the undisclosed recipient "To" line - all of those failed to twig my scam alarm. I mean, I didn't get excited because I was like, "There's something kind of hinky about this." You know what set me off though? That horrible, horrible English. What kind of self-respecting, art-collecting Englishmanwoman would mangle our glorious language like that? The language of Shakespeare, of Chaucer, of Milton, of Dante*, of Cervantes†?

I wrote back and traded a few emails with this illiterate dipshit. Finally I concluded that this was not just kind of hinky, but severely hinky. I started googling art scams. I assumed that art scams consisted of amusing anecdotes involving Vermeer and the Nazis, and problematic Salvador Dali prints.

So I was a crook. Bite me.

But it turns out that there are actually some pretty standard scams involving the kind of contact I received. The mechanics are totally weird. Here's how I think works:
  1. They send you a cashier's check for the work, and a sizable overpayment for shipping.
  2. You deposit the check and it clears. You send the work and record the actual shipping cost.
  3. You send them the difference between their shipping overpayment and the actual shipping cost, via Western Union, which makes it impossible to trace the recipient.
  4. Some weeks later, your bank figures out the original cashier's check was fake and sends you a letter written in a distinctly cool tone. By then, you're out some artwork (which nobody but you cares about) and the shipping refund (which the scammer cares about).
Can you believe this? It's almost easier to just go ahead and get a job. To the extent I understand the procedure, I am in the debt of one Kathleen McMahon, a talented Californian painter, gallery owner, and, to the point, self-described anti-scam samurai. She runs a blog, Stop Art Scams, at which she documents and explains art scams. Particularly note her page explaining the mechanics of the scam. She was kind enough to consider my case; and she's posted the further emails of Loius from my little exchange with him/her. It's kind of embarrassing how many emails I traded with this douche, but I also think one ought not to hide embarrassing things. And hey - maybe if you're reading this, you won't get suckered like I was (I was only suckered out of a little bit of time, but time is the one thing we can't get back).

Incidentally, I noodled around in Gmail until I was able to find the raw text of the first email I received. It turned out it was received from homiemail-mx23.g.dreamhost.com, if you will, with a return path to a certain mackerelrodrigo@gmail.com.

Moral of story: no matter how pathetic you are, somebody more pathetic is out to pick your pocket.

*Technically, Dante did not write in English.
†Nor did Cervantes.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Before and After

A short post - what the hell?

Anyhow, I finished this painting, and I thought it might be interesting to compare the painting with the rough original thumbnail:

Some paintings stay closer to the thumbnail, some stray farther. In this case, the thumbnail was closely inspired by the personality of the model, the wonderful Claudia, and Claudia was able to hold a pose very close to the idea. So what do you know - it was consistent start to finish. I'm really happy with the final painting: Living Things Came From Her, oil on canvas, 60"x40".

As if you needed reminding, check out her blog, Museworthy. It's a terrific chronicle of a life spent participating in and thinking about art. It's a privilege to work with someone so excited about the work at hand...