Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Superman Vs. Edgar Allan Poe

This will probably work better if you click on the first image, then go through them in sequence via the little graphics menu at the bottom of the screen. Don't even scroll down in this view.

Happy new year, youse.

Art and Artists III: Forms of Beauty

The Blind Prophet

Let me conclude this sequence of posts with a slightly more detailed examination of what it means to an artist - in this case me - to be able to follow in real time the work of another artist - in this case, sculptor Sabin Howard.

Howard lives and works somewhere in New York, but most of my fairly minimal interaction with him is over Facebook. Lately, he has been working on some remarkable drawings. Here is the first one he posted:

Sabin Howard, Untitled Study, 2013, 18"x14", pencil on paper

Before we get down to analysis here, let me explain that I had an immediate and visceral reaction to this drawing. I thought, "Oh, I love this." Sometimes you fall in love with drawings; I fell in love with this.

Now that we've got the intensity of my reaction clear, I can attempt to dissect its cause. But I can make you no promises. The analysis is after-the-fact.

The first thing, which is evident to any artist with experience in figure drawing and which Howard confirms when asked, is that there was no model for this drawing. It is a construction: Howard constructed it based on his knowledge of anatomy, and the theory of the body he has derived from that knowledge. As he puts it, "I wanted to do more experimentation with the conceptualization of the body in geometric terms, how all the parts fit together. There is a lot about the architecture of the figure being the skeleton. And the musculature being the spinning organic element. As a sculptor I am an architect working with organic form."

Sabin Howard, Untitled Study, 2013, 18"x14", pencil on paper

That kind of offhand remark can only occur in the context of a wide, deep knowledge of the body as a machine. This mode of knowing characterized a sect of artists over many centuries, from Michelangelo to John Tenniel. It is pursued internally out of a thirst for absolute understanding, for a sense of the body that does not leave any part about right, but rather utterly right, exact as to itself. This pursuit replaces the real bodies of real people with a set of Forms derived in the mind: the body as parsed and created in the mind, cleaned of its inconsistencies and variations, made perfect and harshly true. It is only in this mode of art-making that the artist becomes really god-like, in the sense of creating a world. The artist becomes a calipers-god, working from first principles all the way up to something with a complexity like life, but a life owing nothing to nature, and everything to mindfulness.

Such a pursuit etches its nature into the aesthetics of its creations. There is a sense of glaring reason to the work, a pitiless, shadowless brilliance. In The Secret History, Donna Tartt does some writing which has stuck with me on the Greek mindset. Discussing words for "fire," her narrator says:

"I can only say that an incendium is in its nature entirely different from the feu with which a Frenchman lights his cigarette, and both are very different from the stark, inhuman pur that the Greeks knew, the pur that roared from the towers of Ilion or leapt and screamed on that desolate, windy beach, from the funeral pyre of Patroklos."

"Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it."

Yes, that is it. The form of beauty Howard pursues is the Greek beauty, awful, unmerciful, scouring. There is no more hiding from the crushing demands of virtue or from the stark final nature of things in his conception of the figure. Howard is, after a manner of speaking, a servant of Apollo, and not just any servant. He is trying to become Tiresias; he scarcely requires eyes to see what he sees.

Sabin Howard, Untitled Study, 2013, 18"x14", pencil on paper

This is not the only thing we need, but if we do not have this, we might as well have nothing.

Now, this is not how I myself ordinarily draw. My fundamental means of drawing is not knowledge but sight, specifically sight of shapes. I've written about my native mode of visual cognition here. For all that, the mind has difficulty integrating pure shape into unified human forms. So I got around the problem by taking gross anatomy - I hacked up cadavers for a couple years, and drew my own anatomical atlas.

Daniel Maidman, Front and Back Views of the Spine, 2002, 14"x11", pen on paper

This emphasis on explicit knowledge of anatomy allowed me to introduce a convincing internal structure into my figures, but I never sought to foreground the practice. For Howard, the body in itself, as a noble machine interfacing with a world of forces, is a topic of obsession. For me, the body was always a secondary concern, beautiful but mainly as the repository of the invisible person. It's the sheet the ghost wears so you can see it.

My approach is not better than his; his approach is not better than mine. There is room enough in the world for both of us, and I think there is need enough in the soul for both of us too.

Be that as it may, when you look at art that moves you profoundly, it rubs off on you a bit. So the next time I had a long pose to draw, this was what I drew:

Daniel Maidman, Aubrey's Torso, 2013, 15"x11", pencil on paper

It's not really a Howard drawing, but it owes something to Howard. It is a more complete section of the body, more unified in its conception, than I usually bother with. I emphasized putting every part in, and getting every part right. And I did have to do a good deal of construction - as people who have drawn Aubrey know, she has hair down to her waist. During this pose, her hair was in front of her, on her left, blocking a hefty swath of my view. So I had to make up a lot of the right side of the drawing, based on glimpses, symmetry, and general knowledge.

After that, the effect of looking at Howard's work persisted, right through an event important to me for other reasons. What happened was, I had a chance to work with Piera again.

The Hope of Eternal Return

Over time, I think we tend to notice that life involves a lot of loss. You choose some way to live, you live that way for a while, and then you lose whatever it was. This is a constantly renewed process, and whatever the rewards of new things, the pain of loss persists. Rarely does life permit return.

I have had five primary muses in my life as an artist, and Piera is the fourth. My wife and I became close friends with her and her husband Emanuele, also an artist. Making people feel loved is a talent, or maybe a state of character. Whatever it is, I know of nobody in whom it is more inborn than Piera. My first painting of her was also my first painting as a technically well-developed painter:

Daniel Maidman, Piera, 2008, 28"x22", oil on canvas

But Piera has no time for modeling anymore; she and Emanuele had a baby a few years ago, and he is the focus of their lives. Over Christmas, though, owing to a combination of vacation overlaps, Piera had a few hours to come model for me. I elected to do preparatory sketches for paintings.

Well, it turns out that Piera actually looks a bit Howardish herself these days. When I first met her in 2007, she was strong but curvy. Almost seven years later, she still has the curvy skeletal architecture, but she's worked off a lot of the flesh that used to overlie it. She's wiry now, the kind of wiry that will be formally beautiful all the way to 70 or 80 years, like Saint Jerome. The first drawing I did of her reflected this combination of her revised anatomy and my exposure to Howard's work:

Daniel Maidman, Preparatory Sketch for a Painting of Piera I, 2013, 15"x11", pencil on paper

I like this very much; I liked that, like cigarette carcinogens, superpowers can be absorbed second-hand. It is good to draw the complete human machine sometimes, in its naked excellence. However, in my second drawing, my natural tendencies reasserted themselves.

Daniel Maidman, Preparatory Sketch for a Painting of Piera II, 2013, 15"x11", pencil on paper

Here I followed shape at the expense of proportion. There are no lines of perspective, there is no telling if I got it right or wrong. There may well be no right or wrong to this. It is as irregular as French in comparison with the martial Greek of the first one. It doesn't even especially look like Piera. And yet to me, it very much feels like her. It feels like her personality and mood; it is the Piera we both recognized when we considered it after the sitting. This is the landscape of my native sense of beauty.

Drawing Piera again, I felt a happiness unique to the restoration of some way of living we had loved, and lost. People, places, practices, things - all of them are ways of living, and we do not own any of them. I had the good fortune to live my life as an artist in the company of Piera for some years. Later, I lost her. I moved on, and I was happy, but time itself is an affront to my sensibilities, and I never stopped grieving for this absent part of my life. Then she came back to work with me again, and I felt right with myself and the world. This was the happiness of restoration.

There is no moral to this winding anecdote. Sabin Howard, in my opinion, has made a breakthrough in these drawings in his passionate pursuit of a particular fundamental form of beauty. If I were not me, as an artist, I might well want to be him. I have a different form of beauty which is natural to me. I am seeking to become excellent in mine as he is in his. I become richer seeing what he does, and I hope you become richer considering this account.


This is what my life is like as an artist, making art and writing about art, among artists. Many of the best I know are kind. I often write about friends, but I do not write well of them because they are friends. Rather, I sought to become friends with them because I first knew and admired their work.

Of course I want to be the best artist in the world. All artists must. But that's for later. For now, I do not even want to be the best artist in the room. I want to be an artist worth considering in a room with many splendid artists.

I worked hard as hell to get good enough even to gain entry to that room, and I think I have gotten through the door. I remain in New York so that this concept of a room will find embodiment, sometimes, in actual rooms, where I will actually run into people like Steven Assael and Dorian Vallejo, Claudia Hajian and Fred Hatt, Michelle Doll and Lisa Lebofsky and Bonnie DeWitt, Jean-Pierre Roy and Noah Becker, and Sabin Howard; and many more besides.

This is the best picture I can draw for you of my part of the art scene in New York at the end of 2013. In the next year, I hope to go on working hard, receiving inspiration sometimes, seeing work, talking with artists, self-promoting as I can, and trying not to turn into a dick.

My wish for you is that you will have something worthy of passion in your life; that you will have scope to work on becoming excellent at it; and that you will not be alone in your passion, but will be welcomed in the company of others who share in it. If you've already got those things, I hope you won't forget that they represent a wealth beyond measure.

As usual, I am seeking to instruct myself first, but if I'm saying anything useful for you, I'm glad for that as well.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Art and Artists II: The Angel of the Lower East Side

Deck the Walls

Last time, I told you about a chain of events triggered by running into artist Dorian Vallejo at Steven Assael's drawing show at Forum Gallery. Today I'd like to continue my incomplete portrait of the art scene in New York at the end of 2013 - incomplete even as to my own little corner of it. But still, better than no account at all.

The holidays were nearly upon us, and I went to the New York Academy of Art's Christmas party, called Deck the Walls (because they have art by students and faculty on the walls). I've gotten invited to these things a few years in a row now. I think they invite people who donate art to their fundraiser auctions, which I do, because I like the art that Academy graduates are making, so whatever they're teaching over there, I'd like them to continue to have a chance to teach it.

The parties happen in the main room of their building on Franklin Street, in Tribeca, and are invariably packed and difficult to navigate. What I like to do is alternate between finding somebody I know and talking with them, and finding the bartender and obtaining a drink. At this particular party, I mostly spoke with two people I'm very happy to know.

One is Michelle Doll. For my money, Doll has John Shaft beat on keeping it together: she got an MFA from the Academy, paints beautifully, and dresses fabulously. She's done all this while raising her son alone. Like Dorian Vallejo, and Claudia Hajian, she is an incredibly sweet individual. Here's one of her paintings:

Michelle Doll, Mother and Child (EE1), 2013, 30" x 20", oil on panel

Considering it again, it's a thing apart from the rendering I saw the first time that speaks to me now. This time, it's the warm-toned abrasions or marks on the surface. These run through the work, indiscriminate of the object they overlie. They serve to unify the composition formally, and thus the mother and child thematically. They are the undertow that sweeps the two of them in together, preserving them during this interval as one flesh.

The other person I spoke with quite a bit was Lisa Lebofsky. Lebofsky is a painter who has done something I've considered but never done, for all that I would like to and admire her having pulled it off. I am, like her, attracted to the colder regions of the Earth. Unlike me, she went deep into the lethal, endless cold, and dragged images out of that beautiful, hostile land for her art:

Lisa Lebofsky, Antarctic Islands and Glacier, 2012, 25" x 40", oil on aluminum

I am awed by this.

I don't know Lebofsky well, actually, and a lot of our conversation involved getting into sync. Neither of us could remember whether, or how many times, we'd met. She knows my writing and painting, and I know her work - in fact, I've been in her studio. As for hanging out, though, it was unclear.

I've been in her studio because a friend of hers showed it off to me. I guess we kind of broke in, you're not really supposed to go in somebody's studio when they're not around. Lebofsky's friend is Bonnie DeWitt, whom I think of as the angel of the Lower East Side.

DeWitt is a painter and the director of the oddly-located Kraine Gallery. As a painter, she has a cheerfully perverse sensibility, like an early Renaissance narrative painter, or a German fairy-tale writer:

Bonnie DeWitt, Horse Massacre, 2010, 32"x40", gouache on paper

I actually don't know her artwork extensively: she has foregrounded her curation in my encounters with her. DeWitt is a tiny little twinkly pixie with red hair and a black leather jacket, Faye Dunaway cheekbones and a startlingly deep, dry voice. If you've looked at network maps at all, you'll have seen the famous nodes – points with large numbers of network connections. In social networks, these nodes are people whom everyone knows, even though the members of this "everyone" may not know one another. DeWitt is a natural node. She knows and adores all the artists in a certain sector, and is reciprocally known and adored.

When I think of punk rock, I think of DeWitt. I think very highly of punk rock, but I should emphasize that my actual contact with it in the world is minimal. I have constructed my own punk rock in my head, taking some of the trappings of the real thing and fashioning the thing I deduced and needed. My personal punk rock is a combination of intense oneselfness, combined with a fuck-you attitude toward authority, and a bracingly nihilistic edge, a sense that it would be better for it all to burn down rather than to keep on going as it is. In this sense, DeWitt is punk rock.

She approximately haunts the Lower East Side, in which I include the East Village. Much of this zone is still poor enough for artists to inhabit, and it is infested with studios and little galleries, including my own, Dacia Gallery. Many of these artists are the outcasts of the art world - they are the high-rendering figurative painters. Ranging from the deeply expressionist to the tightly academic, these painters grapple in their work with the same contemporary cultural issues as more mainstream art world players. But because of their helpless and unswayable adherence to representation in their work, they have been consigned to the ecological niche that gave rise to punk rock (well, punk rock as I imagine it) in the first place: financially hobbled and socially outcast.

In such conditions, a punk attitude naturally results. Among the artists I've met in this neighborhood, there is a warren-like, off-grid feeling of community, and an edge of point-blank starvation, and above all a totally natural sense of selfhood. These are people who cannot be other than themselves, and they've got their poverty, and the indifference or scorn of the mainstream, to prove it. To this talented, alienated cohort, DeWitt addresses an attitude of boundless, broad-winged love; and to the rest of the world, the flaming sword.

Hence, the angel of the Lower East Side.

The Bottom of Chrystie Street

Sadly, DeWitt wasn't at Deck the Walls, and not only was it sad in the sense that I didn't get to see her, but also because they had free drinks, and DeWitt can drink like a fish. I had a fair amount to drink myself, but I had a second thing I needed to get to the same evening, so I ventured out into the winter cold in my suit jacket (who wants to take a coat and carry it all evening?). I had to get to The Lodge Gallery, on Chrystie Street, to see a drawing in "TGF Sports," a group show. The drawing was by the marvelous Jean-Pierre Roy.

Chrystie is a ways east of the Academy, so I had some walking to do. Unlike driving drunk, it seems you can mostly only hurt yourself by walking drunk. So I feel little compunction about praising the practice. I like walking around Manhattan very much, and I especially like walking around Manhattan while tipsy, and if possible, alone, at night, underdressed, in the winter. The textures of surfaces seem coarser, the lights more colorful, the towers more majestic. Individual people are more distinct from one another, and store windows endlessly fascinating. The light spirit of New York, of plans and their fruition - the glamor of the city - shimmers on everything under these conditions. One feels a feeling of being at the start of things, of excitement and high hopes.

In such an open mood, you discover new things. What I discovered is that at least some of those peculiarly cheap Chinese bus lines one hears so much about have their depots at the bottom of Chrystie Street. Did you know that? I didn't know that. I could have hightailed it down to Raleigh that night, although I didn't.

My advice about getting blitzed and strolling around a city at night might not be good advice for you. You might not be a 6'1" man. Or, you might not have the good fortune to react to moderate inebriation by experiencing a sense of universal affection and goodwill.

I made it to The Lodge, and saw Roy's spellbinding drawing, one of his highly detailed envisionings of himself occupying dreamily unlikely situations; in this instance, a quotation from Rambo III - two of Roy, bandanna'd, playing the Afghan sport of buzkashi, which is like polo but with a headless goat, bien sûr.

Jean-Pierre Roy, May god deliver us from the venom of the cobra, the teeth of the tiger and from 80's American cinema, 2013, 22"x30", graphite on paper

I only saw Roy for a minute, which is too bad, because I like him very much. He's one of the few people I know who makes me feel a little short and insubstantial. He is an enormous bear of a man, sincere and outgoing, enthusiastic about his teaching and painstaking in his strange, ambitious work.

Instead, I spent most of my time at the opening chatting with Noah Becker. Becker and I have been interviewing one another at Huffington. We are both figurative painters, but our approaches are very different.

Noah Becker, Self Portrait #2, 2012, 24"x30", oil on canvas

In reproduction, Becker's work is nearly inscrutable - flat of affect, icily moderne, stripped of context and implication. He founded Whitehot Magazine and plays jazz saxophone. His answers to interview questions are frustratingly tangential. As one feels in encountering an image of his work, I felt I could deduce almost nothing about him personally. He seemed intimidatingly cool. Before I met him, I was a little frightened of meeting him.

I first saw his work in person at his solo show at The Lodge. It turns out that his paint, like mine, is thinly applied. There are hesitations and lacunae in it. You can see through it in passages to the faint ink scribbles of his underdrawings. The colors, which seem so blank on a screen, vary subtly in the flesh, a variation which betrays a diffident affection for paint and for sight.

Similarly, he is himself more rounded and human in person. To my enormous relief, it turned out that when I met him, I liked him, and the reverse seemed true as well. His encyclopedic interest and knowledge of art and the art world is modified by a quirkiness and self-doubt which make it possible to converse with him.

The Lodge Gallery, the night in question. 
Left to right: Noah Becker, me (photograph by Jason Patrick Voegele)
Fascinating historical note: it was this picture which convinced me 
to keep my hair buzzed to no more than 1/4" in length from now on.

I have nothing interesting to report about our conversation at the Lodge. It was mostly in regards to the ins and outs of e-publishing. He wanted to hear about the technical factors I experienced e-publishing the first novella-sized chunk of Railroad to Zanzibar, my epic historical fantasy novel.

Which, incidentally, is now permanently linked through the graphic on the right side of this blog. It's 99c and I think you ought to order a copy, because I have put so much effort into writing divertingly on art for you all this time and you'd like to support me, right? - and also it's the start of an amazing story, in my humble opinion.

More next time, and for once, what I mean is "tomorrow."

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Art and Artists I: A Spanish Woman

Note: Longtime readers of this blog will notice here certain assumptions about what you do and don't know, that are inconsistent with the history of the blog. That's because this piece is, guess what, designed for the less-longtime Huffington readership. They haven't posted it yet, and this is one of three I'd like up before the end of the year. So I'm posting it here to stick to my schedule in at least one forum. The tone, however, is more of here than there. I'm interested in telling in these posts some stories of my experience of art and artists, and not just the stories of artwork.


I wrote a few weeks ago about Steven Assael's work at Forum Gallery. But I didn't give you any context for my experience of seeing the work. What happened was that I went to the opening. Naturally I ran into several artists I knew; one of them was Dorian Vallejo.

Dorian Vallejo, untitled drawing, 2009

Vallejo does a lot of kinds of work, but I mostly know his drawings, which share an elegant, light-footed sense of line and a sweet-natured sexiness with Gustav Klimt's drawings. I have heard that Klimt had several models in his studio at a time. This story goes that he would ask his models just to wander around, and when he saw one do something interesting, he'd ask her to hold for a bit. Similarly, Robert Henri talks about preserving the original impulse or insight throughout the representation of a figure. Vallejo's loose, graceful drawings seem to reflect a similar procedure. Discussing the drawing above, he wrote, "The drawing you picked was a quick one done while sketching with several friends. Often when I draw with friends I allow whatever is happening with the model to suggest a direction for the drawing. Referencing Steve [Assael], one of his points of instruction was to be mindful of maintaining the initial spark of enthusiasm and spontaneity throughout a drawing."

Dorian Vallejo, untitled drawing, 2013

Vallejo himself is one of the nicest guys you could hope to meet. You can tell right away, it radiates off him. Plus he looks like Superman's shy brother.

At Assael's opening, Vallejo was carrying a Strand bag and he was pleased to show me what was in it. Not a book from the Strand, naturally, but a book he had been given at a place called Michael Altman Fine Art. Altman is a dealer who keeps a place of business in a nice townhouse on east 70th Street, and the first floor was hosting a show of watercolors, drawings, and oil paintings by John Singer Sargent. This was on my list of things to see, along with Balthus at the Met, Vermeer at the Frick, Hammershøi at Scandinavia House, and Magritte at MoMA. Vallejo bumped Sargent to the top of my list by noting that a. the show was closing shortly, and b. they were giving out free beautiful hardbacks of the show. You go where the free art books are. So I went.

At the townhouse on east 70th Street, I had several beautifully appointed living rooms and parlors of the most dazzling John Singer Sargent work mostly to myself. But I didn't see the free Sargent books anywhere, so I asked the guy at the desk. It turned out they'd given away nearly a thousand, and were nearly out, and were hiding the rest. He gave me one, and I returned to the thing that was most interesting to me - a little portrait of a Spanish woman from 1879-80. This was the most interesting to me because I've had a copy of it hanging on a bulletin board for eight years:

my bulletin board

This study is one of my favorite minor paintings. There is something about the way her eyes vanish into darkness that has always grabbed me. I have linked it in my mind with heroic resolve. To the left, there is light, and to the right, necessity. She turns to the right, to get done what needs doing. I have repeatedly incorporated the power of this choice, epitomized in this image, into my own work:

Daniel Maidman, left to right: The Sicilian Expedition (detail), 2010, 60"x40", oil on canvas The Black and White War (detail), 2011, 60"x72", oil on canvas

I never particularly thought about seeing this painting in person. But now here I was, and it was a physical thing, quite small and in a fancy frame, on a wall in front of me. It was at this point that I realized I'd simply been looking at a very dark print of it. You can *totally fucking see* her eyes. Sargent's darks are not especially dark in this particular painting.

John Singer Sargent, A Spanish Woman, 1879-80, 22"x18", oil on canvas

Whoopsie. I tried to figure out what this meant for me. I guess it doesn't mean very much. The power of the image remains the same, but the image does not originate in the Sargent painting. Sargent is not mine; he was, and remains, his own man. Well.

I asked the desk guy if I could stand around a while and do a drawing of this painting, and he said sure, why not, so I did. For about an hour or so, I got to commune with Sargent and his paint, and the thoughts and character of his Spanish woman. Elderly art enthusiasts came and went; upstairs I could hear Altman (I assume it was Altman) on the phone, working out the sale of a painting. The desk guy and the door guy, both young, were friendly and light-handed in their hosting of the scene. Here's what I drew:

Daniel Maidman, Copy of 'A Spanish Woman', 2013, 15"x11", pencil on paper


My encounter with the Sargent, and the divergence between my idea of the thing and the thing itself, left me with a contact high for a few days. It was more electrical than chemical in character. I buzzed, with ideas and impulses.

At about this time, I was trying to figure out what to do for Claudia Hajian's year-end art show. Many of those who life draw in New York will know Hajian; she is one of the great art models of the city. She is beautiful, but more importantly, she is striking. Her sense of the pose is wide-ranging and dynamic. One learns very rapidly from drawing her, and it is easy to learn. Hajian used to be a history teacher. Seeking a change in her life, she tried modeling for art classes. It was love at first sight, and she has never looked back. Fairly unusually among models, she also writes extensively, on modeling, art, and music, at her very popular Museworthy blog. She's erudite, funny, and generous, qualities which have kept her blog fresh over many years. Her writing is some of the key material I studied when I began to write about art myself.

At Museworthy, Hajian was hosting a year-end art show. She posted four photographs our artist friend Fred Hatt took of her, and invited her readers to make what work from it they would. She would post it all. Hatt himself contributed a portrait, one of his high-energy, high-chroma pieces. He has spent many years figuring out how to prioritize depicting what his subjects are like very, very slightly more than what they look like.

Fred Hatt's interpretations of Claudia: photograph versus drawing (aquarelle crayon on paper) 

For my part, I was still buzzing from my Sargent encounter. I turned my mind to a particular Degas painting. I am virtually certain the reproduction I know of this painting has little to do with the original, because it's a very contrasty book-cover reproduction. I have the book in my studio:

What I like about this is the hard way the explicit outlines butt up against the rendering of light and volume in the interior shapes. And he just doesn't bother with the bits that aren't interesting to him. Knowing when to stop is important.

I've been thinking about this painting for a long time. The low-stress environment of working alone on a small painting from a photograph seemed like a good time to test out the principles I was admiring in the Degas. So I put some blue, some brown, and some white on my palette, washed some burnt umber onto a canvas, and let 'er rip. An hour and a half later - oh, I'm sorry, 38 years and an hour and a half later - I was done:

Daniel Maidman, Study of Claudia, 2013, 24"x18", oil on canvas

I really like this quite a lot. I like the outlines, and the forms, and the way the incompleteness is organic to painting, but maintains that most desirable phantom, the energy of drawing. I think I'm going to do some more with these principles at some point. Better still, Claudia liked it. It's included in her art-show post here.

All these things took place because I ran into Dorian Vallejo at Steven Assael's opening at Forum Gallery. And that took place because I impoverish myself to live in New York, where this kind of thing just happens.


DORIAN VALLEJO ONLINE: http://dorianvallejo.com/
CLAUDIA HAJIAN'S BLOG: http://artmodel.wordpress.com/
FRED HATT ONLINE: http://fredhatt.com/

SARGENT: http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/john-singer-sargent/a-spanish-woman

Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Jewel With a Universe In It

Laxness in blog maintenance continues. I am finding that Huffington captures a great deal of my writing time, and not only my writing time, but my mode of writing. On the one hand, I like to exercise my perception and analysis in discussing the art I am looking at, which is my focus over there. On the other hand, I think I could stand to talk about myself more.

Be that as it may, I am going to repost here some writing from over there. I may post more, if time permits, but at the very least I want to post this piece below. Why? Because it is about Dina Brodsky, and Dina Brodsky is an artist who has believed in my writing for longer than my writing has been in any way prominent. She has always wanted me to turn the eye of my writing toward her work, and while this is not uncommon, she preferred this blog to Huffington because it is mine, and Huffington is not. That's very unusual, and very touching.

If I didn't like her work, and have something that I thought was interesting to say about it, all the touchingness in the world wouldn't have gotten me to write about it. But I do like her work, and I always have - I think it's excellent work. And I've been pondering what to say about it as long as I've known it. When I finally figured that out, I completely ignored her wishes about where to publish. I wanted to offer my thoughts from the tall platform, especially since it was about a show which is up right now, but not for much longer. Given limited time for uploading a post, I posted it to Huffington first. But now that I have a minute, I'll finally honor her wishes, and post it here too.


I have been wanting to write about Dina Brodsky forever. But I'm glad it took me a while to get down to it, because in the meantime I read Walter Benjamin's 1936 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." I know every other art enthusiast has already read it. What can I say? I'm slow.

Benjamin gives me some of the tools I need to describe what makes Brodsky's art special. But before we talk about what makes her art special, let's talk about what makes her art good.

Insomnia, oil on mylar
Brodsky has several favorite subjects, and she has developed her exploration of them to a high level of skill and atmosphere. My favorite of her subjects is the abandoned interior. As we see in Insomnia, she works in the regions of unease (as in the crumpled sheets), and the uncannily subjective (as in the steep drop-off of light from foreground to background), and finally, outright menace (as in the looming dark of the wall).

Demolition Spyhole #2, oil on mylar
There is something of the interior spaces of Hammershøi to her work, but where Hammershøi mixed domestic comfort with faint anxiety, Brodsky catches that balance much farther on its way toward apocalypse: the comfort is gone, the anxiety is alarming, and the spaces themselves are undergoing collapse.

Venturing out from the ruins of the interior, Brodsky seeks and finds cities to match:

888 Newark Avenue, oil on mylar

There is something dreadfully lonely to her cityscapes. It is not only because they lack people, but because they lack people in places where we have a right to expect people to be found. It is not impossible that one might come upon so solitary a scene, but it is unlikely; if sustained, disturbing.

Glen Street Station, oil on mylar
These paintings strike me as being paintings of after-the-fact, of missed opportunity. People were here: they did build these buildings. And they only left recently: the lights are still on. And yet now they are gone, and they are not coming back. No human voice will speak again.
This seems to me the theme of Brodsky's recent work. The overpowering and slightly unnatural sense of isolation is what I think makes it good. All of these pieces are on display in the show "Desert Places," through January 3rd in Somerville, Massachusetts, at the Mµseum, about which more below.

installation view, "Desert Places," Mµseum
Now that we've discussed the content of Brodsky's work and what makes it good, I'd like to get back to Walter Benjamin, and what makes Brodsky's work special.

In "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Benjamin performs some very interesting analysis of the impact of mechanical reproduction on certain qualities he sees in art, namely "authenticity" and "aura":
Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. ... The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.
Against this force of authenticity, Benjamin sets mechanical reproduction:
Confronted with its manual reproduction, which was usually branded as a forgery, the original preserved all its authority; not so vis a vis technical reproduction. ... it enables the original to meet the beholder halfway, be it in the form of a photograph or a phonograph record. ... The situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated. ... that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. ... By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.
He is, incidentally, describing here the classic drainage of the force of the Mona Lisa by the time you get around to visiting the Louvre. But what is the broader significance of the decline of aura?
The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. ... We know that the earliest art works originated in the service of a ritual - first the magical, then the religious kind. It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function. ... for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.
Benjamin fleshes out a bifurcation of art itself:
Two polar types stand out: with one, the accent is on the cult value; with the other, on the exhibition value of the work. ... The elk portrayed by the man of the Stone Age on the walls of his cave was an instrument of magic. He did expose it to his fellow men, but in the main it was meant for the spirits. ... With the emancipation of the various art practices from ritual go increasing opportunities for the exhibition of their products. ... With the different methods of technical reproduction of a work of art, its fitness for exhibition increased to such an extent that the quantitative shift between its two poles turned into a qualitative transformation of its nature. ... To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility.
And finally we get to what makes Dina Brodsky's work so interesting. It is not reproducible, and it can scarcely be shown. The pictures of her work above are not so much misleading as simply untrue. Consider again the installation view at the oddly-named Mµseum:

Now let's zoom back to an uncropped view of the same installation:

Wait - is that a dollhouse? Why yes, yes it is. The µ in Mµseum is mu, the Greek letter used by scientists for "micro-." Here's the opening of Brodsky's show, on October 19th:

You can just about make out the entire Mµseum in the background, southeast of the Tropicana sign. It is a box nailed to a wall, its address given as "72½ Union Square, Somerville, MA (between the Subway and The Independent)."

It is no longer unusual to meet artists who paint as if it were 1640, or 1830, or 1900. These contemporary artists have mastered, and carry on, various extraordinarily difficult painting traditions as if the time since their original decline had not elapsed. Brodsky has innovated a different, more radical rejectionism. She rejects modernity not as a set of techniques, but as a concept. Her rejectionism is philosophical in nature, unseeable, categorical. Feeling out her way back to Benjamin's first pole of art, the cult value, she makes things which are perversely unshowable. "Perversely," you say? Well, call it integrity. She is not indifferent to galleries, money, and fame, and she's got them, a little. She could have more, but her integrity makes her care about other things. Her work is unknown virtually by design. And yet, almost everyone who knows her work is dazzled by it. Take a look at another one:
Hour of the Rabbit, oil on mylar
Like all the other pieces shown here, it is oil on mylar, and the mylar is a 2-inch circle. I suspect she gets her circles from Canal Plastics, one of my favorite stores in New York. What you're seeing here doesn't really convey the utterly bizarre impression her work makes, because it has a bulletproof aura: mechanical reproduction does not "depreciate" it, it simply bounces off of it.

What I mean by this is that the dazzlement her work produces is not a special effect. Its mere size and virtuosity do not produce its impression. And yet its size and virtuosity are fundamental to its impression. It is the combination of the size, the virtuosity, and the art that does it. These are full-fledged pieces of artwork, speaking to the human condition, and they would work at a more orthodox 36" diameter. At a 2" diameter, however, they cross over from the age of reproduction to the age of magic.

I do not think we need to think of this necessarily in terms of the cult. The tone with which Benjamin uses the term makes me suspect that his socialist materialism is causing him to deride spiritual things. And yet what he speaks of as the cult, is a concrete apparatus for addressing ongoing spiritual needs; we need them as much as did those men of the Stone Age. Elsewhere, Benjamin describes "the increasing formation of masses," and talks about artwork in reproduction as being well suited to the mass man. In this he is correct. But we still have those persistent spiritual needs, and one of them is solitude.

We need to stand alone in an empty world, distractions banished, noise silenced; we need to stand alone and encounter ourselves. The age of the mass threatens always to make us strangers to ourselves, and we need time alone to recognize ourselves again.

Non-reproducible art is necessarily a solitary experience. One cannot look at Brodsky's work on a computer screen in company of the Web, or even in a gallery with a crowd. One must approach it alone, and to see it clearly one must hold it in one's hand, like a little treasure, a jewel with a universe in it. This is a solitary approach to the work, and the work rewards it by reflecting that solitude back, by providing breathing space for the time alone.

The work is elitist in the ordinary sense that few people can own it, and in the unusual sense that few people can even see it, not properly. It admits of no posters, iPhone cases, or screen savers. It can scarcely fit in a book. Photographs make her dainty technique look clunky. Brodsky's gifts, in short, cannot be given to all. They are not mass gifts. But then again, probably most people do not want them.

I want them, though, and I want to tell you about them, because I hope you'll go seeking what I saw in them. You can visit Somerville and go by the Mµseum, surely a worthy junior sibling of Los Angeles's magnificently eccentric Museum of Jurassic Technology. If you are in New York, perhaps you can keep an eye out for shows Brodsky participates in here.

But if you cannot do these things, how wonderful and strange is it that we have here paintings that we cannot see, that we so compellingly cannot see that instead, we sit together and tell a story about them? This is the kind of cult they invoke; you and I are both lucky to be spending a little while inside their circle of magic.


All images courtesy of the Mµseum
Dina Brodsky online: http://dinabrodsky.com/
Mµseum online: http://tinymuseum.org/
"Desert Places" at the Mµseum, 72½ Union Square, Somerville, MA 02144 (between the Subway and The Independent), 24/7 until January 3rd, 2014

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Holiday Sale!

I recognize that I am not the most faithful blogger lately. I apologize for that. I have, you will be glad to hear, been spending a lot of time drawing and painting. And I have slipped into a wordless interval - I don't feel as much of a need to talk about art, and moreover, I haven't got the time for it. I do have some ideas brewing, but lord knows when I'll find an afternoon to write one down properly.

In the meantime, I do have a holiday drawing sale going on - I've marked my 15"x11" drawings down to $175, until December 15th. The most complete archive of the drawings is down the right hand side of this page on my website. These are drawings of people. Men people and women people.

If you go over there, and are of a mind to acquire something for yourself or - earning tremendous classiness points - as a gift, do write down the image names and email me at:

 daniel at danielmaidman period com

And maybe choose a few? In case one or more have already sold. This is much more of a problem than it used to be.

As ever, signed, limited-edition giclee prints of some of my paintings are available at $75 here.

Thanks for your company on this blog, and I hope you'll choose to add some of my work to your life.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Cute Little Studio Mousey

Let me tell you something that will add absolutely nothing to your understanding of art. For some years now, my studio has had a cute little studio mousey. I can often hear him scuttling about in the walls, and sometimes he scampers across my line of sight.

I don't have anything against disease-carrying vermin if they're cute enough. But there are two downsides to my cute little studio mousey: he leaves little mouse poops everywhere, and also, mice are known to gnaw (style guide: lice chew, rodents gnaw) their way through things like, you know, canvas.

My cute little studio mousey has a distinctly cavalier attitude toward the various anti-mouse measures the building's exterminator has taken, and my landlord thinks that I am frankly being a hysterical sissy about the whole thing.

The other day, my ever-more-aggressive studio mousey hung out long enough for me to finally get a picture of him:

I don't know what his deal is. I think he's drunk with power. For his next stunt, he climbed the cloth hanging from the top edge of my studio window. That edge is maybe eight feet above the floor. As Hubris invokes Nemesis, so my cute little studio mousey soon fell from a prideful height, stunning his rodent ass long enough for me to slap a cup down on top of him.

This, he did not like.

Then I slid a piece of board under the cup edge and flipped the entire apparatus upside down. Thus I had myself a cup of mouse. Unsatisfied with the aesthetics of this arrangement, I effected a transfer of my extremely-pissed-off studio mousey to one of the many gelato jars I keep around the studio for miscellaneous holding tasks:

You don't have to go home, cute little studio mousey, but you can't stay here.

At this point, I considered drilling a couple holes in the top of this deal and trying to keep my mousey as a pet. But I thought this was overall an impractical idea. I was also by no means going to kill the little bastard. So that left taking him outside and dumping him off somewhere away from my studio building. Here, we head down the stairs:

I will confess that at this point, I began to feel that searing pity which animates Aeschylus' depiction of his own enemies, the Persians, in his dramatic account of their defeat at Salamis:

Ah me, how sudden have the storms of Fate,
Beyond all thought, all apprehension, burst
On my devoted head! O Fortune, Fortune!
With what relentless fury hath thy hand
Hurl'd desolation on the Persian race!
Woe unsupportable! The torturing thought
Of our lost youth comes rushing on my mind,
And sinks me to the ground. O Jove, that I
Had died with those brave men that died in fight!

Consider again my cute little studio mousey, captured, cut off, cast out from familiar comforts. He journeys toward a strange land whence no mouse hath returned. Is there not something tragic to his aspect here, to that terror which freezes his limbs in iron tension as alien vistas scroll past his stricken gaze?

I could scarcely bring myself to enforce so harsh an exile on him.

And yet, I did.

I took him outside, showing him off to Jared, the printmaker, who was in front of the building, enjoying a cigarette and talking on the phone. My mouse-in-Talenti-jar routine was enough to throw him off his conversational rhythm. Then I went down the block, searching for some likely spot. I couldn't very well leave him in front of a business or home. At last, I found a building under construction, with a grassy lot next door. In front of the lot, a fence, and in front of the fence, an apple. Beside the apple, a foundation with lots of holes in it. Surely this should be acceptable? I unscrewed the lid and dumped out my little friend.

He sat there a little while, blank and overwhelmed; and then, as living things do, he began to take stock of his situation and figure out the angles. Thus my cute little studio mousey embarked on his new life. I wish him well.

Be free, cute little studio mousey! Be free!

Returning to my work in the studio, I was met with a silence. At first this silence felt blessed, but soon it came to feel melancholy. There were no scuttles or thumps. There was no companionship. I began to regret my rash decision. I went on considering the right and the wrong of it for a quarter of an hour or more.

Then another motherfucking mouse streaked across my floor like he was a naked dude and this was Wimbledon.

Letters in the Alphabet of Joy

Ali Cavanaugh
solo exhibit, "Mapping an Odyssey"
opening (opened) at Robert Lange Studios September 6th
details at bottom

Many years ago, my friend Julia - not you, Julia, another one, all my friends are Julias - expressed skepticism at the concept of happiness. Manageable, she thought, was about as good as can be expected. I differed. I said that I had been happy. She asked when. I recalled some occasions as recently as the age of twelve. She scoffed and said this didn't count, any fool can be happy before puberty.

This Julia had somewhat of a point, and happiness for me and many people I know is intimately linked with the textures of childhood. But I disagree to this day with Julia regarding the feasibility of happiness in adulthood. I still believe in it.

Happiness gets short shrift in art. There are two main problems with it. One is a category error. Because happiness flies, people think it is weightless. This compares unfavorably with the manifest massiveness of tragedy. The other problem is that happiness is simply difficult to portray or demonstrate. In art, certain things are easy to pull off, and others are hard. Happiness is hard.

For all that, some of the most famous and popular art is happy art, especially in music. The Beatles wrote some very happy songs. My favorites in the happy category are "Across the Universe" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand." You, of course, may favor others. Of some interest here is the formal rigor of Beatles music, a characteristic they share with the other great maker of happy music, J. S. Bach. What could be righter with the world than "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" or "Wachet auf"?

What do we learn from the formal sophistication of Bach and the Beatles, and our sense of laughing rightness in the experience of their work? I think it is this - that their brand of happiness is built up from a substrate of reason, of a very profoundly felt revelation that the universe is a universe of sense and order, and that we humans are up to the task of comprehending this sense, and finding that we have a place in it, and thus are made not only for celebrating the glory of things, but contributing to it too. This intuition of brightly-colored, decipherable promise is natural to children, and persists into adulthood when luck and force of will play their parts.

All this helps to explain the difficulty with depicting happiness, or at least this kind of happiness, in art. Not only is it a rare emotion, but the sensibility to support it is intellectually and aesthetically demanding. This brings us to Ali Cavanaugh and her watercolors.

Cavanaugh has spent years painstakingly compiling the visual components of happiness, much as the composers of happy music have sought ratios and structures to express their vision. Most of the tools Cavanaugh discovered are on view in the work she has made for her solo exhibit at Robert Lange Studios. Let me lead you through a few of these letters in her alphabet of joy:

Summer, Ali Cavanaugh, 16"x 20", watercolor on clay, 2013


Here we have blue skies and angled sunlight. Human beings take joy in seeing, and these weather conditions promote clarity of sight. Everything stands out sharply. We have an impression of great contrast, and yet deep darkness cannot be found. Everything seems to swim in light. Colors are vivid, edges are crisp, the forms of all things are distinct. I should point out here that Cavanaugh has innovated a technique of painting her watercolors onto specially prepared clay surfaces. This is not so unusual in art - silverpoint is often done on clay as well. The clay allows her to maintain both sharpness and luminosity. It makes her watercolors glow like stained glass.

Press On, Ali Cavanaugh, 15"x22", watercolor on clay, 2013


Here Cavanaugh explores another visual counterpart and promoter of happiness: wind in long hair. There are a few things about wind in long hair which we are virtually hard-wired to respond to with happiness: 1. We enjoy the touch on our skin of wind of a strength sufficient to cause the curves Cavanaugh shows. It is not an overstrong wind, but a refreshing one. It has risen suddenly, a welcome surprise. 2. We like the invisible to be made visible. It augments our sense of sense, that things can be understood. The hair embodies the wind in a visible medium. 3. The hair in the wind is an instance of visualized nonlinear dynamics. We are programmed to be delighted by visualized nonlinear dynamics. Just try stirring a little cream into your coffee. 4. These curves in the hair are in themselves beautiful curves. They partake of formal beauty. Formal beauty makes us happy. Art nouveau gets a lot of mileage out of this little quirk in our brains. 5. Hair that can take on such curves is healthy hair - young hair. We want to touch this hair, and we are gladdened at the sight of a person who has such hair.

Transfiguration II, Ali Cavanaugh, 16"x38", watercolor on clay, 2013


In general, Cavanaugh's subjects are slim-limbed young women with their faces obscured or turned away from the viewer. Here too the "of course"-ness of happiness takes over: of course Cavanaugh would take young women as her subject, and of course she would hide their faces. They are as prone to flight as shore-birds. They embody health and vigor. Cavanaugh's chaste eye invites us to be cheered by her figures, and to identify with them.

Attempt, Ali Cavanaugh, 11"x14", watercolor on clay, 2013


Cavanaugh paints a lot of paintings of her youths wearing long patterned socks on their arms. This was some kind of stroke of inspiration she had years ago. The working of our visual system is such that we enjoy constructing form from the mapping of patterns over the surfaces of three-dimensional objects. That's why you get such a kick out of finding the Dalmatian in the field of dots. Evolution has shaped us to get a little neurochemical reward of some sort for successfully picking out the latent object half-hidden in the visual field. I assume it has to do with striped grassland predators. Cavanaugh has found this button in our brains and never stops mashing it.

A Boat For You Within My Arms, Ali Cavanaugh, 30"x30", watercolor on clay, 2008 
(not included in the exhibit)


Cavanaugh is in no way above taking advantage of the human taste for bright happy colors, and lots of them. That's why she worked out her esoteric medium of watercolor on clay. But notice she doesn't just splash her colors all over the place. When she is not stimulating our form-detection apparatus with pleasingly high-contrast monochrome contour lines, she stimulates it with carefully defined colored patches. Who can resist such a thing? She's playing around with the fundamental building blocks of visual cognition: edge, contrast, color. These elements at the amplified levels Cavanaugh invokes are the means by which children learn to process sight. We are helpless not to love solving Cavanaugh's little puzzles made out of such delicious parts.

Over, Ali Cavanaugh, 12"x12", watercolor on clay, 2013


We love translucent and transparent things, nearly as much as we love sparkly things. Figuring out what we are looking at delights us: the outline of the translucent enclosing object, the outline of the opaque interior object, the shadow of the interior object on the near side of the enclosing object, and the surface textures of the enclosing object - all visible in this painting - are things which we love to separate and comprehend. I don't know why.

Banded, Ali Cavanaugh, 16"x38", watercolor on clay, 2013


There is a whole body of speculation on why we are so attracted to symmetry, and this speculation applies to structure in music as much as it does in visual art. I personally think it is linked to the symmetry of our own bodies and that of most of the animals and plants we normally contend with. Bilateral symmetries tell us that all is well. Seeing a thing on one side, we seek its double on the other side. Finding it, we know an organism is both natural and healthy. We feel a horror at deep asymmetries, but we get a little thrill out of slight asymmetries. Those are natural too - perfect symmetry is uncanny and unnatural. Cavanaugh takes advantage of our symmetry-seeking habits in her work, calibrating the irregularities she introduces to maximize their rewards.

Adapt, Ali Cavanaugh, 30"x30", watercolor on clay, 2013


The semaphore-like intentionality of the arms in Cavanaugh's work suggests to us that her figures are speaking. They are signing. They are making that link from the physical to the mental which is most elemental to us as symbol-making animals. Communication through symbols affirms to us that we share the palpable universe with souls like ourselves. It raises us from a state of merely sensual reward to one of companionship and transcendence. Without this linguistic element, Cavanaugh's work would celebrate the senses and their pleasures alone; it would not answer to what animates us socially. With the linguistic element, she makes her figures, and us, not alone. She sketches out the basics of humanity. Her model is not complete, but her work is not meant to be all things. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Deafen, Ali Cavanaugh, 8"x8", watercolor on clay, 2013


Her work depends on focus. It's not like other artists haven't figured out the elements we've been considering, and used it in their own work. Many of these tools are standard; none is new. But Cavanaugh uses forcible exclusion to focus on what she keeps. Like Kubrick, she puts only the relevant items into her frame, and excises everything else, leaving a stark white. The white tells us about the intentionality of those elements which are present. It is like the rules in the notebook a child uses to practice letters. The blankness tells you where the letters stop. It defines what is inside the lines. What is inside the lines is the alphabet of joy.

As I said before, there are two problems with happiness in art. The second is the difficulty of manufacturing it: both of having the feeling, and of meeting the high demands of its originating factors. I've taken the trouble to spell out exactly what I am seeing in Cavanaugh's art to demonstrate what I mean about that difficulty, and how one artist meets it by refining and overlaying structure upon structure. The first problem remains the category error, the confusion of that which flies with that which is massless. If you disagree, I don't think I can convince you of my point here, but I can elaborate a bit on what I believe.

I believe that happiness is real, and that it is important. In the units of measure of the soul, there is nothing so heavy as happiness. Art educates. Tragic art teaches us how to deal with life, which is similarly tragic. But happy art, which is extraordinarily rare, also teaches us how to deal with life, because life is happy as well. Cavanaugh's jewel-like work, so smiling and colorful and bright, is terribly important. She preserved her primal sense of joy, and as an adult, discovered a language to convey it. The pressures of living tend to make us forget her brand of happiness, which is our brand as well. She returns it to us. This is so unbelievably, casually generous.


All images courtesy of the artist.

Ali Cavanaugh
Mapping an Odyssey
Robert Lange Studios
2 Queen Street, Charleston SC, 29401, 843-805-8052
opening September 6th, 5 p.m.-8 p.m.
in conjunction with the nationwide Women Painting Women exhibitions (more here)