Thursday, November 07, 2013

Reality Appears Only in the Interplay of Black and White

A Black Rhino is airlifted by helicopter as part of a conservation effort. (National Geographic)
The discovery of what appear to billions of earth-like planets this week barely registers, a side note to a social media stock offering.   It's a kind of wonder fatigue.  On the one Earth, the Western black rhino, subspecies of the extremely endangered black rhino is now extinct, one of thousands of species being snuffed out forever. 

We can't actually contain these full realities in our minds, only by metaphor and symbol; we cannot contain them any more than we can completely understand our own faces in the mirror.  But if you draw, by hand, in time, your face in full light and shadow, more understanding arises, more ability to render what is significant. 

If you were merely to lift a handful of sand, and pour it slowly on the beach, choosing to assign each grain as another earth, and each grain as a lost species, you would know a fraction more of the nearly unapproachable truth of nature.   If you wish, you could do this for deaths today across the world, and the marriages, and the births. The incomprehensibly vast tragedy and ever-renewing joy of of humanity, of Nature itself, appears to you, if only as a flash of green on a great indigo ocean.

This little act of art would force you to balance limitless wonder and bottomless grief.  It is that balance that gives you power to act, in whatever way that presents itself.  In drawing, reality appears only in the interplay of black and white, in the infinities of specificity created by increasingly nuanced, highly distinct grays. 

The often wonderful - and sometimes horrific- results of science depend on a neutrality that can make it socially neutered: in the global warming debates, climate science alone was not enough - facts can't carry social arguments without a culturally substantial embrace of the value of the meaning of those facts. Unless you care about things other than immediate economic rewards, the debate is hopeless; yet Art is very much a study of what is to be cared about.  Art is free enough to unite the full factual, emotional and intellectual significance of Nature and of human experience. But we better do a lot more of it, and all the other forms of teaching and cultivating empathy, an empathy that is balanced rather than crippling.  We're not getting to those other planets in a dozen lifetimes.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Goings On In My Figure Classes

Insights into  art education:  One of the artists in my Bollenbach Art Labs figure classes has been documenting his progress, and describes some of my teaching process here, and earlier here. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Painting Waves: Splashes of Realism.

Backhuysen, Dutch Marine Painter, About 1700

In paintings like this, everything matters- the precise positions of the sails and rigging, the indications of the wind (the perspective on the flags indicate it's strength and direction.) But modern marine painters almost entirely miss the boiling power of the sea and sky, the many subtle indications of the motions of the surface of the sea and wind and rain whipping though the clouds; it's rare enough to be able render the drapery of the sails and the wickedly subtle arcs of the ships. Photographs freeze the motion of the sea falsely, entirely unlike how people perceive it in life- it takes a work like this to really capture in a still image the furious power of water and air in motion.

As I think about it, I have an inference about this- see what you think...What's key here is how our perception of a scene or a surface works: a collection of large number of events, not a simple two dimensional projection.

 1) The geometric turbulence - (complexity, for you science people)- of a stormy water surface is extremely involved. As the 4000 people who put together what artists call "organic" surfaces like water vegetation, hair, etc, for Pixar.

 2) All of that however, models water in motion. Here we are talking about what is arguably the tougher problem still image that must suggest all of that movement. 3) Imagine looking directly at the waves over, let's say, 30 seconds. Unless you are highly trained for another purpose, your eye remains in motion, darting all over the scene, the foam sloughing the backside of a trough, the petal-like outfall of a crest pouring into the glassy underside of a wave, the flick and splash of two waves hitting at off angles. The point is that what you see is dozens, more likely hundreds, of distinct events, inextricable from the ever-transforming shapes of the surface.

 4) What is "realistic" in art, I will assert for this idea, is what conforms to the totality of the experience of being there. (A photograph records only one small aspect of this - it's two dimensional projection- and even that isn't quite right.) In this case, it is the memory- what actually soaks into the mind - of the huge collection of hundreds of simultaneous events, waves moving in a dominant direction, or a confused one, wavelets whipping off in many directions, most which are stone in the pond, and arc-like; there are innumerable nuances, shape, direction, transparency, color, all of which have related but independent motions.

 5. To represent these in a still image with greater power means not only to record this extreme complexity, with it's 3-D qualities, but to present the action of time and direction on each of these micro-events. In other words, the mind perceives each micro-form (think of a wavelet on the surface of a wave melting away and sliding) as something that must imply motion and transformation, as an event. Further, to maximize its power, it has to be edited - irrelevant details from life that take away from the total effect must be eliminated.

6. Further still, meticulous details of reality can interfere terribly with the mood described beautifully by Shawna:  It is precise yet conveys a real sense of chaos, entropy, movement. " It's precisely because humans fixate on details that a large number of irrelevant details take away from a broader perception. If you try to describe a forest with every detail on every tree, you may well miss the visual concept of "forest," that you are trying to depict. 7. Paintings like this typically compress space and time, and imply time and transformative direction, not because it's an inadequate echo of reality, but because its necessary in order to represent the reality of what was really perceived and understood. It is, in many ways, far more realistic than a photo presents, but the mechanical assumptions of photographs today happen to dominate what we think of as realism.

7. Paintings like this typically compress space and time, and imply time and transformative direction, not because it's an inadequate echo of reality, but because its necessary in order to represent the reality of what was really perceived and understood. It is, in many ways, far more realistic than a photo presents, but the mechanical assumptions of photographs today happen to dominate what we think of as realism.

My friend Monty, an aeronautical engineer, summarized it well:  Yes, we don't perceive everything in a scene all at once, our minds build it up over time. We only think there must have been an instant, a peak point of highest drama that can be captured when in fact there is not. In this painting. It is impossible for this scene to have occured at a single instant, yet it conveys the power, the intensity, terrifying forces at work.

Sunday, May 26, 2013


JMW Turner HMS Victory at Trafalgar

If not exactly a hidden fact, any number of brilliant, famous artists - Turner, Brueghel the Elder, Van Dyck, Van Gogh, Monet, etc etc, produced gobs and gobs of marine artwork, which we tend to now ignore in the contemporary story of art as the march of the modern, the rise of cultural self-examinaton.

But the sheer wonder at the beauty of sailing ships - which were the most technologically advanced things human beings made - the play of artifice and nature at work anytime a ship was at sea, and of course the patronage of nostalgic admirals, meant that the fascination with maritime themes was genuine.

Modern maritime painting is, on the whole, a fairly forlorn affair; in these old works all the details matter, all the indications of rig and weather and position - the skippers would be there reminding them they were wrong otherwise. Simply the drawing skill needed to render the precise curves of ships in perspective, or believable crests falls and swirls of water and weather, defies easy study. And sailors are notorious critics for detail.

Recall, the Spouter Inn, my favorite passage from Moby Dick, and some fascinating foreshadowing, not only of the whale, but of the rise of modern art.
Albert Pinkham-Ryder, The Flying Dutchman

"Entering that gable-ended Spouter-Inn, you found yourself in a wide, low, straggling entry with old-fashioned wainscots, reminding one of the bulwarks of some condemned old craft. On one side hung a very large oilpainting so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal crosslights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbors, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose. Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows, that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist, in the time of the New England hags, had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched. But by dint of much and earnest contemplation, and oft repeated ponderings, and especially by throwing open the little window towards the back of the entry, you at last come to the conclusion that such an idea, however wild, might not be altogether unwarranted.
But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant. Ever and anon a bright, but, alas, deceptive idea would dart you through.--It's the Black Sea in a midnight gale.--It's the unnatural combat of the four primal elements.--It's a blasted heath.--It's a Hyperborean winter scene.--It's the breaking-up of the icebound stream of Time. But at last all these fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture's midst. THAT once found out, and all the rest were plain. But stop; does it not bear a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish? even the great leviathan himself?
In fact, the artist's design seemed this: a final theory of my own, partly based upon the aggregated opinions of many aged persons with whom I conversed upon the subject. The picture represents a Cape-Horner in a great hurricane; the half-foundered ship weltering there with its three dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What Dies When You Fire Arts Teachers

This letter was forwarded to me by a young man named Caleb Penn. It's a passionate defense of arts funding, and some of the deeper purposes of education, just as the Kitsap School District is proposing near-elimination of arts and music. -JB

My name is Caleb Penn, I grew up in Suquamish and graduated from North Kitsap High School in 2004.  I write this letter in an attempt to put in words how frustrated and frightened I am at the proposed cuts to arts education in my former school district.
I was what one would call an ‘At-Risk Youth,’ I fought a lot outside of school and began experimenting with controlled substances at a very early age, the youngest of 3 in a single mother household that was well below the poverty line.  When I think back on my childhood and my exposure to adversity, and what allowed me to survive and flourish, I always end up looking at the influence of art.

James Andrews who currently teaches at Kingston High School, encouraged me to audition for Guys and Dolls Jr at Kingston Jr High and I was subsequently cast as the male lead.  Mr. Andrews was instrumental in the process of me finding positivity amongst a pretty terrible existence at the time.  He taught me that to be a good artist one had to be an even better person and explore the aspects of ourselves that scare us the most.  He did not do this through lectures and essays, but through painting and drawing, acting and writing.  Math didn’t get me out of poverty, art did.  I graduated and went to Cornish College of the Arts to study theater and graduated from there in 2008.

It doesn’t bear thinking where I would be had I been deprived of art in my schooling.  I have broken numerous bones and have many chronic injuries due to fighting, I’ve had friends get murdered or commit suicide, watched most of my family become functionally homeless and have had to fight tooth and nail for everything that I currently have.  Counselors were condescending, the majority of teachers could care less about their students struggles, and in all honesty the only thing that kept me on a positive path was art.  I don’t mean to sew this letter with hyperbole, but art saved my life.  As well as the lives of my peers with whom I founded a theater company, it made some friends become sober with whom I make music.  It gave me the courage to say to myself that I am not the idiot I was trained to think I was because I wasn’t good at math and science; I am an artist.  Out of all titles attached to my name, son, brother, husband, friend, homeowner, it is the moniker of artist that I hold in the highest regard.

Education should be about creating fully functional human beings and not just repositories for knowledge.  I didn’t become an artist, art made me become a person.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Some Comments on Salvador Dali

From a social media discussion, April 2013, on this article in The Selvedge Yard.

"If it wasn't for his enormous moustache, he would have been the most ordinary man I had ever met." Pablo Picasso on dinner with Dali.

Dali's long cooperation (not to say dalliance, as much as I want to) with fascist Spain attests to this, which is a major reason he is fairly marginal in 20th century art history. His rebellions were entirely personal- there is little sense of liberating anyone else- rather, a mocking hostility and delight in control toward others.

This story is an illustration of the political limitations of shock value. Ultimately, shock values the power of the shocker- if this characterization of Gala is fair, she did a terrible thing to such a skilled artist, turning curiosity into pomposity.
Dali is sometimes dismissed as merely being skilled, but "technical ability" in painting is ultimately very difficult to divorce from the Art's subject, much, much more so than the recent conceptual view would suggest. Dali is rightly marginalized in some ways, especially politically, but it wasn't just empty or mechanical execution; he was full of remarkable visual innovation.

His sad end state, as described in the article, damaged his reputation even beyond his cosiness with, if not support of, fascism. But it is worth noting that many Pop innovations were pioneered by Dali: he used painted half-tone dots, arranged happenings, the whole nine yards early on, enough that I now wonder how much Andy Warhol self-conscious modeled the Factory on Dali's operation.

But to me that speaks towards the limitations of Pop. (And yes, I am deliberately making self-consciously annoying comparisons between Warhol and Dali. ) That being said, and as a fan of most of Picasso's work, it takes some serious doing to out-pompous and out-decadent Picasso, but Dali managed it.

Fascinating to this day how every other high school art student comes into college loving Dali. (Escher, right behind.) There's no doubt it had a power, but there is a hollowness in the air of a Dali that makes me want to avoid them.