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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Toxic relationships in the art world

Bad business partners are everywhere, but you don’t have to work with them. That’s your secret weapon.
Packing Oakum (Isaac H. Evans), Carol L. Douglas
I was talking to a fellow artist recently about an arts administrator who only seems to know my friend when he needs something, and who isn’t reliable. “You can't afford to alienate him, and you need to work with him,” I said, "so keep nodding and smiling and remember that his word is worthless.” (No, you don’t know them; they’re not from here.)

I haven't had what your granny might call a “real job” since I was in my twenties, but I'm married to a salaryman. Our kids are all gainfully employed. I’ve listened to their tales of woe, and to equivalent tales of woe from the art world. They’re no different. Machiavellianism—the idea that any means to an end is acceptable—is not limited to the corporate workplace. It’s alive and well anywhere people work together.
Setting Blocks (Heritage and American Eagle), Carol L. Douglas
How do you know you’ve met a Machiavellianist? He will:
  • Lie and cheat on his contracts;
  • Spread rumors;
  • Find ways to make you feel bad;
  • Not meet his obligations;
  • Blame you for failure.
The Machiavellianist sees himself as more sophisticated than the rest of us, but to observers, he’s like an overgrown toddler having a hissy fit to get his own way.

“You can just refuse to work with these people,” my husband objects. He’s right; that’s the artist’s prerogative, and it’s an invaluable one. You may think the sun rises and sets on the ‘best’ gallery in your town, but there are thousands of galleries across America, with revenues in the billions.

Coast Guard Inspection (American Eagle), Carol L. Douglas
There’s no value in a bad relationship, anyway. That toxicity to you spills over to others, and won’t result in sales of your work.

However, there are situations in which you just can’t avoid a toxic personality. Perhaps you work in a gallery with an unethical owner, or you are tied to an event with a toxic chairman. Often Machiavellianism takes the form of male gallerists condescending to women artists.

Recognize that you will be miserable for a time, until you can straighten the problem out. But know also the limits to which you will be pushed. That alone often stops the abuser, who usually has an incredible sniffer for weakness. Just as deep calls to deep, the weak call out to abusers and vice-versa.
Striping (Heritage), Carol L. Douglas
Can you head off the problem by recognizing a toxic personality before you engage in business? I doubt it, because there’s no real correlation between pleasant manners and fundamental goodness.

I’ve learned the hard way that the time for a lawyer is when you sign a contract, not when problems appear. But if you forgot that step (and we all do), consult an attorney when things start to go bad, before you make them any stickier.

And when you’re pushed beyond your tolerance, stick by your guns. There’s nothing quite so powerful as intractable resistance. Then make a plan and get outta there. Bad business partners, in the end, always cost you more than you will ever gain.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Monday Morning Art School: repetition, pattern and rhythm

Variation is your friend when you’re striving for movement in your painting.
Beach Saplings, Carol L. Douglas
“You have a great sense of visual rhythm,” I told the young artist.

“I’m not sure I even know what that means,” he answered.

“Well, I’m not sure I do either, but I’m sure that between the two of us, we can figure it out,” I replied.
Public Figures, Do-Ho Suh 2001 Art Experience:NYC. The artist understood how to create movement enough that he intentionally suppresses it for a powerful political statement.
Rhythm creates visual tempo that provides a path for the viewer’s eye to follow. It’s closely aligned to movement and action, and it’s usually achieved through the repetition of lines, shapes and colors.

Rhythm builds on two other artistic concepts: Repetition, which is one object or shape repeated, and pattern, which is a combination of elements or shapes repeated in a recurring and regular arrangement. Rhythm is the song produced from these elements. It can be random, as in a pottery glaze, or obviously patterned.

The basic building block of rhythm is a motif. It need not be a real object. It can just as easily be an abstract shape.
Ejiri in Suruga Province, c. 1830, Katsushika Hokusai, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
Ejiri in Suruga Province demonstrates the importance of motifs, rhythm and repetition in creating a sense of movement. Katsushika Hokusai wanted us to understand that it was a very windy day. The blowing papers, the pattern of the grasses, the figures themselves and the doubled tree trunks are different motifs. They’re running across each other in different rhythms, giving an intense sense of motion to the foreground. This contrasts with the utter stillness of Mount Fuji in the background.
Campbell's Soup Cans, 1962, Andy Warhol, courtesy MoMA
Repetition can lift the prosaic into a new level, as Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans illustrate. Warhol went to his local grocery store and bought every flavor of soup Campbell was then making, 32 in all. Alone, one can of soup was meaningless; blocked together on shelves as at a grocery store, they created an immediately-recognizable symbol of the plentitude of American culture. (When asked why he painted soup cans, Warhol said, “I used to drink it, I used to have the same lunch every day, for twenty years.”)
Lucas, 1986-87, by Chuck Close, fair use. His changing mark-making provides the only relief in these remarkably static portraits.
The work of American painter Chuck Close demonstrates the ability of rhythm to gin up an otherwise static painting. His first  paintings were monumental monochrome hyperrealistic portraits. By the 1980s, he was superimposing a grid over them, breaking down the image into a series of dashes, dots, thumbprints, paper, or shapes. The pixelization gives them a degree of dynamism the earlier paintings don’t have.

How can you apply those principles of rhythm to your work?
Under the Marshall Point Light, Carol L. Douglas
Don’t be so quick to eliminate all evidence of the built world from your landscape paintings. Cars, telephone poles, houses and roads all create interesting visual patterns.

Be conscious of the rhythmic motifs in your subject before you start painting. Overlapping hills, granite outcroppings, tree patterns, and water ripples are all complex rhythmic patterns. Rhythm is a fundamental attribute of nature. Focus on it.
The Church in Auvers-sur-Oise, View from the Chevet, 1890, Vincent Van Gogh, Musée d'Orsay
Mark-making is an excellent way to insinuate rhythm into a painting. You can drive the viewer’s eye around your canvas by changing the thickness, length and direction of your strokes. The greatest practitioner of this was Vincent van Gogh; study his work to see how you can apply this technique.

Children on the beach, 1910, Joaquín Sorolla, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Color is a powerful tool for repeating motifs. See how Joaquín Sorolla uses color temperature alone to make a pattern of ripples around his bathing children, above. Understand and use color temperature.

Your assignment—should you choose to accept it—is to find and draw a naturally recurring motif in your immediate environment.

Friday, January 11, 2019

The problem is us, not them

The jaw of a long-dead artist tells us much more than just the pigment she used.
Page from a French Book of Hours, c. 1410-15.
Yesterday, several readers sent me this wonderful story of an anonymous medieval religieuse with lapis lazuli (ultramarine pigment) in her dental tartar. Lapis, in the Middle Ages, was as pricey as gold, so its presence in her teeth meant she was a top artisan of her time.

The researchers contacted many scientists, historians, and researchers for help in explaining the mineral’s presence. Some didn’t believe a woman scribe could be skilled enough to be trusted with lapis. “One suggested to [Christina] Warinner that this woman came into contact with ultramarine because she was simply the cleaning lady,” wrote Sarah Zhang in The Atlantic.

Abbess praying to the Virgin Mary, from The Shaftesbury Psalter, c. 1130-40. The client for this book was a woman. Courtesy of the British Museum
We know women were employed as scribes in the Middle Ages, and that convents and monasteries both had a healthy trade in books, sometimes subcontracting to each other. Religious women were as literate as their male counterparts. To history buffs, this discovery hardly overturns our understanding of the medieval economy.

We’re living in a period where women artists are being rediscovered at a rapid pace. But how were they lost in the first place? Consider, for a moment, les trois grandes dames of Impressionism: Mary CassattMarie Bracquemond and Berthe Morisot. They were well-known in their lifetimes; why must they be rediscovered today?

Women in a counting house, from Cuttings from a Latin prose treatise on the Seven Vices, c. 1400. Office work was done by both sexes and women were expected to work alongside their husbands in business or trade. Courtesy of the British Museum
For most of us, living history stops with our grandparents. We assume that life before them was the same or worse. Deep down, we all believe in progress. But in terms of gender relationships, the post-war era was in many ways unique. For example, it’s when women married very young, far younger than their 1890s counterparts. Progress slides along, but fitfully.

What do we think we know about the Middle Ages? To misquote Thomas Hobbes: “no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Nuns processing to Mass, from Collection of moral tracts, c 1290, Courtesy of the British Museum
Instead, we see the jaw of a woman who has comfortably reached middle age with perfect teeth, despite her tartar buildup.

Somehow, that speck of pigment on her teeth makes her an individual. “Based on the distribution of the pigment in her mouth, we concluded that the most likely scenario was that she was herself painting with the pigment and licking the end of the brush while painting,” said study co-author Monica Tromp.

“I used to put the (rinsed) water color brush in my mouth to shape it to a point,” one artist wrote to me. It made her feel a sort of kinship with this long-dead artist. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

What is sacred art?

The conflict between my religious and art training is pushing me into a far smarter painting.

Christ Pantocrator, 6th century AD. The two sides of his face may represent the two natures of Christ as fully God and fully human. From Saint Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai
English is wordy because it preserves parallel versions (synonyms) from its source languages. Sacred comes to us via the Norman Invasion, from the Old French sacrer, which in turn came from the Latin sacrare. Its root means “to sanctify,” or set apart, free from sin. Holy means the exact same thing, but it comes to us from the Saxon invaders of Britain. Its roots lie somewhere in the northern Scandinavian forests.

Very little is known about Germanic paganism, so we can only infer what was holy—the mountain Helgafell among the Norse, possibly megaliths and holy trees among the Anglo-Saxons. But the existence of words for holiness tell us that there were places, or values, that were set aside from sinful man.
Moses Indignant at the Golden Calf, 1799-1800, William Blake
Household gods are a commonly recurring feature in pagan religions and folklore worldwide. They’re ancient objects of protection. They’re called teraphim in the Bible, which forbids them. In fact, the Bible repeatedly warns its followers against idolatry, most famously in the story of the golden calf.

The prohibition against idols is felt particularly strongly among Protestants. It led to a misguided wave of iconoclasm across Northern Europe and England in the 16th century that destroyed much of our pre-Enlightenment art.

Sacred art, by definition, would be art set aside for the purpose of worship. It’s very easy to see how music, dance and the decorative arts can be used in worship, but less easy to see such an application for painting or sculpture. Within Catholicism, there are vessels like monstrances, tabernacles and chalices. These receive a reflected glow of veneration, although it is the transubstantiated Christ that’s the true subject.  
Rachel sitting on the teraphim, 1726-1728, fresco, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches have icons, religious symbols meant as aids to prayer. Icons are venerated, but they also served as teaching tools for the illiterate faithful. In a way they reflect the wonder of the incarnation, since they’re a tangible representation of an intangible God. As the Eastern Orthodox Council of 860 proclaimed, “all that is uttered in words written in syllables is also proclaimed in the language of colors.”

And that’s, pretty much, the limit of sacred art in the western tradition, The rest—as beautiful and transcendent as it may be—is not intended for veneration. Within Protestant Europe, religious artwork was meant primarily for purposes of edification, honor, comfort, contemplation, and inspiration. But it’s not set aside or sanctified, except that it may be part of a sanctuary or shrine.

As a dyed-in-the-wool American Evangelical, I feel those limits keenly. When I’m called to make a religious image, I tend to slip sideways. I’m working on such a painting right now, and my own religious training is rumbling with the artist in me. How does one represent the character of God without presuming to paint the face of God? How does one represent the love of Jesus without making an idol?

The conflict is invigorating, and making for a far smarter painting. I can barely wait to get to work on it again.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Old Fruits

Long before ecofeminism was an idea, these women produced clear-eyed, scientific observations of nature.
Cerise de Montmorency cherry (Prunus avium), with specimen originating in Linden, Maryland; 1910, watercolor by Deborah Griscom Passmore, courtesy USDA

I would never know about the US Department of Agriculture’s Pomological Watercolor Collection if it weren’t for an artist and activist named Parker Higgins. Starting around 2015, he began investigating why the USDA kept their digitized collection behind a paywall. He found that the USDA had miscalculated when entering the rough-and-tumble market of digital data, spending $300,000 to earn just $600 in fees. He then pushed public officials to release the pictures to the public for free.

The watercolors would have remained unknown, except that Higgins then taught himself to program enough to build a twitter bot. Follow @pomological, and you can see a new Old Fruit Picture every three hours.

Diseased Lisbon lemon (Citrus limon); 1910, watercolor by Elsie Lower Pomeroy, courtesy USDA
The USDA’s Pomological Collection was cutting edge long before Higgins took it up. At a time when women were barely represented in the workforce, they were the driving force behind this work.

Women were just beginning to attend art school in the latter half of the 19th century. For most of them, a career like Mary Cassatt’s was out of the question. Working as a government illustrator was an acceptable career choice. About a third of the USDA’s pomological artists were women, and just three of them were responsible for more than half the collection: Deborah Griscom PassmoreAmanda Almira Newton, and Mary Daisy Arnold.

Japanese persimmon (variety Hachiya); 1915, watercolor by Amanda Newton, courtesy USDA
The paintings were mostly produced in the thirty-year span from 1886 to 1916. They were intended for use as illustrations in USDA publications directed toward farmers. This was a time of high immigration and rapid growth westward; ten states joined the Union in that thirty-year period. Rapidly-expanding agriculture went along with rapidly-expanding population. The hunt was on for fruits that could endure shipping, and farmers worked with the USDA to test and then grow these cultivars. The artists were sent samples of these fruits from farmers across the nation. They then made scientifically-accurate illustrations for USDA publications and records. The majority of these cultivars no longer exist.

Deborah Griscom Passmore was the daughter of a Quaker farmer from Delaware County, PA. She studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and then went on to Europe. Passmore was hired by the USDA in 1892, and her talents were quickly recognized. Within a year she was head of the department, which at the time had fifty artists attached to it. One of her first tasks was to paint exhibits for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. She worked for the USDA for 19 years, and was responsible for a fifth of its 7500 paintings.

Dunlap variety of strawberries (Fragaria species), with specimen originating in Geneva, New York; 1912, watercolor by Mary Daisy Arnold, courtesy USDA
Less is known about the life of Amanda A. Newton. She was the granddaughter of Isaac Newton, the first commissioner of the USDA, who died when she was a child. She introduced the innovation of wax models of fruit to the survey, making about 300 specimens herself. Mary Daisy Arnold’s origins are similarly obscure, but she was known to have attended art school in New York. When she wasn’t painting fruit for the USDA, she painted landscapes in oils.

Elsie Lower Pomeroy was the one female USDA illustrator who went on to an independent painting practice. Born in New Castle, PA, she was raised in Washington and attended the Corcoran School of Art. She worked in the Washington USDA office, married a staff pomologist and moved with him to Riverside, CA. There, she became involved in the California Realism movement.

And one apple, since they comprise the majority of the collection: Rimmer Apple, with specimen originating in Cedar Grove, Orange County, North Carolina; 1901, watercolor by Deborah Griscom Passmore, courtesy USDA
19th century women watercolorists have an unjust reputation for anemic, ‘maidenly’ work, but there is nothing hesitant about these watercolors. They are careful technical renderings with big, juicy color. From a time long before ecofeminism was an idea, they are clear-eyed observations of nature.