Journal: Sunday, November 17

"Niobe" - mixed media, 7 x 9 inches (17.5 x 22.5 cm)

“Niobe” – mixed media, 7 x 9 inches (17.5 x 22.5 cm)

Some time back I wrote a  journal post here in which I bemoaned the fact that a couple of pieces of artwork that I had just completed seemed to be falling flat with my usual public. In retrospect, I realize that I may have sounded petulant, and perhaps even just a tiny bit snobbish.

What’s changed since then, you may ask? Last week a total stranger walked into the shop where those particular works were on display and purchased one of the pieces in question — by far the more challenging of the two — “Niobe/The Immaculate Heart”. This was not a friend or relative browbeaten into making the purchase just to shut me up, but someone I didn’t know, an out-of-towner who just happened to be in the market for art.

In fact, “Niobe” only hung on the wall for a couple of months before finding a home. Like all artists, I can get a bit needy sometimes, looking for some sort of approbation or validation for my work from the people around me — these squirrelly little objects are like children to me, and it’s all too easy to interpret an apparent lack of enthusiasm from the public as rejection. In the grand scheme of things, however, two months to find a purchaser for something as intense as “Niobe” is pretty darned good: the weakness was not in the public, nor in the art, but in me, in my own confidence. It was me who didn’t appreciate the value of the art, not the public.

Consider me chastened.

Sales are still slow, and I realize that some pieces will probably end their lives packed away in my basement, or cannibalized for parts, or devoured by wild beasts — and some of them probably deserve such a fate — but but what matters is that I am making a connection, at least part of the time. It’s still worth doing.

I may know a lot about art and books and Bugs Bunny and the history of the Byzantine Empire, but I can see that I still have some things to learn about having a bit of faith.


Taking a line for a walk

"The Precocious Whispering of Desires", mixed media, 20 x 12 in.

“The Precocious Whispering of Desires”, mixed media, 20 x 12 in. ©David Lee Holcomb, 2013

I just completed a piece of artwork that is both a departure and a return to basics for me. It’s essentially a drawing, scribbles of glue and black ink in layers, each layer painted over with off-white gesso and sanded, then elaborated with textural passages in black ink and red, sepia, and brown watercolor, accented by areas covered in pure white acrylic.

Described like that it sounds pretty mechanical, and in a way that’s exactly what it is.

I generally avoid doing art that might be described as “abstract”.  Although I enjoy such work by others, for myself I prefer to remain grounded in the material world whenever possible. A piece like this, however, is about process, rather than an image of something: the mechanical, physical acts involved in creating the thing provide the driving force, rather than some predetermined theme or subject.

Dribbling paint (or ink, or glue, or tar, or whatever) onto a flat surface and then working with the result is hardly a new concept. When Andre Breton, the godfather of the Surrealism movement, finally accepted visual artists into his exclusive little club, one of the techniques that he regarded as most valid was “automatism”, in which random processes — rather than conscious, planned decisions — guided the painter’s hand. In practice, of course, this is impossible, since even if the painter is relying on something as supposedly “random” as dribbling paint, he is still guiding the dribbles onto the canvas instead of the floor, toward or away from each other, toward or away from the edges, etc. — not to mention deciding when to stop.

So is my picture abstract? That’s a word that we use an awful lot in describing art, usually any time we find ourselves unable to see something familiar, concrete. Mirriam Webster defines “abstract” as “relating to or involving general ideas or qualities rather than specific people, objects, or actions”. When something is “abstract”, it is unreal, unbounded by physical reality: “beauty” is abstract, a beautiful woman is not; “nature” is abstract, the tree outside your window is not; “death” is abstract, the departure of a loved one is not.

When we slap paint or tar or glue or whatever onto a surface, we are already moving away from true abstraction: the surface and the medium applied to it are solid physical materials, defined by physical laws that affect what the artist is able to do with them, grounded in the “real”, phenomenological, world.

Leonardo da Vinci, "Mona Lisa (La Gioconda)", circa 1506

Leonardo da Vinci, “Mona Lisa (La Gioconda)”, circa 1506

“We should remember that a picture — before being a war horse, a nude woman, or telling some other story — is essentially a flat surface covered with colours arranged in a particular pattern.”
— Maurice Denis, Definition of Neotraditionism. Originally published in Art et Critique in Paris, 23 & 30 August 1890

But now we have a problem: if we view the concept of abstraction by this strict interpretation, no plastic art (meaning art created with physical materials, as opposed to singing a song, or playing Hamlet) can be considered truly abstract, and we’ve just lost a century’s worth of art terminology. So let’s unclench a little, close the dictionary, and look at some of the common terms.

For the sake of brevity I’m going to leave sculpture, installation, film, and so on out of the discussion now and focus on painting alone:  If we take as given that a painting must be physical at some level, or in some degree, most pictures separates out into some basic categories (or sometimes combinations of more than one):

Illusionary — this is a painting that offers what appears to be a window into a three-dimensional space, occupied by physical objects. When we look at the Mona Lisa, we interpret the picture as a woman, sitting in a chair in front of a window or parapet — which is, of course, nonsense: what we’re looking at is nothing more than a thin piece of canvas covered with little smears of colored matter, but with a little effort we have no difficulty suspending our disbelief and recognizing the woman, the chair, and the landscape beyond.

Cubist — this is also illusion, but intellectual, rather than purely visual. While still creating an illusionary three-dimensional space, cubist painting is extremely aware of the flat surface of the canvas, and incorporates that plane into the overall work. The 3-D illusion is never very strong, and the “fake” space depicted is very shallow, never far from the skin of the canvas. In a cubist painting, the representation of the space is more important than the objects that occupy it; it may even be impossible to determine what exactly the artist was looking at — all we see is a kind of schematic of space and volume.

Geometric — here, both objects and the space they occupy have been abandoned. Geometric art depicts mathematical concepts like the square, the circle, and the line, without any effort to provide a visual — illusory — narrative tying the picture to some scene or object existing under “real-world” conditions. We can all agree that pure mathematics are abstract, but what about painting based on math? Well, there’s the rub: a picture of an abstract mathematical form is still a picture of something, so — yes, a circle is an abstract concept, but is a picture of a circle?

Abstract expressionist — this category is a bit of a hybrid of a number of things, a sort of convenient umbrella of the kind popular with art critics that doesn’t necessarily mean a great deal to the artist. At its heart, however, the idea is that the abstract expressionist painting is attempting to depict an emotional or philosophical state — “nature”, “beauty”, “truth”, etc. — without relying on any illusion whatever. Here, the surface of the canvas is embraced, the materials exist as themselves — the paint is simply paint, not part of an apple, or a woman, or a tree — and if the viewer wants the picture to tell a story, he has to come up with it himself. In a sense, an abstract expressionist painting is the least abstract of all: one of Jackson Pollock’s classic “drip” paintings is a picture of paint, and of the process of getting paint onto the surface; no naked women, no bowls of fruit. The paint is there, physical and obvious, not pretending to be a chair or an eyebrow — just paint. If we see something more than that, it’s coming from us, not the artist. [I should mention that many abstract expressionist work do have evocative titles, like “Autumn Rhythm”, or “Vir Heroicus Sublimis”, but these are arbitrary, they label the picture without describing its content.]

Mark Tobey "Night Celebration", 1971

Mark Tobey “Night Celebration”, 1971

Color/Energy field — here is another term that means more to people who write about art than to people who do it. “Color field” painting relies on large, usually featureless, areas of pure color, sometimes alone, sometimes a few colors grouped on a single canvas.  Drama is introduced by placing particular colors next to each other, or by dividing areas of color with simple linear boundaries, but the colors themselves are the subject of the painting. In “energy field” painting, even color becomes unimportant, and the surface becomes animated by patterns or strokes or squiggles that cover the entire surface, without a single focal point and sometimes without a clear recognition of the edge of the canvas. Energy field painting is usually saved from becoming little more than wallpaper by introducing a certain amount of randomness in the patterning or the type of marks used, so that some areas appear slightly more dense or less dense, like poppy seeds sprinkled onto a piece of paper. While an abstract expressionist may create a painting about the artist’s emotional state while in the process of painting, a color field artist is creating paintings about color and an energy field artist is creating a painting about distributing marks on a surface, again without narrative, without illusion.

So. What about my picture (remember where we started?) Is it really abstract?

The word “doodle” is actually a bit of slang, dating from the Great Depression, probably coined in the American Midwest in imitation of a word used by German immigrants, dudeltopf, a simpleton or fool, a “dawdler”. German-Swiss artist Paul Klee spoke of his artistic process as “taking a line for a walk”, which I think is a great definition of a doodle.

I’m going to call it a doodle. The word itself sounds a bit silly, so we tend to shy away from using it to describe a serious work — and the doodle I opened this essay with is, I believe, serious work — but it’s a good word, and it works. A doodle is universal: anyone can do it, we all understand the process; it also adapts itself to a wide range of artistic techniques and styles. You can doodle with color, with line, with shapes; you can create illusions, or avoid them; you can fill up the available space, or wander around in it, drifting over the edges of the page or canvas, or shying away from them. So again: is it abstract? I think it is — there is no overriding concept or visual intention in a doodle, it is its own reason, its own purpose. There’s no attempt to fool the viewer into believing something that isn’t true. Even if there are recognizable images scattered here and there, they have no concrete meaning, they’re just — well, doodles within the doodle.

Is it art? This question I’ll leave for you to decide for yourself.

Journal: Tuesday, September 24

"The Triumph of the Nightingale" - mixed media, 7 x 14 in (17.5 x 35 cm).

“The Triumph of the Nightingale” – mixed media, 7 x 14 in (17.5 x 35 cm).

In spite of my head cold, trips to the vet, money woes, and general malaise over the last couple of weeks, I did manage to get two new pieces of artwork done.

One is a fairly whimsical intellectual exercise, a “sequel” to the Max Ernst painting of 1924, “Two Children are Threatened by a Nightingale“. My take on the theme — called “The Triumph of the Nightingale” — reuses several elements from the Ernst painting, such as the garden gate, a suggestion of the peaked roof of the little shed, and the flying bird, but condenses everything down into a vertical format, and folds all the pieces together more tightly. Ernst’s panic-stricken children are reduced in my work to a single body part.

Someone familiar with the original will almost certainly get the connection; someone who has not seen the Ernst painting can still appreciate the visual appeal of my picture, and perhaps enjoy wondering what it all means.

At least that was the theory: in practice, this work has not really gotten much traction with anyone. I don’t know what the problem is, really: is it too “pretty”? Too obscure? Too sterile? Too hermetic?

This sort of problem is not unique to art: when my friends make comments about sporting events, they often use language that is, for them, a convenient and accessible shorthand, but which for me is completely meaningless. They are so immersed in their context that they are not able to objectively assess the reach of that context — a creature born and bred in the deep ocean may easily forget that some organisms live entirely in open air. Likewise, my knowledge of art and literature can be a handicap when I’m looking for universal themes, since what I believe to be universal may only be so within a defined intellectual or cultural environment.

On the heels of that debacle, the next piece was an assemblage dealing with the idea of grief — drawing on my upset over the death of my cat Sebastian — called “Niobe“. In the story, the queen Niobe has a brood of beautiful, talented children whom she adores so much that she proclaims to one and all that they are even more wonderful than the twin children of Leto, Artemis and Apollo. Comparing your offspring to those of the gods is always a recipe for disaster in classical literature, and this instance is no exception: Artemis and Apollo are sent to teach Niobe a lesson in humility, and they do so by killing her children; one by one her sons and daughters die in her arms.

"Niobe" - mixed media, 7 x 9 inches (17.5 x 22.5 cm)

“Niobe” – mixed media, 7 x 9 inches (17.5 x 22.5 cm)

To illustrate the theme, I modeled a realistic human heart, studded with shards of glass, reducing the concept to its most visceral (pardon the pun) and physical level.

Here again, the piece failed to take hold with my usual fans. I did get some very positive responses from Mexican friends, who saw a parallel with the pierced heart that symbolizes the Virgin in much religious art in Mexico and Central America — they understood what I was doing immediately, and connected readily with what was, for them, a familiar image. Context made all the difference: a North American audience who sees a naked human heart as the stuff of horror films experiences something completely different than Latin American viewers familiar with the stark but comforting images of the wounded Immaculate Heart of Mary.

This is not a case of relying on a story that was not familiar enough; I think the image speaks for itself even without the context of the myth. Unfortunately the message varies widely from person to person.

Like riding a unicycle along a tightrope, constant forward motion is essential in what I do. If I hesitate, if I stop to think for too long, I tumble off the wire. I have to keep working even if what I’m producing is not succeeding, because it’s all too easy to let my native laziness take over if I give it any excuse at all. Finish one piece, start the next; if I get bogged down, set that one aside, move on to another. Introspection and contemplation — like what I’m doing here — are fine, but only so long as I can do them without coming down off the wire.

I’m not unhappy with these two pieces of work. They did what I wanted them to do, they feel right, they just don’t resonate well with the world outside my head. I’ll take note, and perhaps this experience will influence the next piece, or the next. More importantly, however, I will keep pedaling, and stay on that tightrope a little longer, and see what happens next.



“Aseneth” — Mixed media, 8 x 10 inches.

I’ve recently undertaken a couple of pieces of artwork that involved human faces. In both cases, the style of the piece was such that I had a lot of leeway — I wasn’t looking for some sort of photorealistic presentation, I just needed a female face. The only requirement was that the face be beautiful, and that the look not obviously belong to a particular time or place.

For one of the projects I was working on — “Andromeda“, the Greek myth of the daughter of Cassiopeia and Cepheus — I ended up using a variation of the style of illustration used on ancient Greek pottery. The style, itself remarkably timeless, suited the story, and the simplification and stylization avoids the kind of detail that dates an image. This was, however, a bit of a cop-out, since I wasn’t really solving the problem, just restating it in a way that made the question irrelevant.


For the other project — “Aseneth”, based on the apocryphal story of the wife of Joseph (son of Jacob) — I didn’t have a ready-made solution available. The Hebrews of Old Testament times produced little in the way of lasting visual art; unlike their more sedentary neighbors in Africa and Mesopotamia their constant warfare and nomadic lifestyle did not encourage lasting artistic monuments, and the dictates of religion (“create no graven image”) made permanent representations of people problematic. There are no paintings or figurines like those of the Minoans, no epic tales painted on stone or papyrus like those of the Egyptians.


Here, also, we face the differing standards of culture and race: late Egyptian sarcophagus portraits show women with carefully cultivated Frida-Kahlo-esque uni-brows. Phoenician women were depicted with large noses and tiny waists; Persian women were depicted with vanishingly small noses but hips and thighs that we would view today as almost obese. What would a beautiful woman of the book of Genesis look like?


In practice, this turns out to be a lot harder than it sounds. Anyone who’s watched a movie or television show that was billed as “stylish” at the time of its release knows how bizarre yesterday’s standards of beauty can look, even within a single lifetime: Joan Crawford’s shoulder pads in 1940, Joan Cusack’s teased hair in 1988; Marilyn Monroe’s curves, Mary Tyler Moore’s boyish lines; Brooke Shields’ heavy straight eyebrows, Louise Brooks’ penciled-in arches … We look at the women we once considered beautiful and today we find them jarring, unreal; the paragons of their time, alien to ours.

So, what to do when you want to specify that your subject is “beautiful”, but you don’t want her to be so much a product of one era — either ours or her own?

Throughout history artists have generally depicted the men and women of times and places remote from their own according to the styles most familiar and comfortable to them. This was often for very valid economic reasons: make your Cleopatra look like the wife of a wealthy patron and you’ve got a much better chance of finding a buyer for the painting. The influence of the Church or government could also impact fashions, and could dictate the need to reflect their concerns even in depictions of persons and scenes completely foreign to either.  During the eighteenth century, the gods and goddesses of classical mythology were presented in the fluffy, frilly world that the French monarchs enjoyed, frolicking in voluptuous but tasteful nudity; by the twentieth, those same figures were more often portrayed shrouded in drapery, lurking in a dark and dramatic pagan wilderness.

More recently, artists have sidestepped the question: Paul Klee depicts a female saint as a delicate scribble of lines; Mark Rothko’s Iphigenia is a striated black cone with a pair of stick legs and no head; Georges Braque’s canephorae are massive, lush figures, small-breasted and heavy-bodied, fleshy and androgynous.

Klee observed in his Bauhaus lectures that simplification was the key to making an image universal. A child’s stick figures are recognizable as human and timeless; only when we start to elaborate on the basics do we begin to limit the image to a particular time and place. Rothko dissected his figures, reducing them to symbolic fragments that could only be read as human by someone who had learned to “read” his visual shorthand.

But how do you define a stick figure or a symbol as “beautiful” or “terrifying” or “modest”? What makes a stick figure of Andromeda waiting to be devoured by the monster different from a stick figure of the god Poseidon ordering the monster to eat her? The answer to this question is actually fairly easy: context. Poseidon is not chained up on the rocks at the water’s edge; Andromeda is not rearing from the waves brandishing a trident.

But beauty? Can this be defined by context? I think so. When Picasso paints a wildly distorted image of his lover staring at her own reflection in a mirror, we understand that she likes what she sees, and so does he. Braque’s canephorae are massive and fleshy, but they are also luminous, ripe, like the fruit spilling from the baskets they carry; their lavish health and vigor makes us know that they are beautiful, much more than their tiny, simplified faces ever could — even further, their beauty is timeless, independent of fashion or custom.

What Klee doesn’t mention when he makes his observations about simplification is the importance of the artist’s personal commitment: like the fashionable painter with his Cleopatra, it is much harder to meet the demands of an objective art than to fall back onto a marketable adherence to current standards. In other words, it is easier to paint an Aphrodite who looks like Kiera Knightley than one represented by a mysterious map of arcane symbolism. Picasso’s images of women are not for everyone: they have to be interviewed, read, their context and their attitude deciphered; Braque’s nudes would not be welcome on a fashionable beach; and Klee’s whimsical scribbles could never even exist outside the pictures that they inhabit.

But there is something to be said for immortality, after all: when an image operates outside of current fashion its message is not so likely to be obscured by superficial considerations of taste and style. Symbols endure while trends in hair and makeup change with the seasons. Katherine Hepburn once observed that age was liberating — once she got past fifty, moviegoers lost interest in her hair and her clothes and they started paying more attention to her acting.

The projects I’m working on today are a bit more esoteric than “Andromeda” or “Aseneth”. Neither has human figures in it (at least not recognizably), so I have some time to think about all this before the question comes up again. The visual depiction of beauty that has nothing to do with appearance: this is going to be interesting.


In the Eye of the Beholder.

I’ve recently been browsing through various online resources for artists — how-to’s, advice about materials, online portfolios, etc. — and I’ve noticed something that disturbs me: When did “Learn How to Draw” come to mean “Learn How to Draw Natalie Portman in Star Wars Makeup”? Continue reading

The Metamorphosis of Narcissus.

Today, May 11, is the anniversary of the birth of painter Salvador Domènec Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech, Marquis de Púbol — better known to most of us as Salvador Dalí.  Had he lived, he would be 108 years old today, an accomplishment that he might have celebrated in some way involving camels, scuba gear, an IBM Selectric typewriter, and oregano. Continue reading

The Play’s the Thing.

A friend recently pointed out a DVD of a new performance of William Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and observed that she generally did not enjoy such “highbrow” entertainment, even though the star of that particular staging was an actor she adored. If Shakespeare could hear such sentiments, I think he would be both flattered and very, very surprised. Continue reading