John Seed: New Abstract Paintings

John Seed with a recent painting

John Seed, "Untitled #1," 2011, Oil on Canvas, 20" x 20"

John Seed, "Untitled #2," 2011, Oil on Canvas, 20" x 20"

John Seed, "Untitled #3," 2011, Oil on Canvas, 16" x 20"

John Seed, "Untitled #4," 2011, Oil on Canvas, 20" x 24"

All paintings are available for exhibition or purchase: contact

Kyle Staver: A Brother Honored

After artist Kyle Staver lost her older brother 6 years ago, she was moved to honor and memorialize him in the language that suits her best: the language of painting. The resulting trio of canvasses, a "Biker Triptych" now on view at the Pennsylvania College of Art as part of "Kyle Staver: A Survey of Paintings and Prints," manage to be forthright, funny, and affectionate. "To make a painting without excess irony or strategic cynicism is very edgy and I think courageous," remarks the artist. Staver, who strives to create images that balance human warmth and frailty, paints while respecting the courageous idea that "...the bravest thing in the world is to take a position without a pre-planned fall back."

Kyle Staver

Staver, who grew up in Northern Minnesota, believes that she was born strongly predisposed to art, but it took her some time, and some help from a few mentors, to find her way. While attending a girl's boarding high school as a teenager, a history teacher took her aside and told her "I know what is wrong with you; you are an artist." A few years later Staver enrolled at Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) and found that her teacher had been right. Artists were her "tribe" and the art world was her nation.

Studying with Iranian/American artist Siah Armajani, Staver developed site specific sculptures and initially had no interest in painting. That changed after graduation when, after losing her studio, a friend brought her a set of watercolors. The explosion of creativity that followed was a revelation. I couldn't believe what painting could do," is how Staver puts it. "I had no idea! I went through something like $700 worth of watercolors," Staver recalls." I made very thick impasto watercolors that first time out."

When she entered Yale for graduate work, Staver found a mentor in the late painter and critic Andrew Forge. Initially, Staver painted landscapes, but when Forge found them "lonely" she borrowed the figure of Olympia from Cezanne's painting and inserted her. "She seems a bit fearful," was Forge's comment. From that point forward Staver's engagement with the human figure became central to her practice.

In the 2 decades following her 1987 graduation from Yale, Staver gradually established herself as a painter of intimate vignettes of human relationships presented in a quirky, personal and playful style. She developed the conviction that painting had become her own non-verbal form of language capable of expressing what words cannot. Staver likes what Picasso had to say about this: "As far as I am concerned, a painting speaks for itself. What is the use of giving explanations, when all is said and done? A painter has only one language."

Honored by the National Academy Museum of New York with its "Benjamin Altman Figure Prize" in 1996 and again in 1998, Staver received a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation award in 2003 and began to exhibit regularly in New York.


Kyle Staver

"Cinnamon Rolls #2," 2007

Oil on linen, 54 x 64 inches

A 2003 review of Staver's work in the New York Observer notes some of the influences flavoring her work -- "... the cloistered vignettes of Vuillard... the monolithic figures of David Park, the quirky stiffness of folk art..." -- and credits her with having achieved a personal "...brand of intimism, acutely observed and gracefully set forth..." In 2006, a brief New York Times column highlighted Staver's "...playful, lushly painted pictures of people enjoying holiday or domestic pleasures."

As early as 2003 another strand had begun to appear in Staver's work that seemed to counter or even contradict the steady warmth of her established subject matter. Janice Nowinski, a Yale MFA classmate, characterizes it as "...psychological / Minnesota / backwoods stuff. Its more personal only in that its more psychological. More menace, more men -- it might have nothing to do with her personally -- but its something she tapped into which became a good subject." This strand would eventually include the biker triptych.

One backwoods painting, "Christmas Lake Turtle Hunt," which depicts 2 adolescent boys, is set at the sandy shoreline of a Minnesota Lake. Like several other recent paintings, "Turtle Hunt" includes male nudity, something that the artist has worked hard to depict with the right mix of humor and dignity. "In my work," she explains, "the people are naked by preference." Striving to develop nudes who were "casual and confident, humane and funny" was an ongoing artistic project. "For a man it took me years," Staver observes. "Turtle Lake" also displays the artist's increasingly confident use of stylized figures, limned with assured calligraphic details and lit with swaths and slivers of turbulent light.


Kyle Staver

"Christmas Lake Turtle Hunt," 2009

Oil on linen, 50 x 70 inches

After her brother's death Staver began the set of 3 paintings that together make up the largest sequence she has ever attempted. Each canvas has its own distinctive events and mood, but also links to the other panels; dogs appear in all 3. Because her brother had been a biker and a Harley enthusiast, Staver wanted to use the motorcycle the way Velasquez used horses in his equestrian pictures of Spanish Habsburg royalty: as the hero's mount. In each painting the artist's brother -- who was known to friends and family as "Fub"-- appears astride a motorcycle.

Bad Dog on Sparta Road, 2007
Oil on linen, 56 x 68 inches

In the first panel, "Bad Dog on Sparta Road," Fub is embraced by a white-clad guardian angel/biker chick as he confidently zooms past a fierce dog with bared teeth. Crisp graphic rhythms -- among them handlebars and a handlebar moustache -- and a downward compositional thrust endow "Bad Dog" with dynamism and panache. It shows a man at the peak of his confidence and power, a protector who is himself protected.

Fub and Tippy, 2007
Oil on linen, 76 x 66 inches

Fub, leaning back with a cigarette pinched between his fingers, dominates the central panel. He is joined only by his dog Tippy, a loyal and diminutive sidekick. The motorcycle, its wheel turned forward, is delicately balanced, about to turn a corner. The bike's rear wheel sparkles like a gilded icon while Fub's firmly rendered features project saintly gravitas.

Dead Dog, 2007
Oil on linen, 54 x 64 inches

Finally, in "Dead Dog," Fub halts his bike to look over his shoulder at death in the form of a dog's broken body. A new companion, a dark haired woman, shares the view as the motorcycle's headlight illuminates the sepulchral gloom ahead of the road ahead. As in a Baroque painting, strong contrasts of light and dark suggest the dualities of life and death.

Although the paintings can be seen together as a cycle, Staver is mainly concerned that each image tells a strong story that can be related to the other panels. "What is important for me, as a painter," she relates, "is that the 3 panels hold together and have the 'gestalt' to be cohesive, without relying on pictured sequencing, as in comic books." Another element that connects the paintings is humor, something Staver finds essential; "I do think humor is terribly important in painting. It is the constant and steady reminder of our humanity; the foible aspect of being alive."

Even in working with dark material, Kyle Staver has managed to keep her sense of humor and speak from the heart. It is a vulnerable posture for a contemporary artist to take, and also a very genuine one. "I adored my brother," Staver comments, and the language of representational painting -- a language she has studied, borrowed from and personalized -- has allowed her to render that adoration in paint. "Her faith in the history of her medium may mark her (Staver) as a conservative," noted New York Times critic Roberta Smith, in a 2010 review, "but she is a very good painter."

Eric Orr and Elizabeth Orr: Crazy Wisdom

"Well, crazy wisdom--that's a very good question--is when you have a complete exchange with the road, so that the shape of the road becomes your pattern as well. There's no hesitation at all."

-Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
It has been almost exactly thirteen years since Eric Orr, the Kentucky born Light and Space artist, died of a heart attack, just short of his sixtieth birthday. He would be pleased to know that his wife, Peggy Tilbury Orr, and his daughter and son, Elizabeth and John, are all thriving. Orr would also be proud to know that both of his adult children have recently become very active in preserving his artistic legacy.

Elizabeth Orr is an artist and video editor. She is also, most recently, a lighting and sound designer who has been re-lighting the European revival of a Guy de Cointet play that her father did the lighting and stage design for 30 years ago. In fact, Elizabeth's parents met during the production of the play.

John Speed Orr has matured into a gifted ballet soloist; "He looks just like his father, but without the beard," Peggy says. In January of 2012 Eric Orr's 1968 sculpture and performance "Wall Shadow" will be restaged in Los Angeles as part of Pacific Standard Time, in a collaboration between LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division) and Corazon del Sol. John Speed Orr will be building and then removing the cinderblock wall used in the piece, just as his father once did.


Eric Orr: a still image from "Crazy Wisdom," a film by Elizabeth Orr

Elizabeth, who was very close to her father has spent the past 5 years piecing together a forty minute film about him. She was fourteen when he died -- the same age that Eric was when his father died -- and the film project has been her way of re-connecting and of remembering. "Just hearing stories about him and how much of an impact he had on his friends lives was really amazing," Elizabeth says. "It fills in my memory of him and what he was doing with his work when I was a kid."


Artist and Filmmaker Elizabeth Orr

The film is called "Crazy Wisdom," in honor of the kind of holy madness that Orr admired in Buddhist thought, and that he lived every moment of his life. Peggy Orr says that her husband was "a showman, a personality, a genius..." His friends, interviewed by Elizabeth for her film, concur, and have a few more comments on top of that.

He was "an outlaw," says Kent Hodgetts, "a raconteur," says Larry Bell, "terrifically literate," says Maurice Tuchman. Susan Kaiser Vogel remembers his "unconditional friendship," and that he provided "adventures in the crazy zone." Orr was, in fact, California's version of Yves Klein, a metaphysical adventurer who was unafraid of limits and who saw potential where others saw impediments and voids.

"Stop moving," Orr once exhorted, "and see the electric man inside."

Twenty-five years ago I briefly visited Orr in his Venice studio after purchasing one of his paintings, a deep emerald field framed in lead and gold. I don't remember what we talked about, but as I was leaving he handed me a small black book that has sat unopened in my bookshelf until now. A catalog for a twenty year survey of his work held at San Diego State in 1984, it includes a biographical timeline peppered by short, vivid entries that hint at Orr's sense of counter-cultural adventure.

"My father was a horse breeder and trainer, " Orr told Kristine McKenna of the LA Times in 1996. "My mother was a former flapper, and I had a privileged upbringing that ended with the death of my father and the disappearance of the family fortune when I was 14." After a few years in a military school, Orr was feeling curious, rebellious, and ready to take on the world.

As his timeline tells the story he had a "first brush with death" in Mexico City at age sixteen, traveled to Cuba at eighteen, and hitch-hiked to the East Coast at nineteen, where he had an encounter with artist Marcel Duchamp's famous "Large Glass." Reading what happened next -- peyote experiments with friends, the founding of a motorcycle club, agitating for civil rights in Mississippi -- establishes Orr's connection to idealistic ferment and experimentation of the early 60's.

His first exhibited artwork, "Colt 45," consisted of a chair set in front of a box containing a .45 automatic pistol, which had its trigger attached to a foot-pedal. The gun was aimed directly at the chair. "Seated there," wrote Eric's great friend and advocate, Thomas McEvilley, "one gazed down the muzzle of a gun about 3 feet away." Of course, the gun wasn't loaded, but Orr's piece -- made years before Chris Burden created similar works dealing with bodily harm and imminent fear -- announced that Orr "was against painting and sculpture and what they stand for."

"I'm interested in the stuff you don't see but its there," he told McEvilley.

Orr moved to Los Angeles in 1965 to work for sculptor Mark di Suvero, after "terminating his formal education." He had attended 5 universities without ever finishing a degree. In 1968 he participated in experiments in hypnosis and passed out 10,000 bags of fresh air in downtown Los Angeles. He made dry ice sculptures with Judy Chicago and Lloyd Hamrol, and also created a seminal work called "Wall Shadow."

For "Wall Shadow," Orr built a 7 foot wide wall of cinderblocks and then traced and painted in its afternoon shadow on the asphalt of La Cienega Boulevard. He then removed the bricks and left only the painted shadow behind. Until the very end of his life, Orr would continue to create challenging works that fused performance and sculpture.


Eric Orr with his installation "Wall Shadow" at the Eugenia Butler Gallery, 1968

Photo courtesy of the Eric Orr Estate

After spending 2 years making a "Sound Tunnel" and the first version of his "Zero Mass" installation, Orr sold everything he owned and took a trip around the world, visiting Burma, Japan, Egypt, and India, seeking sacred sites. In the years that followed, one of Orr's artistic preoccupations was the creation of sacred spaces and experiences in a contemporary context.

Upon his return to California he Orr was immediately busy, making sub-atomic drawings and solar fountains. He also conducted what he called "Out of Body" experiments. Orr's interest in sound eventually culminated in a 1981 museum installation called "Silence and the Ion Wind," in which he attempted to create "profound silence."

Although he was most often linked by critics to the California "Light and Space" Movement, which had its artistic roots in Minimalism, Orr's many interests and experiments continued to make his work hard to label. Orr's fascination with the intangible didn't help. As he once expressed it: "The most widely held misconception about Light and Space art is that it involves things; in its purest form, it's completely intangible and exists only in the sensate mind."

Despite his earlier rejection of the art of paintings, by the early 1980s Orr was selling quite a few of them. He now had a family to support; he and Peggy married in 1982, and Elizabeth arrived in 1984, a year after Eric purchased health insurance for the first time in his life. Orr's paintings -- enticing voids and floating gem-hued color fields -- were often compared with Mark Rothko's paintings, but there were some key differences. Rothko's ragged fields of paint float somberly, suggesting atmosphere, while Orr's paintings seem serenely empty. "I make a work as simple as the concept of zero," is how he put it.


Eric Orr, Marin Red Void, 1996, oil on canvas with gold leaf wrapped wood, 29 x 24 inches

Image courtesy of the Eric Orr Estate, and the Robert Berman Gallery

Orr's paintings were framed in lead-wrapped gilded edges, and had touches of the artist's own blood discretely applied to each canvas. Each week, recalls art dealer Mark Moore, a doctor came to draw some of Eric's blood which he kept vials in the refrigerator along with champagne and Häagen-Dazs bars. "Many of his works now have mold where the blood was applied," Moore notes; "It is, after all, an organic substance." Blood wasn't Orr's only unusual ingredient. He was also known to incorporate crushed AM/FM radio parts and bits of human skull in some works.

Moore also remembers how hard driving and hard working Orr was. "He lived as big as he could, and when the money came in he would get a bigger place. Every time I sold a piece he had me FedEx him the check the same day."

Part of the artist's constant need for money was related to his water sculptures. Inspired by cultic sites he had visited and studied in Egypt and Zaire, Orr had developed horizontally ridged water sculptures that featured sheer streams of water clinging to their surface as it flowed downwards. In 1981 he exhibited a 20' tall example at the LA County Museum of Art. Water sculptures -- he did not think of them as fountains -- became one of Orr's signature products, and their fabrication was expensive and time consuming.

As his children grew up, they were mesmerized by their father's energy and activities. "He was really fun, and also very hardworking," Elizabeth remembers. "He would listen to the Oldies station all the time while he was working in his studio, gold leafing, airbrushing paintings etc. In the Venice studio there was always a long table in the studio with great wood chairs for friends to sit around in. I remember loving going to sleep when there were tons of people in the other room, talking, smoking, drinking and laughing; so comforting. "

Orr wasn't just interested in art. "Eric was obsessed with cars," Peggy Orr recalls, "and he couldn't wait until the new issue of Auto Trader came out. He would read it, smoking Tarrington filters. He bought a Porsche, a Cadillac convertible, a 1963 Thunderbird, and Buick Skylark from the 60s..." Elizabeth remembers "...lots of speeding on the PCH in some great car he would buy; my mother and father were both great at talking themselves out of tickets. My brother John Speed and my dad were big into Jr. Dragster racing; my brother's car was named Godspeed."

One of the "crazy wisdom" qualities that Eric demonstrated to both his children was fearlessness. "We were once watching the Blue Angels on the San Francisco Bay, and he suggested we just simply walk onto a high security military ship with all the decorated high ranking officials to watch the Blue Angels," Elizabeth recalls. " We did."

As he became an international figure -- Orr took part in the 1988 Olympic Arts Festival in Korea -- major commissions were coming his way. In 1991 he completed twin 35' tall bronze towers, to be situated in front of a 55 story office complex at the northwest corner of Wilshire and Figueroa in Los Angeles. Titled "Prime Matter," the sculpture has a remarkable feature: fire, which normally shoots upwards, moves down the towers alongside clinging sheets of water. "When that fire goes on the traffic stops at a green light," Orr boasted. At night, a xenon lamp shoots light upwards 1,000 feet, adding to the spectacle.


Eric Orr's 1991 water sculpture "Prime Matter," at 601 S. Figueroa in Los Angeles

Photo by Henrik Von Wendt

A 1996 piece, "Fire Window," installed in Viaduct Harbor in Auckland, New Zealand, combines gas jets and flowing water. As hidden gas jets in a cast-iron window frame create an invisible "pane" of heat, water flows over it. To suggest the "unpredictable forces of nature," the gas jets periodically burst into flame.

Orr's final major commission, "The Electrum Project," completed the year before death, used a new medium: giant bolts of electricity. Working with Greg Lehy, an electrical engineer, he constructed the world's largest Tesla coil -- rated at 130,000 watts -- on the farm of a private patron in New Zealand. Conceived as a sculpture/performance object, after "Electrum's" completion Orr sat on a plastic chair and read inside the coil while it was discharging, a mesmerizing stunt. "He read Plato in the chair," recalls Peggy Orr, "He did Tesla one better."


Eric Orr reads inside "Electrum (for Len Lye)," 1997

Tesla coil, stainless steel electrode on a fiberglass column support, 3 x 3 x 14m

Image: from "Crazy Wisdom," by Elizabeth Orr

Sophie Chahinian, who managed Orr's studio on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, remembers that the summer before Eric's death he was feeling "nostalgic," and working on a series of short recollections that he called "Ghost Stories." Some were about his friends, some about his boyhood in Kentucky and all of them were quite short.

Much of Orr's time was now spent on water sculptures, which had become his most important studio products. "The simple elegance of his water sculptures made them majestic and subtle at the same time," says Chahinian. "His proposals were original and organic and he was so amazingly smart. He had such a good sense of humor, with a sardonic edge, an affinity for that which was reduced to absurdity, a fatalism that was his undoing. He should have quit smoking two packs a day a long time ago, but that wasn't something he was going to entertain."

Orr died in November of 1998, just after returning from a trip to Las Vegas, where he had presented a proposal for a water sculpture for a major hotel. Members of his studio team, including Sophie Chaninian, Tudor Farmer, and others, completed a final commission -- which features undulating panels of water flowing over copper in the atrium at Center of Science and Industry in Columbus, Ohio -- after his death.

"He was such a great spirit," Elizabeth Orr says. "His work is really powerful, timeless... His installations, performances, and objects are so present even now and you've probably seen his works in major museums, and in his public installations without even realizing it." In particular, Orr's water sculptures -- and fountains derived from his ideas, which he never managed to patent -- seem to be everywhere. They can be found in corporate lobbies, public plazas and even department stores where small "Zen" fountains mass produced in Asia are derived from Orr's water sculptures.

By his death in 1998, Eric Orr had fearlessly taken his experiential art in an astonishing range of directions, while at the same time remaining interested in essential experiences and elements. He might have been surprised to find that his work has had a kind of reincarnation through the efforts of his children. " I also relate to early Buddhism in that I have no sense of the afterlife, he once told an interviewer. "I think we're like television sets, and when we die, the off button is pushed and the show is over."

Film Screening:

Crazy Wisdom: The Life and Work of Eric Orr

Thursday, November 17, 2011 - 7 PM

MCASD La Jolla

Free to Members; $5 Students; $10 General Admission

Matthew Couper: A Devotional Painter in Las Vegas

If you were to tell the New Zealand born artist Matthew Couper that he is living in the wrong era -- and possibly the wrong city -- he would just smile. He is more than comfortable being anachronistic.

Couper, who specializes in making contemporary paintings that have their stylistic roots in Spanish Baroque colonial art, says that he is "... OK with being part of a tradition." Add to that, working and living in Las Vegas, a city known for theatricality, luxury and its tolerance of sin, suits Couper beautifully. His style may be 300 years old, but his art needs social extremes to activate its sense of morality, and he sees potential in the city. "Las Vegas is a one in a million place," Couper comments, "and there is no parochial sense of what art is."


Matthew Couper with the sarcophagus of Fra Angelico in Rome, Photo: Jo Russ

Being a recent immigrant to the U.S. has also contributed to the complex, hybrid nature of Couper's imagery. "I'm starting from scratch," he notes, "but knowing that I need to assimilate socially and culturally but while retaining a sense of where I came from." Couper came to Las Vegas -- by choice -- in mid-2010, and although many of his themes are universal, he knew that Vegas would give him something he could "tap into."

An artist with a Kafkaesque view of the world, Couper uses his art to narrate personal uncertainties, and frustrations. He has found more than enough strangeness in Vegas -- and in America -- to challenge and stimulate his secular piety. Couper is both an intuitive, a moralist and a visionary. His recent oil "Trickle-Down Theory," which features the Las Vegas Stratosphere tower pissing out a golden stream of urine over a Boschian cast of characters, makes a dark pun on conservative economic theory, and somehow manages to do so with religious conviction. The resulting image is compelling, perplex and idiosyncratic; a Pagan Catholic Cirque du Soleil.


Matthew Couper, "Trickle Down Theory," 2011, Oil on canvas, 58" x 46"

Couper grew up in a religious household, but not a visually devout one. He recalls that religion was "kind of there... but no dripping Spanish crucifixes." Still, at age 4 he drew his first crucifix: he had seen one at his grandparent's house

As an art student, when Couper first came across an ex-voto painting -- a small blue painting on rippled tin -- he felt an immediate pull. "That small image of a Mexican woman kneeling before a vision of the Virgin of Guadalupe held it's own on the wall," says Couper; "It pinged!" As he intuitively realized, Spanish colonial art, with its saints, monsters, and acts of devotion, represents a very powerful moment in culture; the moment when a pagan society collided with orthodoxy.

Couper soon started collecting both retablos -- paintings dedicated to a particular saint -- and ex-votos, which describe personal experiences and offer thanks. They have given him a narrative vocabulary, and he also admires their humility. "I think I like them because there's no cult-of-personality tied up with these works," Couper comments. " In fact the artists were really artisans just doing 'God's' work. No politics, no egos, what a great way to earn a wage!"

Ex-votos and retablos, with their stark symbolism, were painting to be instantly understood by largely illiterate populations. Couper, on the other hand, is painting for a population that has been overstimulated by too much information and too much entertainment. By appealing to our neglected religious imaginations, Couper has paradoxically managed to make images that stand out as literally unorthodox.

Couper likes what happens when an ancient symbol is brought into a contemporary context. In "Trickle Down Theory" a snake with the dollar bill's Great Seal on it's back stands for the shrewdness and astuteness of art collectors. In "21st Century Caravaggisti, Las Vegas, NV" a painting monkey "multi-tasks" at a strip club, evoking Couper's sense of the "work hard/play hard" American blue collar workers that frequent Vegas casinos.

His symbols, which can seem jarring in a contemporary context, may strike some as Surrealist, but that isn't quite right: they are Pre-Surrealist -- in fact they are Pre-Englightenment -- and don't need to be seen as having Freudian meanings. Couper puts it this way: "I do like Surrealist artists such as de Chirico and Magritte, but I see them as part of a long lineage of painters going back to the image-makers in the Lascaux Caves." Couper's symbols aren't self-conscious or over-thought; they are an acquired vocabulary that his imaginative mind uses nimbly.


Matthew Couper, "New Self-Portrait," 2011, oil on metal, 11" x 8"

Interested in what happens when cultures merge and hybridize, Couper doesn't hesitate to combine eclectic cultural products. In a recent self-portrait, an African power figure stands in a blender, holding the scarred silhouette of the artist in an uncertain symbolic relationship. Behind the figure a tree sprouts red planar leaves that recall the Suprematist paintings of Kasmir Malevich. "The Nkisi Nkondi power figures interest me because of their devotional significance," Couper comments, "but I still haven't entirely worked out what this painting means."


Matthew Couper, "2000 (retablo)," 2009, oil on metal, 14" x 11," image courtesy of

Couper's ideas, whether they appear to him in the shower, or in a dream, come from simple personal experiences, but take on a new life when expressed by his anachronistic and esoteric symbols. In a 2009 retablo, for example, Couper conjured up a robed Friar gnawing a human leg to express how he felt about a 15 hour per week job teaching art at Wellington High School. A red inscription -- "A man's gotta EAT!" -- provides a rationalization for this instance of Catholic cannibalism.

Darkly funny, and dense with symbols, Couper's paintings are his attempt to bridge the gap between the mundane and the spiritual. It isn't an easy job, but Couper has a powerful set of artistic traditions to draw on when he gets stuck. Couper is, in fact, one of the more humble and sincere contemporary artists working today. He is a storyteller on a pilgrimage, recording his experiences in a visual language that once spoke power to people kneeling in a church.

His best paintings shatter our cultural narcissism and remind us of what ancient peoples once knew: our fate is determined by Saints and monsters.

Marc Trujillo: North American Purgatory

Los Angeles based artist Marc Trujillo, whose first solo show at Hirshl and Adler opens on November 3rd, paints what he calls the "shared spaces of the everyday." He is attracted to "non-destinations," familiar places where vast expanses of concrete or linoleum numb the senses. "I'm captivated by the middle ground," Trujillo explains, "the purgatory of the world we've made and share as North Americans."


Marc Trujillo, "5901 Douglas Avenue," 2010, 11.5" x 19.5," oil on panel

Trujillo sees what he calls "visual potential" in mundane subject matter: big box stores, and fast food meals. Painting with a moral seriousness reminiscent of Chardin or Vermeer, Trujillo finds poetry in the gap between ubiquity and invisibility. He evokes both shame and awe in what he records, and uses formal intelligence to make the two conflicting emotions balance.


Marc Trujillo

Q and A: John Seed Interviews Marc Trujillo:

JS: Tell me something about fast food as subject matter; what are you seeing and thinking when you paint, for example, a KFC meal?

MT: I believe Auden's statement about poetry being the precise expression of mixed feelings. So what interests me about painting these is how I love them and hate them, just like with the more panoramic paintings I have a mix of awe and shame about them that makes me interested in painting them. I'm from a square state and have had a lot of fast food growing up, so it can be comforting and when I'm in the mood I can enjoy it, but them again it's a little disgusting and low grade. I didn't want to paint a KFC meal as a seen from the side: "still life as landscape." I wanted the viewer looking straight down at it; it's your meal.

Also, I wouldn't normally order the corn on the cob but it comes wrapped in foil which I wanted to paint, so my motives were also visual when I was ordering this meal.


Marc Trujillo, "Meal #2," 2011, 13.5" x 17," oil on panel

JS: Who are some artists that have influenced you? Where can we see their influence in their work?

MT: My main influences are Vermeer, Velasquez, and Rembrandt.

My paintings are fundamentally synthetic in nature, and represent not only the experience of direct observation, but also an appreciation and awareness of paintings and painters of the past. I swipe strategies to see what works for me.

When I see Vermeer's 'View of Delft' for example, my first reaction is emotional, followed by a desire to analyze what makes it a great painting. The scale is perfect, substantial but not imposing, so when I'm not sure what size a painting should be I'll use the 38" height of 'View of Delft' as a starting point and set the width of the painting according to my needs for the composition. Vermeer had to construct his moment and he took liberties -- in the reflections in the water for example -- with physics to get the moment he wanted for the painting.

The light in 'View of Delft' is very convincing; light is how you sell the fiction of the painting as a real moment. The artificial light in the spaces I paint is very different from the light in the old master paintings I admire, but my interest in conveying it clearly is the same.

Also Vermeer uses the vanishing point in 'Milkmaid' over her hand pouring the milk to help imbue a private moment with meaning -- the opposite of the kind of moments I tend to show and I'll invert his compositional strategy -- so in the parking garage painting for example, there's nothing under the vanishing point but concrete.


Marc Trujillo, "5711 Sepulveda Boulevard," 2010, 30" x 62," oil on canvas

JS: Is it fair to call your work documentary? What is your intention when you show us the kinds of generic places and spaces that you favor?

MT: It would be a misreading to call them documentary. They're real places, but I do a lot to them so that they could be anywhere; no palm trees for example. I'm from New Mexico so to me a palm tree says vacation or movie happy ending. Showing people things that can be part of their fantasy lives is a good definition of pornography. I want the painting to have a chance to be more of an experience than the actual place so that's one reason I pick places people don't go to be there. If I painted the Himalayas then the painting would function more like a postcard that reminds the viewer of someplace they would rather be.

The paintings are the acid test for all of the ideas I have going into them. Making the paintings is what defines the area of investigation for me, as opposed to starting with an idea and executing it. So my ritual is a cycle; looking at great paintings to define painting for myself, looking at the world to see what I think might make an interesting painting as I've come to understand and define it, and testing all of this by making the paintings themselves, which starts the process of investigation all over again.

The locations in the paintings are non-destinations, particularly North American kinds of nowhere, at once ubiquitous and yet largely unseen. These places give me the slightly sinking feeling that I know I'm somewhere, but not really there, present in an absent sort of way. In the mix of shame and awe that I feel, I am inspired by the potential for painting what I'm experiencing in the moment.

JS: What else should viewers understand about your work?

MT: I think the big thing that people misunderstand is that they see the paintings as being "Photorealistic." My paintings are built on drawings as opposed to being painted from photographs. In order to sort out how I want to convey what I'm experiencing in these spaces, I need to draw.


Marc Trujillo, 2nd preparatory drawing for 5711 Sepulveda Boulevard

For me making is thinking. This stage is vital as it's where I test the potential for painting a given situation; clearing an isle to keep the deep space open, changing the proportions of the space slightly and leaving in only the elements that convey my interest in the space and the figures that occupy it.

Marc Trujillo

November 3rd - December 3rd 2011

Hirschl and Adler Modern

Opening Reception -Thursday, November 3rd, 5:30 to 7:30 pm

730 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10019

F. Scott Hess: "In Transit"

Self-Portrait as a Masterpiece of Creation, 2011
oil on aluminum panel
30 × 24 inches

It must be exhilarating to be F. Scott Hess: he seems to have reached a point where his brush can take him just about anywhere he wants to go. The varied subjects, and hybrid realities of Hess’ recent paintings make them appear eclectic when seen together, but that just scratches the surface. His works actually have a tremendous psychological unity. They have sprung from the mind of an artist who is recycling and blending the richness of his actual life and infusing it with cultural memory and imaginative vigor.

Seriously, to be able to wake up in the morning, sip some coffee and think to yourself “Today, I feel like painting five female ballet students in leotards tossing the bloodless, hulking corpse of the French academic artist Bouguereau out a third floor window in La Rochelle.” Then, if you are Scott, you just head to the studio and make this whim explicit, riveting, credible and even slightly funny.

The Death of William Adolphe Bouguereau, 2011
oil on aluminum panel
24 × 36 inches

The painting mentioned above, “The Death of William Adolphe Bouguereau", is, among other things, a sly revenge fantasy. “I don’t care much for the content of Bouguereau’s work,” Hess acknowledges, “but the man can paint soft female flesh better than I ever will.” It is worth pointing out that in talking about a dead artist in the present tense, as if he is still alive, Hess has given us all a clue to the vitality of the forces and images – past, present, real and painted – that he can draw on. Most art historians have already tossed Bouguereau out the metaphorical window decades ago, but Hess clearly enjoyed doing it on his own terms, with humor.

Not only does Hess, project his fantasies onto the canvas with shocking technical aplomb, and a healthy dose of catharsis, he generally manages the complicate things a bit. In the case of “Bouguereau” the blue and white tones of the artist’s corpse play off the red drapery used the carry him to the window, and evoke the red, white and blue of the French flag. “But it was totally subconscious on my part…” says Hess about the apparent coincidence. That may be true, but what a well stocked subconscious Hess has.

In the past year or two Hess has dredged up references – consciously and unconsciously – from the Bible, Velasquez, Persian poetry, Bellini, Watteau, Sigmund Freud, the experiences of child-rearing, and the experience of being a child. Somehow, all of these things have been internalized, even sorted. “I generally just paint what I see when I’m not looking,” Hess comments.

"Art history, popular culture, literature, and the subconscious all simmer together in Scott's skull," observes his friend and fellow artist Peter Zokosky. “Scott's mental salad bar has more choices than anyone's, and he always comes away with something amazing.” The mental salad bar that Zokosky refers to is also well stocked with life experiences and travel.

In the artists own words: “I’ve been caught after sundown on the dangerous Zabol-Zahedan smugglers road where Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan meet, eaten a small yellow dog in southern China, and lived in an Anarchist-vegetarian-nudist commune in the Midwest. I’ve had coffee with spies and terrorists, lived over the back fence from the Pope, and witnessed the birth of both of my daughters.” Witnessing and experiencing are themes that Hess often strives to balance in his works.

Suzie Q, 2011
oil on aluminum panel
48 × 36 inches

In “Suzie Q,” a 2011 painting, a group of older men avidly stare at a nearly nude woman performing Cirque de Soleil style in a suspended metal hoop. If you stand in front of it for a few minutes you’ll find yourself staring at the woman too, then staring at those who stare. Yes, you are a voyeur. One of the things that Hess does is to let anyone who is strong enough take part in fantasy worlds that he provokes and evokes, and unashamed voyeurism is one of the pleasures he offers. If you aren’t convinced of this, have a look at Scott’s tiny panel painting “Morning Glory” and then get back to me.

The Colonel’s Daughter, 2006
oil on canvas
32 × 40 inches

When you view “The Colonel’s Daughter,” an emotionally complicated painting, you will again want to stare. Depending on your gender, and what you find attractive, you may also want to protect her, cover her up, or have your way with her. Like many of Hess’ best works “The Colonel’s Daughter” will arouse both your imagination and your id: it's the artist’s way of including you.

Mud Riot, 2011
oil on aluminum panel
12 × 16 inches

Hess likes subjects that allegorize violence and chaos. To put it another way, he has a dark romantic side. “Mud Riot” seems to borrow from Antonio Pollaiuolo’s 15th century engraving of ten male nudes slaughtering each other with axes, swords and spears, but Hess slyly bogs his battle down in calf-high mud. Even with their ancient weapons they seem familiar: are they our congressmen?

The Wave, 2010
oil on aluminum panel
36 × 48 inches

In “The Wave” water cascades through a window, but the woman it engulfs seems exhilarated. War and disaster, Hess seems to say, are both, among other things, universal human experiences. They are also transitions. They are also both darkly humorous, if you are a connoisseur of the human comedy. One of the things you have to appreciate about Scott Hess is that he doesn’t just study or comment on the human situation. Without hesitation or condescension he will portray himself in the midst of it.

Hess includes himself and one of his daughters in “Oblation,” a painting in which the pouring of water suggests an offering. Scott stands, shielding his eyes from the sunset, acknowledging his place in this particular cycle. Raising a child to adulthood takes a major portion of your life,” he comments, “or drains it out of you.”

In his “Self-Portrait as a Masterpiece of Creation,” Hess plays fair by posing nude himself behind the verso of a blank canvas. Lucien Freud and Frida Kahlo, present in the form of reproductions of their self-portraits, provide additional fuel for the theme of artist’s using the self-portrait as a vehicle for the insecurities of both the artist and the viewer. Hess is interested in Lacanian Gaze, the idea of a painting being a mirror that reflects back the viewer's own thoughts, and elicits the anxious realization that he or she can also be viewed. “In a way,” he says “I think the blank panel represents that, and also a deliberate lack of guidance on my part.”

Dark Horse, 2011
oil on aluminum panel
36 × 48 inches

“Dark Horse,” a recent oil that Hess is very fond of, depicts a nude woman clutching the reins of a black stallion charging through a snow covered birch forest. Yes, it has a connection to the tale of Lady Godiva, but it also is an essay on opposing forces: a black horse in a white forest, warm human flesh in frigid weather; motion in a still place. The rider is perhaps being chased, but there is a smile on her lips. Hess used some of Eadweard Muybridge’s classic stop action photos of horses to develop the running steed, and perhaps there is a visual pun in its “frozen” pose. It is a painting of extremes, balanced by poetry.

“I get along easily with everyone,” says Hess, “but always seem to unintentionally insult people during raucous intellectual debates.” It is an honest aside, coming from a man whose art can be both engaging and disturbing. Hess has a talent for conjuring up paintings that are challenging hybrids of the mythical, the historical, the allegorical and the universal. His works are imaginative fiction, each one a journey right to the edge of what might actually be true.

F. Scott Hess: In Transit

Koplin Del Rio

6031 Washington Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232

Exhibition Dates: October 29 - December 22, 2011

Reception for the Artist: Saturday, October 29, 5-8pm

Picasso and Braque: Cubism Revisited in the Age of the iPad

Pablo Picasso once told art historian Roland Penrose that Cubism was "full of deception" so that it would keep people looking and guessing and looking again. Apparently his tricks worked -- Cubism is more than 100 years old and we are still confounded -- but at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art recent technology is enabling museum-goers look at Cubist works with astonishing acuity.

"Picasso and Braque: The Cubist Experiment, 1910-12," an intimate exhibition of some 15 paintings and 25 prints, is making rare Analytical Cubist paintings available for both physical and virtual inspection. Visitors to the show can borrow one of forty iPads equipped with a specially developed iCubist application to scrutinize and delve deeply into four key paintings. Inside the app are digitized spectral images that show the works at different light frequencies, including ultraviolet and infrared, to reveal minute details. The app also allows users to take apart and reassemble Cubist compositions, and provides pop ups to help distinguish the individual styles of each artist.

Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, who collaborated to move Cubism forward in its early days, saw themselves as having a kinship with scientists and inventors. In homage to the Wright brothers they used to jokingly call each other "Orville and Wilbur." The Santa Barbara show features works made by the pair between 1910 and 1912, a precious period of innovation and cooperation that was halted by World War I. In the 1920s, when Picasso found that he missed working with Braque, whose artistic career had been slowed by wartime head wounds, he wistfully referred to Braque as his "ex-wife."

One of the works in the Santa Barbara show, Picasso's "Man with a Pipe" of 1911 is an Analytical Cubist riff on the image of a man in a smoky cafe, but as the iCubist app will reveal, it started out as a still life. There are hints of a moustache, hands, clay pipe and a few letters thrown into the jumble, all of them floating on the jagged jigsaw puzzle forms that give the painting its visual rhythm and inscrutability. Are there still bottles and cups lurking beneath the faceted coat of Picasso's Cubist gentleman? You'll have to look it over in person, and on iCubist, and decide for yourself.


Pablo Picasso, Spanish (1881-1973)

Man with a Pipe, 1911, Oil on canvas

35-3/4 x 27-7/8 in. (oval) (90.7 x 71.0 cm)

Collection of the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth Texas

© 2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

SBMA's Chief Curator Eik Kahng comments that "The spectral images we will show of Picasso and Braque's paintings allow you see the trace of the very hairs of the brush in the paint layer. They can be truly mesmerizing." Kahng feels strongly that Ken Boydston, who developed the "MegaVision" technology used in capturing the digital images is "nothing short of a visionary." In essence "The Cubist Experiment" is a show about artistic visionaries, whose work can be better understood using the tools created by the digital visionaries of our own time.

Picasso and Braque: The Cubist Experiment, 1910-1912

September 17, 2011 - January 8, 2012

The Santa Barbara Museum of Art

Joan Brown (1938-1990): Towards Unexpected Joy

In the Fall of 1981 I was an incoming graduate student in Painting at UC Berkeley, anxious to meet my new professors including the respected Bay Area Figurative artists Elmer Bischoff and Joan Brown. Because I was so intent on getting Brown's opinion of my work I scheduled an individual critique with Joan, and installed a recent 7 by 9 foot canvas in UCB's downstairs gallery especially for her viewing.

Joan arrived promptly, a striking woman with piercing eyes accented by heavy mascara and bright hennaed hair. She immediately made stinging observations about my work, which was titled "Dead Duck." She told me that my painting -- a cartoonish canvas depicting a duck being shot out of the sky -- was incoherent, impossible to respect, and lacking in focus. No teacher had ever spoken to me that way before.

Stunned, I asked Joan if there wasn't anything she liked about the work. I will never forget her response, which she made in a raised voice as she stormed out of the gallery:

"You need your ass kicked."

Although I later took Brown's class and saw her softer side, that first impression has lingered with me for 30 years. Brown, in her words and in her art, was uncompromisingly assertive. Her toughness didn't endear her to everyone, but over the long haul it was the quality that distanced her from a difficult childhood and moved her towards the visionary optimism that characterized her final works.


Joan Brown, "Self-Portrait with a Scarf," 1972, enamel on canvas, 16 x 12 inches

Collection of Wanda Kownacki and John Holton

Jodi Throckmorton, an Associate Curator at the San Jose Museum of Art, and the organizer of "This Kind of Bird Flies Backward: Paintings by Joan Brown," says that Brown was a strong, original individual who avoided ideology. Although often seen as a feminist, Brown's life and art fall into a kind of "grey area of feminism" according to Throckmorton. "Her apolitical approach to the subjects of domesticity, gender, aging, relationships, and motherhood may be the cause of her exclusion," Throckmorton writes, "nonetheless, time has shown that her choices as a woman and as an artist were anything but neutral."

The title of the San Jose exhibition is taken from the title poem of Diane di Prima's "This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards," and was chosen because Brown and di Prima -- a rare female beat poet who used street language -- seem like kindred spirits. Both were women who uncompromisingly made there way into male dominated fields while struggling to maintain their identities as women. Adele Landis Bischoff, whose husband Elmer was an important mentor to Brown in the late 50's recalls that Brown was indeed a tough young "bird."

"Early on, when I met her, she was like a young -- if a rooster can be female -- she was like a rooster," says Landis.

Brown's biographer, Karen Tsujimoto, puts it this way: "In her art she had no one whom she had to answer to or to be responsible for, and she relished and protected this freedom fiercely." Joan was an artist and an individual first. "I can't do without making pictures of my own," she once commented, "And I don't know why this is so. But it's true..."

Brown's toughness was, in fact, the result of a childhood that was emotionally claustrophobic. The only child of an alcoholic father and a mother who often threatened to jump off the Golden Gate bridge and who eventually did take her own life in 1969, Joan later recalled her early years as being "...dark, I mean dark in the psychological way." She was anxious to grow up quickly; "All I wanted to do was grow up and get the hell out of there." Joan Beattie graduated from high school a self-proclaimed "con artist" who knew when she could get away with things, and when to fade into the woodwork.


Bill and Joan Brown, by C.R. Snyder, from the film "San Francisco's Wild History Groove"

Photo courtesy filmmaker Mary Kerr.

Seventeen year old Joan's life pivoted when she noticed an advertisement for the California School of Fine Arts, which she decided to attend instead of the Catholic college her parents had in mind. Entering in 1955, she fell in love with the beatnik atmosphere of the school: bongo drums playing in the halls, guys with long hair, beards and sandals. Bright and charismatic, she immediately attracted male attention. "I have this extraordinary student," Elmer Bischoff told his colleague Wally Hedrick, "She's either a genius or very simple." In her first year at CSFA Joan married her first husband, painter Bill Brown, met important artistic mentors including Bischoff and Frank Lobdell, and also connected with another student, Manuel Neri, who would be her second husband and the father of her son Noel.

Brown's student paintings were "clumsy" and she became something of a school legend because she was always covered with paint from head to toe. Moving back and forth between abstraction and figuration, she gradually developed a representational style that had a kinship with the "Bay Area Figurative Style" championed by several of her male instructors. Brown didn't feel held back by being a woman: in a sense she was one of the guys, and later remembered being "supported like hell" by the men who surrounded her.

In 1959 her paintings caught the attention of visiting lecturer David Park who said "I just love these paintings." Her mentor Elmer Bischoff felt differently -- "I can't stand them" was his comment -- but her thickly painted works had an affinity with Park's late canvases. It was Park's dealer, visiting from New York who dropped by Brown's studio by accident in 1959, paid $300 for 2 of her paintings and launched her career. Brown was so convinced that the check was fake, that she took it to her father, a bank employee, to see if it was real.

By 1962 Brown, now married to Manuel Neri and about to become a mother, had shown in New York and at the Whitney Museum. A 1961 trip to Europe with Neri had opened her eyes to Goya, Velasquez, Rembrandt and other masters, and she had a great studio relationship with her new husband, a sculptor. Unfortunately, she would later recall, the studio was the only place they ever got along.

A 1962 painting on view at San Jose, "Brown Girls in the Surf with Moon Casting a Shadow," shows the "cacophany of pure color and energy" that Brown could generate. The encrusted, ragged slabs of pigment, achieved with inexpensive "Bay City Paints" poured from one gallon cans have some of the craggy abstract energy of Clyfford Still, but the poetry and tenderness of the image was Brown's alone. She had borrowed her subject matter -- nudes by the water -- from Park and Bischoff, and reconstituted them with a helping of gentle, slapdash parody. Bischoff's nudes of the early 60s have a Wagnerian seriousness about them, while Brown's figures are ice cream sundaes in paint, with a cherry on top.


Joan Brown "Girls in the Surf with Moon Casting a Shadow," 1962, Oil, 72 x 72 1/2 inches
Collection of Suzanne Diamond

Driven by her need to tell stories, Brown's style moved over time towards illustration, and thinly brushed lines of enamel began to supplant and replace the heavy, troweled applications of oil paint. Because her career had been launched by imitating the styles of older artists who had already rebelled, Brown had never mastered traditional rendering, and she was to some degree always a naive painter. Recognizing this she took to heart the example of Henri Rousseau and let stylization, narration and a dose of Egyptian stiffness carry her work. In "The Journey, #1" she appears leading a lover forward in an frieze-like composition; it's clear who is in charge. Like many of her best paintings, the image is crisp, smart and engaging.


Joan Brown, "The Journey #1," Enamel on canvas, 84 x 72 inches
Collection of the San Jose Museum of Art
Gift of Norm Lariviere


Joan Brown, "Self-Portrait," 1977, oil and enamel on canvas, 90 x 72 inches
Collection of Sandra Shannonhouse

Brown was a prolific maker of self-portraits that broadcast her considerable emotional range and also her social observations. Her densely patterned 1977 "Self-Portrait," which has been said to "call into question the stereotypical image of the female artist," demonstrates that Joan's way of exploring the role of women was to start from her personal experience. It also seems like a transitional painting in which an artist seeking clarity and order rises above the mess that covers her floor. Sure enough, within a few short years Brown's art and imagery would enter a distinctive new phase.

A 1980 trip to India with her 4th husband, SFPD officer Michael Hebel, brought her into contact with Sai Sathya Baba, a yogic guru who insisted on the divine nature of all men and women. When Sai Baba briefly made direct eye contact with Brown during a blessing ceremony at his ashram, she later told friends that she had developed a red third eye on her forehead. From that point forward Joan became one of his devotees, and incorporated many of his teachings into her art.

Brown's imagery took on a new turn, and her canvases began to fill with animal images; one was the tiger, her Chinese astrological symbol. Esoteric signs and symbols replaced the domestic situations of the previous decade. The paintings and public artworks that Brown created in the final phase of her life were stocked with a bestiary of birds, cats, dogs and fish as well as hybrid creatures that illustrated Brown's personal belief that the Age of Aquarius was indeed dawning. One assignment she often gave her undergraduate painting students was to paint themselves in the form of animals.

"One of my main interests is archeology and anthropology," she told Zan Dubin in 1986, "and in the last 10 years I've traveled to archeological sites in Egypt, India, South and Central America and the Orient. In the art I saw, the thread running through all the ancient cultures is the symbolism of a golden age -- whether represented by the yin and yang or by men and women shown as the sun and moon." Brown's New Age convictions, and her continuing insistence on doing things her way, gave her images a cryptic quality. "Brown," states journalist Abby Wasserman, "after all is said and done, has written in a code known only to her."

Critics often gave Brown a tough time. In a 1986 review of Brown's exhibition "From the Heart," Colin Gardner of the LA Times called Brown out for her "self-righteous body of work," and didn't stop there. "This art is so absorbed in its own blinkered ego that it makes the need for critical response totally irrelevant," he wrote. Of course, Gardner wrote that just before the similarly self-righteous qualities of Frida Kahlo's paintings began to draw critical attention and public adoration.


Joan Brown, Obelisk at Horton Plaza, San Diego California, 1985,
Ceramic tile, 36' tall, 6' across
Photo by Dominique Guillochon

After her heart-opening introduction to Sai Baba in 1980, Brown tried to create works that expressed her new ideals of service and compassion. In the 80's Brown's public works began to appear in "democratic" spaces including parks, plazas and shopping malls. Her 36 foot tall "Horton Plaza Obelisk," dedicated in 1985, is divided into three sections -- the earth, sea and sky -- and features images of a jaguar, fish, the sun and the moon. In a lecture given to a San Diego Sai Baba group coinciding with the monument's dedication, Brown stated that her art was an expression of "...the superconcious, which is a very spiritual way of being."

In the Fall of 1990 Joan was in India completing the project of a lifetime, an obelisk meant to celebrate Sai Baba's sixty-fifth birthday. In a freak accident, a concrete turret of the new museum where the installation was taking place collapsed, instantly killing Brown and two assistants who had traveled to India with her. By the time of her death at the age of 52, Joan's dark childhood had faded into a distant memory. Six months before, she had written to Sai Baba, who she now considered to be both her spiritual mother and father in one being:

"Words cannot express the great joy and gratitude that I feel within my heart."

It hadn't been an easy journey, but the years of painting the journey her own life as a visual diary had turned Joan Brown inside out, opening her up to unexpected joy.

October 14, 2011 through March 11, 2012
The San Jose Museum of Art

Inside Eric Orr's "Zero Mass" at MCASD La Jolla

To contemplate is to look at shadows. - Victor Hugo

In mid-August I published a blog on Huffington Post titled "When Appreciating Works of Art, Being There Is Always Best." Composing that blog, and coming across the writings of the aesthetic theorist John Dewey, turned out to be great preparation for the visit that I made yesterday to La Jolla, where I took in some of the key works from "Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface."

"Phenomenal," which features works that involve sensory phenomena, is an exhibition that you can't just see; you have to experience it. John Dewey's ringing endorsement of the essential value of experience -- "There is no other foundation upon which aesthetic theory and criticism can build," -- was on my mind as I walked into the late Eric Orr's powerful installation "Zero Mass."

Leah Masterson, a Communications Associate of the museum, walked in with me, and together we found ourselves in total darkness. "Zero Mass," which Eric Orr (1938-1998) first created in 1969, is an oval space, defined by seamless walls of paper. Your eyes will tell you -- at first -- that there isn't a hint of light to be found, and the shock is unsettling. "The apparent emptiness in which we find ourselves," explains Dawna Sculd in the exhibition catalog, "undermines the stable sense of self that carries on unquestioned outside it."

By the time Max Metzler, one of the museum's security staffers, entered the space, my night vision was beginning to work. Thomas McEvilley does a good job of explaining the physiology of this process in his 1982 article "Negative Presences in Secret Spaces: The Art of Eric Orr;"

"The transition from rod to cone vision gradually unfolds; floods of afterimage color wash over the vision and gradually decrease like waves. After about 12 minutes one is ready to see, but in a different way."

Because of the gradual activation of night vision that McEvilley describes, when Max walked in to join us he appeared to me as a flat dark, featureless silhouette, with just the slightest hint of color appearing towards his feet. I also was beginning to make out a thin zone of yellowish light appearing where the paper walls touched the museum's floor. Being joined by another person in this situation -- where most of the visual clues to human identity were masked out -- was intensely dramatic and rivetingly strange.

"One has entered a murky Stygian world without personal identity and history," Mc Evilley explains. If you haven't experienced "Zero Mass," Mc Evilley's comments may sound a bit theoretical and dramatic. Having been there, I find them accurate.

"A lot of people walk in for a few seconds and then just leave," Max the shadowy security representative explained calmly. I have to admit, it makes sense that walking into a room of "nothing" could frustrate impatient museum goers. It takes a few minutes, and some sensitivity, for Orr's installation become anything other than the darkest room you have ever been in.

Metzler went on to mention that he had spent more than 3 hours standing in "Zero Mass" on opening night, and it was clear that he had become completely attuned to the installation's unsettling effect, and quite expert on how it all worked. "If you leave for a few minutes and then come back your night vision still works," he explained. As Metzler and I chatted a bit more I was struck by how bizarre it was to have a friendly conversation with someone who I had never "seen." He was there in the room, and leaned on what appeared to be a cane, but was utterly flat and featureless.

Using a photo I took of Max after leaving the exhibit, I was later able to approximate what I saw when he entered the room. My photoshop simulation is below, followed by the unaltered photo of Max that it was derived from.


Max Metzler, MCASD Security Services Representative, as he appeared standing inside Eric Orr's "Zero Mass;" Image created in Photoshop by the author.


Max Metzler, MCASD Security Services Representative

Leaving "Zero Mass" after about a 10 minute visit, the natural light and ocean vistas that rim the west edge of MCASD were richer than ever before. Still, the strangeness of what I had experienced inside Orr's work lingered. An hour later, after I had already started my car to leave, I had to race back inside and ask Max Metzler if I could take his picture. I needed something to ground my imagination a bit, as if what I had experienced just might have been a dream or hallucination.

The experience of "Zero Mass" had opened up my visual sensitivity and my imagination. "Life itself does not belong to us," proclaimed the artist Yves Klein in 1959, "it is with sensitivity, which does belong to us, that we are able to purchase it." If you want to challenge your sensitivity, forget everything I have just said about "Zero Mass," drive to La Jolla and walk in.

It will provoke your senses, incite your imagination and open you up a bit. And don't worry, if you feel a bit freaked out Max Metzler and other members of MCASD's excellent security staff can talk you through it a bit, if you don't mind chatting with Stygian shadows.

Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface
MCASD La Jolla
Sep 25, 2011 through Jan 22, 2012

Sam Maloof: Surrounded by Friends

"The House That Sam Built," an exhibition now on view at the Boone Gallery of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino isn't really about a house, and it isn't entirely about the late woodworker of genius Sam Maloof. "Its a show about community," notes the Huntington's Curator of American Decorative Arts, Harold "Hal" Nelson.

Nelson, who has been shepherding the show towards fruition for nearly a decade, got the opportunity he needed under the aegis of the Getty Foundation's "Pacific Standard Time" initiative, a collaborative attempt to tell the story of the birth of the L.A. Art Scene. The part of the story Nelson has been wanting to tell concerns the vibrant network of influences and exchanges that developed in the postwar period in the Pomona Valley, 30 miles from downtown Los Angeles. The presence of educational institutions -- most notably Pomona College, Scripps College, and Claremont Graduate School -- drew a cadre of accomplished artists and artisans to the area, where they met, befriended, and often exchanged works with Sam Maloof, who had his studio just east of Pomona in what was then rural Alta Loma.

Maloof, a gregarious and generous man, is quoted on the back of the show's catalog as explaining "I want to be able to work a piece of wood into an object that contributes something beautiful and useful to everyday life. And I want to do this for an individual I can come to know as a friend." Successful beyond his modest early expectations -- in craft and in friendship -- Sam and his first wife Freda filled their home with ceramics, enamelware, tapestries and woodwork by those they knew. The Maloofs and their home provided a kind of center for what Nelson describes as a "tolerant community" in which the various exchanges of art and craft represented shows of mutual respect. Given the atomized nature of Los Angeles culture, Nelson notes wistfully that many of us now feel a "hunger for community" of the sort that flourished among the members of this group.

Although the show doesn't literally recreate the interior of Maloof's home, it pairs works by his friends with Maloof furnishings in a way that stimulates aesthetic conversations between the objects. For example, a 1968 Karl Benjamin geometric abstraction, "Number 4" radiates controlled intelligence as it hovers above the masterful and sensuous Brazilian rosewood "Double Music Stand and Musician's Chair" which Maloof made for the LA Philharmonic's first violist Jan Hlinka in 1972.

Curator Nelson comments that seeing fine and decorative arts displayed together in museum settings is common for items made before the 20th century. "Then," he comments "that idea falls apart," something that the exhibition hopes to rectify. One of the great joys of "The House That Sam Built" is seeing modern art and craft in concert, and the usual categories and hierarchies become delightfully blurred. Sam Maloof's 1958 coffee table is a lovely piece of craft, maybe even a sculpture, but the four ceramic pieces by Gertrud and Otto Natler that rest on it and in front of it quietly out-do it. The quality of the ceramics in the exhibition is breathtaking.

The show has many revelations, and one of Hal Nelson's hopes is that the exhibition will help him uncover lost works by some of the exhibition's 35 ceramicists, fiber artists, painters, and sculptors. Or as he cleverly puts it, sometimes these things appear "out of the woodwork." As the public becomes increasing aware that the Pomona Valley had its own modernist Arts and Crafts movement, artists and artisans whose works have been overlooked are bound to be rediscovered. Maloof was a wonder, the exhibition affirms, surrounded by remarkable friends.


A Maloof chair awaits exhibition visitors at the Huntington's "The House That Sam Built"

Photo by John Sullivan

©The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

If you are able to visit the exhibition, make sure to pause at the north end of the Boone Gallery where photos of Sam and Freda Maloof are exhibited along with some of the woodworking patterns used in Sam's shop. In the center of the room is a maple Maloof chair provided for members of the public to try out. When you sit in it, the man who made it will feel present. "I want that person to know that it was made just for him," Maloof once said, describing how he wanted his furniture to connect him with others, "and that there is satisfaction and enjoyment in the object for us both."

Sitting in the chair, you will indeed feel it was made just for you, and that you are among friends.

View more installation photos by clicking here.

The House That Sam Built: Sam Maloof and Art in the Pomona Valley, 1945-198

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

September 24, 2011 through January 30, 2012

Lucinda Luvaas: Loving the City from a Distance

Artist Lucinda Luvaas likes the energy of big cities, especially of New York City, where she grew up and was educated. "There are many ghosts in the streets," she muses, "all those experiences that informed who I am and what made me. The place for me is pregnant with feeling."

Paradoxically, the artist's studio -- a low wooden outbuilding adjacent to her 1940's clapboard Hemet farmhouse -- feels utterly remote from the urban chaos, cultural diversity and youthful vibe that energize Luvaas' mixed media relief paintings. Hemet, a sun-soaked and recession-wracked farm town turned retirement town turned bedroom community feels a million miles from Manhattan.

Of course, Luvaas and her novelist husband Bill can hop into the car and be at the Santa Monica Promenade in 2 hours, and a day in Santa Monica generally charges Lucinda's creative batteries just fine. In fact, many of the images in her recent series, "The Times of Our Lives," were inspired by images of the Promenade, initially recorded by Luvaas in the form of video and photos, and then lovingly morphed into her distinctive style. "I love to depict the throng of people there," says Luvaas, "and I guess in general it's a motif that repeats itself over and over again. I'm a people painter."


Artist Lucinda Luvaas at the entrance of her Hemet studio

Behind the flaking white doors of her studio, Luvaas finds the privacy she needs to create. Working to classical music, and also the hymns of praise that float over from the fundamentalist church next door most evenings, Luvaas fusses over her images, half painting, half sculpting, using sheets of wax to endow her finished reliefs with a raised, reverse stencil surface. The finished works are in some ways paradoxical. They have the graphic energy of "Pop" but seen up close they are quite painterly, even abstract. Luvaas' formalist tendencies are also apparent in the rich, syncopated rhythms of her compositions.

It has taken Luvaas years of experimentation to find her current way of working, and her technique is perfectly fused with its urban subject matter. Luvaas may live and work in the Inland Empire, but New York, where she was born and educated, still feels like her "parent."


Lucinda Luvaas, "Walking Uptown," 2011
Relief painting on wooden panel, 30" x 40," oil, acrylics, wax and gel

"I do much work that relates to Manhattan," Luvaas confides, "to the energy that is there trying to lift it up and use it to create that sense of fluidity, energy, creativity and the social aspect of this giant community: one of the very few real communities in this country of ours." A composer, painter, and filmmaker, Luvaas has no trouble keeping the urban energy going wherever she is.

"By using that subject matter I become it," Luvaas says. Her art, heartfelt, idiosyncratic and carefully constructed, is an homage to cities and their rich social possibilities.

After my visit to Luvaas' studio I sent her some questions about her images, and aesthetics.

John Seed Interviews Lucinda Luvaas: A Q and A

JS: Lucinda, when you are out looking for images in the world what gets your interest?

LL: I've always wanted to capture moments, sort of "Seize the Day," which comes from Saul Bellow's title for his novella. Life issues by so very fast, our gestures, movements, meanings, hopes and dreams, it flees quickly and we are left dazzled by it all. I want to grab these moments and gestures finding meaning and comfort in these short, little recordings. "The Times of Our Lives," is very much engaged with this motif. I look for scenes that mostly depict people moving although at times still in reflection, but movement plays a vital role in my work in terms of its actuality and design.


Lucinda Luvaas, "Trajectory," 2011
Relief painting on wooden panel, 30" x 40," oil, acrylics, wax and gel

"Trajectory," is a good example of this. I wanted to create a feeling of uplift, and its energy, so I used a repeated scene as a composite to try to create that rhythm. I am interested primarily in capturing people in environments where they are actively engaged in something whether it is simply walking, watching a crowd, dancing, you name it: all aspects of our daily lives and then creating a sort of imprint of history. In fact, I call my relief paintings "imprints," partly because they are relics of something left behind, something of value to our humanity and experience.

JS: Is it fair to say that you are walking a tightrope between representation and abstraction in your work?

LL: Yes I think it is very fair to say that and perceptive too. I can't tell you how much patterning, design, push pull and all the elements of abstract form play into my work. The stylistic concerns are so very important to me and cause great excitement and pleasure. I've never wanted to depict just what I see, but rather alter things to find a deeper sense or meaning as though I am creating a living being that pulsates and moves with emotions and feelings.

This I feel can really be achieved by combining abstraction and figuration. I'm very committed to figuration, but I'm devoted to it within the context of patterning: using abstract forms, to some extent reducing figuration to abstractions, although very much recognizable in their depictions of real things. I definitely am not and never have been a realist. I love the interplay between abstraction and figuration and very much plan to continue my challenge of integrating these two elements into my compositions.


Tubes of oil paint form a small mountain in Luvaas' Hemet studio

JS: Does it surprise you that your work has evolved to tell such complete, detailed stories?

LL:No, not really. I've always tended towards narrative and gesture, so this is just a continuation of the same thing, same tendency. As far as complete stories goes I'm not so sure because this technique really just suggests rather than completes. I like suggestion rather than completion. Just throw things out there and let the viewer take creative part in the composition.


Above: Luvaas holds a small wax image intended for one of her mixed-media reliefs

JS: Anything else that someone encountering your work should keep in mind?

LL:These are hard paintings to produce. They are mixed media which means they rely on using different tools and processes to end up with these results. It's a painstaking process, but rewarding. The relief is made with oils, wax, acrylics, and gel and they are on wood panels. I use drawings, video stills from my short video art pieces and digital stills as well for my research materials.

"The Times of Our Lives"
and other relief paintings by Lucinda Luvaas
The Gregory Way Gallery
245 South Beverly Drive
Beverly Hills, CA 90212
Saturday, September 17, 2011 7:00 pm -
Monday, October 31, 2011 6:00 pm