Hassel Smith: The Painter of Persistent Challenges (1915-2007)


Hassel Smith "Self-Portrait," 1944
watercolor and chalk on paper

Hassel Smith's 1944 "Self-Portrait," torn out of a spiral drawing pad, emanates restless energy. Anchored by bursts of calligraphic brushwork that let naked paper peek through, it is both vivid and self-assured. At first glance it appears incomplete; a metaphor for the partial image that art lovers still have of Smith, a protean artist who has been called an "Underground Legend." According the arts blogger Tyler Green, Smith's works "...are in the collections of lots of museums you know and love, but they rarely make it out of storage."

Miraculously, with a few final, dazzling strokes of over-drawing -- a dot for an eye, an arching eyebrow and a slashing mouth -- Smith managed pull the portrait into focus and endow it with his characteristic intensity. Hassel Smith may have been restless, both as an artist and as a man, but he had a power of character that made him formidable. His stepson, artist Mark Harrington recalls "He had a wonderfully robust moral authority that was leavened by mischievous humor and disciplined by an acute intellectual rigor."

"He loved to rile people up," remembers one friend. Getting into an argument with Hassel Smith while he was alive was a mistake. Underestimating his artistic legacy, which has being carefully re-examined since his death in 2007, may be as well.

"Where is the major survey this fascinating artist deserves?" asked Art in America magazine in 2003. Hassel Smith died five years after the question was asked, and in the ensuing years small museum shows in San Jose and Laguna, as well as several other exhibitions at private galleries have begun to fill in the gaps. In another year of so, the publication of a monograph by Prestel will give the public a comprehensive view of Hassel Smith's varied ouevre.

Currently, "Hassel Smith: Upending Orthodoxy," at Sullivan Goss in Santa Barbara through April 3rd, presents 14 works from the artists last two working decades. The show's title hinges mainly on the inclusion of several of the quirky, heraldic abstractions that Smith made in the early 1970s. Jeremy Tessmer of Sullivan Goss characterizes these works as both "whimsical" and "subversive" given Smith's earlier connection to the Bay Area abstraction. "Nothing could be more anathema to the Bay Area school," notes Tessmer, "where geometric painting was equated with an overly rationalist (read: anti-humanist) agenda."

It is true that Smith had cut his teeth as an abstract artist while teaching in the San Francisco Bay Area at the California School of Fine Arts between 1945 and 1952. Left leaning in his politics -- Smith had done social work on skid row during the Depression and found the experience "shattering" -- he was later characterized by Jermayne MacAgy, the wife of the school's former director, as a "renegade" and a "leading free spirit." Smith was the acolyte of the titanic abstractionist and egomaniac Clyfford Still, the school's leading figure.

Smith was friendly with CSFA faculty members David Park and Elmer Bischoff, with whom he showed abstract paintings in a 1948 exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and also with Richard Diebenkorn, with whom he had a two man exhibition in 1949. His friendships with Diebenkorn and Park later chilled when they made what Smith felt was a "fanfare" of their return to figurative art, while Bischoff remained a lifelong friend. Smith's view was that Park and Diebenkorn's abandonment of abstraction was motivated by antagonism towards Clyfford Still, who "threatened their cozy bohemianism, and made mincemeat of their post-cubist preoccupation with simultaneity and other 'space' problems."

Interestingly, art historian Peter Selz feels that when Smith made abstract works they had an aspect of figuration, and that his figurative works felt abstract. What unified all of them, according to Selz, was Smith's distinctive "handwriting."


Hassel Smith "Untitled," 1959
oil and enamel on canvas, 71" x 45"
The Tate Gallery, London

Smith, who stated that he wished "...to feel free to appreciate life without reproducing it," built his reputation during this period with craggy, idiosyncratic paintings that caused one critic to call Smith's output from this era the "Thunderbolt Period," an apt designation for a man whose rows with various colleagues "...caused some furious storms."

Several bolts hit Smith directly in the early 50's. He was forced out of CSFA when a new director took over -- Elmer Bischoff resigned in protest -- and then, after he settled into a new life in a Sebastapol apple orchard, his wife June died of cancer, leaving him with a son to raise.

In 1957 Smith took part in the first exhibition at the legendary Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, where his true believer aesthetic was embraced. The new generation of artists in Los Angeles, including Robert Irwin, Billy Al Bengston, and John Altoon, were defining themselves in an artistically conservative city, thumbing their noses at Henry Seldis, the stick-in-the-mud art critic of the Los Angeles Times.

Smith's work had a powerful impact on the young Ferus artists, particularly John Altoon, who later came to visit him in Bristol. Billy Al Bengston, another Ferus artist never had the chance to meet Smith in person, but his paintings made a big impression regardless. "I was always, and still am a big fan of his fantastic line and spooky color," says Bengston. Ed Moses was known to say that "Hassel was the Daddy of us all."


Hassel Smith in his Sebastapol Studio, circa 1958

Re-married in 1959, with a son and two stepsons to support, Smith began to show in New York, Houston, Los Angeles and London and became commercially successful. He had his ups and downs with critics, as some snippets of his New York reviews from the period show. A writeup of some of his watercolors in The New York Times in February of 1961 credits him with "...one of the most lively performances of the dance of form and line." A year later, a stinging review of his one man show at Emmerich blasted Smith for the "extreme incoherence" of his works.

After living for most of 1962 in Mousehole, a Cornish fishing village, Smith bounced back to California for brief teaching stints at UC Berkeley and UCLA, but in 1966 he became a lecturer for the West of England College of Art in Bristol, and entered into a new phase of life and art. Part of what had drawn Smith to Britain was the warm reception his work had received there in the early 60s, but the rise of Pop deflected attention and Smith increasingly devoted himself to teaching. Mark Harrington remembers that "The large Bristol house was frequently alive with dinners and parties, discussions, debates, but the English market and London galleries ignored him. He became very private..."

Smith did experiment with some figurative paintings that had a Pop vibe, but the next distinctive phase of work came after he switched from oil to acrylic. Smith's radical new works became what he called his "measured paintings." Their hierarchical formats were inspired, according to Mark Harrington, by "patterns and board games, by the dialectics of discipline and disorder. The measured paintings were conceived as events of a certain geometric precision and classicism." Smith later told critic Thomas Albright that one of his motives had this point had been to "...stop inventing shapes," arguing "This is what Mondrian did, this is what Still and Rothko did. They are the only true modern artists."

When Hassel Smith was feted with a retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1975 critic Alan Temko was able to do what many others were not: to see the measured paintings as being deeply connected to Smith's lifelong rationalism. He wrote: "Whatever else his (Smith's) protean art may be -- and amongst other things, in both his figurative and non-figurative work it has been a wildly expressive, almost violent art of tremendous intuitive power -- it has always been first, and foremost, a celebration of rational intellect."


Hassel Smith, "About 9" 1976 Acrylic on Canvas, 68" x 68"

Others were not so understanding, and several shows of Smith's work during the late 70s met with silence or worse. Smith said of one show during this period that "... it landed abruptly like a lead balloon." Peter Selz, who knew Smith well and who is contributing an essay to the upcoming Prestel book says that the reception of the measured paintings was "so unexpected," adding "They are very good paintings."

One of the problems may have been that Smith had developed a caustic view of art dealers, and they responded with mutual antipathy. Selz remembers Smith telling him that "art dealers, curators and critics were a bunch of superfluous parasites." Not surprisingly, one dealer who showed Smith's work in the 70s remembers him as "a nasty piece of work." According to Selz, one of the reason's Smith's late works never took hold is that he changed dealers often.

It must have been galling for Smith to watch the commercial success of his one-time friend Richard Diebenkorn, who by the late 70s had a waiting list for his Ocean Park paintings, which -- like Smith's late work -- were geometric abstractions. Diebenkorn, who by the mid-70s had retired from teaching, and was driving a Porsche, had moved from "cozy bohemianism" to the upper bourgeoisie.


Hassel Smith, "Untitled" (Red Yellow and Magenta) 1997
Acrylic on Canvas, 48" x 68"

Before putting down his brushes due to health problems in his 80s, Smith made a final series of works in which the geometry fell away. Characterized by bold plumes of color applied in truncated gestures, they are the work of an artist who had a grip on his passions, a kind of controlled burn. The intensity of his early works -- tempered by maturity and rationality -- is still very much there. Smith, who once called the work of Jackson Pollock "Decorator junk" had a level of self-confidence that never wavered.

When I asked Mark Harrington what kind of legacy his stepfather Hassel Smith had passed on to him, both as a man and an artist, here are the things that came to his mind:

"... the example of work and self-reliance; the way he lost himself in work but structured his day. The need for quick-wits in debate, seriousness of intention combined with generosity, self-deprecation and humor: I'm saying that he had these qualities, not that I gained them! He was singularly loyal and courageous and I felt both challenged and at ease in his presence: never completely at ease and persistently challenged."

Harrington's comments suggest exactly the way an engaged viewer should feel when standing in front of a Hassel Smith painting from any period:

"... never completely at ease and persistently challenged."

Romualdo Locatelli: The Artist Who Disappeared

Romualdo Locatelli

On February 24, 1943, Romualdo Locatelli, a renowned Italian painter, disappeared while bird hunting in Rizal, north of Manila, never to be seen again. In her memoir, The Ultimate Voyage of an Italian Artist in the Far East, the artist's widow Erminia describes how she had a premonition of tragedy as she drove him into the Philippine countryside that day. "I was shivering," she writes, "and I could not compose myself."

There was good reason for Erminia to be nervous. She and her husband, who had been traveling in Asia for over 4 years, were being increasingly threatened by the currents of war. The social prestige and political connections that had once protected them were rapidly vanishing.

Since the previous summer, tensions in occupied Manila, where Romualdo had been keeping a studio on Mabini Street, had been rising as guerrilla groups threatening the Japanese became increasingly active. In response, a new Japanese Military Governor -- General Shizuichi Tanaka -- tightened his hold on Manila's foreign citizens. Although the Japanese and Italians were still technically Axis allies, in late 1942 Tanaka ordered that Manila's Italians be gathered up and made to wear yellow bands that marked them as "traitors."

Just a few days before he disappeared, Erminia and Romualdo were shaken by an incident in which a Japanese soldier grabbed Romualdo in an Italian restaurant and threw him across the room. The experience un-nerved Locatelli who told his wife "We must do something about this before they kill some of us." He bought an air rifle afterward hoping that going bird hunting would calm his nerves: at least that is what he told Erminia.

After Locatelli failed to return from what he had promised would be a 3 hour hike on February 24th, numerous searches of the area where he disappeared were conducted by his wife and later by soldiers sent from Manila by the Japanese Imperial Command. Not a single trace of the 37 year old artist was ever found.

"He loved walking alone," says Daniela Marrucchi Locatelli, the artist's niece, who has been actively researching her uncle's life since 1969. Acknowledging that there are "many stories" about Romualdo's wartime disappearance, she avoids speculation, commenting that "the only thing we can trust, is that his wife took him close to the forest. Then he walked on alone -- he loved walking alone -- and he never came back."

Walking alone in known guerrilla territory carrying an air rifle was a fearless gesture on Locatelli's part. He had the confidence of a handsome man who stood out in the Asia not just as an European, but as a celebrated artist who had mingled with and painted powerful figures throughout his short career. In fact, from an early age he had been a society figure whose name and reputation both carried considerable history and prestige.

Born in Bergamo, Italy, on April 4, 1905, he was the first son of Luigi Locatelli -- a fresco and decorative artist -- who was in turn descended from an artistic family. In the 18th century the Locatelli family had produced two notables: the composer Pietro Antonio Locatelli (1695-1764) and the painter Andrea Locatelli (1695-1741) whose mythological landscapes have a kinship with those of Claude Lorrain. The family tree also had a streak of madness: Romualdo's paternal great-grandfather and his brother had both been committed to an insane asylum and Romualdo told his wife he did not want children for fear of spreading the "bad seed" that he might carry.

Romualdo's paternal grandfather Giuseppe owned a firm that specialized in decorative painting, and his sons Luigi -- Romualdo's father -- and Giovan Battista worked with him in executing frescoes in numerous Italian churches and palaces. In Romualdo's generation there was an abundance of talent. His younger brothers Raffaello and Stefano became, respectively, a painter and a sculptor who both executed portraits of Pope Giovanni XXIII. Three Locatelli cousins also went on the become well known painters.

Eleven year old Romualdo was noted by his first art teacher Francisco Domenighini as an "intelligent and studious boy," and by age 14 he was assisting his father Luigi in executing decorations for the parish church of San Filastro, 25 kilometers from Bergamo. After attending the Academia Carrara in Bergamo, Locatelli attended another academy at the Palazzo di Brera in Milan. It was there, at age 20, where he met his future wife Erminia who was a 17 year old art student and model who Romualdo painted as the Madonna.


Romualdo Locatelli, "Il Dolore," 1926
oil on canvas
Collection of the Accademia Carrara Di Belle Arte, Bergamo

In 1926, Locatelli exhibited "Il Dolore" in a group exhibition at the Palazzo di Brera. An allegorical self-portrait, it shows Locatelli lowering his brushes and palette in a gesture of resignation and respect. The painting was dedicated to his father Luigi who was suffering from cancer when it was made. "Il Dolore" -- now in the collection of the Academia Carrara in Bergamo -- was singled out for mild praise by a critic who found it "romantic," and "not devoid of quality." The painting earned Locatelli, the "Prince Umberto Grand Prize," launching the 20 year old artist's career.

In 1927, Locatelli toured Tunisa, painting "Orientalist" subjects that helped build his reputation. He also painted in Sardinia, Tuscany and Veneto. Although his training was academic, Locatelli's rapid brushwork leaned towards modernist practices, and critics praised his work as "impetuous" and "bold." Locatelli's subjects ranged from genre subjects to society portraits, and his palette was restrained, favoring whites and mineral tones.


Romualdo Locatelli, "Sardine Girls," date unknown
80 x 120 cm. oil on canvas
Collection: Galleria Quadreria dell'800, Milan

By the mid-1930s, Locatelli had moved to Rome where he was highly in demand as a society portraitist. His first exhibition in Rome was opened by King Vittorio Emanuele III, whose son later commissioned Locatelli to paint portraits of his children. Locatelli made portraits of several Cardinals and Benito Mussolini reportedly owned at least one Locatelli canvas. Although he cut a glamorous figure, Locatelli was shy in public due to a speech impediment, and he depended on Erminia to deal with his patrons and dealers.

"Romualdo was very good looking but seemed very shy," says Emiliano Marrucchi Locatelli. "Actually he was not shy, but he did not like to talk because of a light stuttering. The fact that he was looking women directly in their eyes without any words made them crazy for him: sometimes. He was a REAL nonconformist for his time: he refused to wear a formal dress or either a tie when he met His Majesty Umberto di Savoia, and talked to him -- this time he seemed to forget his light stuttering -- directly, without the official words you use when talking to the Royal family. He always seemed very serious, with a perennial dramatic expression on his face, but in the truth, he loved to play irreverent jokes to people, and laugh at them."

On December 28th, 1938, Erminia and Romualdo, an elegant couple dressed in evening clothes, departed from Naples on the "Victoria" for what they hoped would be a 2 year tour of Asia. The invited guests of the colonial governor of the Dutch East Indies, the couple felt a sense of relief as they left the rising political tensions of Italy behind them. Settling initially in Bandung, Java, Romualdo and Erminia were treated like celebrities and feted by local dignitaries. When a Locatelli exhibition opened in Batavia in 1939 Erminia later recalled that "The news that a painter who was the official artist to the Vatican Palace and the Royal House of Italy generated a crowd at the opening."

After satisfying many requests for portraits, the artist and his wife moved on to Bali, establishing a studio in Denpasar, which was the most modern city on the Island. It was there that Locatelli painted the works that ultimately made his reputation. The women of Bali inspired Romualdo -- a sensualist at heart -- and the tones of their skin and hair transformed his palette. One memorable painting is of "Tigah" a model who posed nude in front of a drape of patterned fabric, and who the artist compared to an ancient goddess.

"How would you describe Tigah's beauty?" Erminia asked her husband. "It's easy," Romualdo replied, "Just look at her slender arms and long legs, her delicate hands and feet, her body so glamorous... her golden brown skin, so tanned by the sun, looks like velvet."


Romualdo Locatelli, "Tigah," 1939

108 x 109 cm, oil on canvas
Private Collection, Jakarta

Locatelli, who had always excelled at painting children, also made a memorable paintings of Legong Dance. Considered the most classical and elegant of all Balinese dances, Legong is a complicated dance that is performed by girls not more than 8 years old. Locatelli's 1939 canvas, "Legong Dancer," now a highlight of the newly established Museum Pasifika, is considered a late Orientalist masterpiece: a sharp-eyed depiction of Asian culture seen through a Westerner's eyes. In some respects, the "Legong Dancer" is reminiscent of the painter Degas' depictions of young women enduring the rigors of ballet training.


Romualdo Locatelli, "Legong Dancer," 1939
113 x 95 cm, oil on canvas
Collection of Museum Pasifika, Bali

By the time the Locatellis left Bali, Romualdo had sold nearly all his Balinese paintings and endured a bout with dengue fever. With the proceeds from painting sales put into jewels and gems worth more than 50,000 guilders, the couple extended their tour of Asia as ominous events unfolded in Europe. They traveled to Shanghai, then Tokyo where they were feted with a banquet at the Imperial Hotel. Seeing the Italian flag displayed next to the Japanese flag was a reassuring sight.

In Manila, the couple was warmly greeting by both Italian friends and American military officers, and a successful exhibition at Santa Tomas University followed. In the relative quiet before Pearl Harbor, Locatelli painted President Quezon, met Douglas McArthur, and with the help of an American colonel, managed to ship 18 remaining Bali paintings to a gallery in New York.

Even after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, Locatelli's status as an artist seemed to keep him safe. When Japanese authorities admired the paintings by Locatelli they found in the American High Commissioner's office he was asked to paint General Masaharu Homma, with whom the artist had a number of sittings. When General Homma left Manila one morning on a submarine, taking the Locatelli portrait with him, it marked the moment when Locatelli's fortunes began to turn for the worse. "He was so pleased with your work," Locatelli was told by one of the General's Lieutenants.



Romualdo Locatelli, "Mia Moglie," (Portrait of Erminia Locatelli) 1937
oil on canvas, 38 x 20 inches.

After Romualdo's disappearance, his wife endured profound depression, but eventually recovered with the help of friends. She was put under surveillance then incarcerated as Japanese authorities suspected that her husband had joined a guerrilla force, and that Erminia knew his whereabouts. She survived the bombing of Manila, but nearly 75 warehoused Locatelli paintings were destroyed in the inferno.

After the war Erminia came to San Francisco, and eventually moved to the east coast where she re-married and taught art at a Catholic Elementary School in Baltimore. In 1994 she published her memoirs, dedicated to the memory of her husband. She died, at the age of 97, in 2005. Since that time prices for Romualdo's rare Asian paintings have soared.

At a Christie's Hong Kong auction in May of 2010, Locatelli's "Young Balinese Girl with Hibiscus" brought a price of $772,970 US. Locatelli's most avid collectors are in Asia, where his images of pre-war culture are considered iconic.

In 1969 Daniela Marrucchi Locatelli spent six months in Bali, locating and interviewing some of the Balinese who remembered and posed for her famous uncle. She has one of his precious Balinese paintings which she plans to loan to an exhibition planned in Bergamo in October 2011, featuring the art of 3 generations of Locatelli artists.

Poignantly, Daniela mentions that her son Emiliano, a Harvard educated architect, has kept her maiden name "Locatelli" as his last name. " None of the Locatelli in Romualdo's generation had sons," she explains, "and it would be a pity to lose this branch of the Locatelli."

Regarding Romualdo's disappearance, many of this Italian family members still consider it an open matter. When she got the news in 1943, Romualdo's mother, Angelina Tua Locatelli, refused to consider him dead. As Emiliano Locatelli puts it :

Those were hard war years, and hope was the last resource of lot of people. Many friends were not surprised about his disappearance: his will to travel in wild and dangerous places during years when no Italian would have loved to travel, was seen as a way to disappear, probably a strong aspect of the dark side of his character. A friend told the family to have met Romualdo in Australia after 1943, and this shocking revelation, although without evidence, did not surprise the family at all.


Romualdo Locatelli, "Self Portrait"
Private Collection, Italy

Jerome Witkin: Painting History, Memory and Fantasy


Jerome Witkin: Vincent Van Gogh and Death, 1987

Mixed Media Drawing, 84 x 48 inches

"Let's not forget that small emotions are the great captains of our lives."
-- Vincent Van Gogh, in a letter to his brother Theo

The painter Jerome Witkin -- a vivid conversationalist -- tells a great story. "Painters are quiet in their studio," he comments, "so naturally they like to talk when they aren't working." Here is one particularly remarkable story that Witkin, 72, told me when I called him to talk about the exhibition of his paintings and drawings on view at Riverside City College through December 7th:

When I was a boy, newly interested in art, my mother took me to the Metropolitan Museum. We looked around the lobby, and when we discovered that there were no art classes being offered, my mother lost interest. I begged her, I wanted to see something, so she let me go upstairs alone. The Met then wasn't like it was now: it was like a big warehouse for scholars.

When I got to one dark room filled with paintings I heard a tapping sound, like a cane on the floor. I was fearful, somebody was coming towards me. This guy came up to me -- he had polished shoes -- he put his walking stick on my sternum and pushed me down.

He told me 'Dirty little boys like you should not be in museums like this.'

Years later I realized who that man was: James Rorimer the director of the museum."

When Witkin told me that story, I couldn't help but notice how passionately he was re-living the emotions of that moment as he told it. Certainly, it is a story he has told many times in the more than 60 years since the actual event, and stories re-told over time tend to lose accuracy over time. They become personal myths, and even the most objective man will forget, alter, or heighten the details of history.

In telling me the story, Witkin wasn't just telling me about something that actually happened. He was also telling me an emotional truth: that what he felt while growing up still has tremendous force. He is an outsider, still feeling the fragility of his place in the art world, and in the world in general. No wonder that empathy -- for victims of the Holocaust, for those suffering with AIDS, for the disenfranchised -- is the basis of many of his most compelling paintings.

Jerome Witkin, of course, isn't a documentary artist. His images, like his conversations, are deeply felt, and emotions matter more to him than objective facts. His intention is to be honest, but his honestly is about the passions of his life, and his empathy for others. Emotions are essential to Witkin: everything else is theater, and can and should be tweaked for dramatic effect.

When I took a group of community college students to the RCC Quad Gallery to visit Witkin's show, several of them were spellbound by a large mixed-media drawing: "Vincent and Van Gogh and Death." It is a riveting drawing, and when I spoke with him Witkin told me about how he managed to "hit the bullseye" and give the work its emotional charge.

Van Gogh was a real man, and Witkin respects that: he has been poring over Van Gogh's letters and paying rapt attention to the realities of the man's life. Witkin reminded me, for example, that Van Gogh was the second "Vincent" born to his parents, and that he lived with the strangeness of having the same name as his dead younger brother.

Witkin staged the Van Gogh drawing in his studio, and the model who posed from him was a young man who felt right. A young man with "a red beard and intent eyes," Witkin mentioned to me that his model's real career was working with troubled teenagers. Sounding like a film director, Witkin related just what he had wanted the model to express for him:

"He (Vincent) is fighting his own sense of the weariness of life... questioning his purpose... always thinking about death."

Noting that "modeling is a performance" Witkin went on to tell that it "was a lucky day" when he created Van Gogh drawing. "His hands were so strong," he says of the model, who sprawled on the floor next to a 45 automatic in a structure that Witkin says is set up "a bit like a confessional." Looking in at his model, in the dark, constructed space engulfed in the light of his studio, Witkin managed to draft an image that is both hallucinatory and emotionally credible.


Detail of "Vincent Van Gogh and Death"

The real Van Gogh shot himself outside -- a botched job that left him lingering for days -- but Witkin's Van Gogh despairs indoors. In some ways, Witkin reminds me of the director Oliver Stone: he will tell you a story that rocks you to the core, but you have to remember that what you are looking at is "art." The skull that Witkin's "Van Gogh" peers at is real, but its purpose in being there is to make the painting a "vanitas" which is a tradition that references the history of art.


Jerome Witkin: Pensione Ichino, 1997

Oil on Canvas (Three Panels) 53 x 120 inches

Witkin's three part painting "Pensione Ichino" also references art history: its triptych format originally was developed for Late Medieval altarpieces. That said, the storyline of the "Pensione" canvasses is secular and deeply personal. It started, says Witkin, when a still-life setup sparked his memory. "Let's make a game of this," he thought as his ideas began to coalesce.

First came an orange plastic bag and a box, then a plaster cast of a woman's body, then a lace glove, all illuminated by a clamp lamp. The lace glove became a trigger that brought back a series of memories that in turn triggered the artist's memory of a brief love affair he had as a young man.


Jerome Witkin: Pensione Ichino, 1997, Left Panel

As a 20 year old Witkin won a Pulitzer fellowship to study in Europe, and in Florence he stayed in the Pensione of an Italian widow, "Old Lady Ichino." Her pensione had a great location -- right across from the Palazzo Pitti -- but the old lady wouldn't serve dinner to you unless you spoke Italian. Witkin also remembers that it was impossible to date Italian girls: their protective family members guarded them too closely. He did meet a lovely French photography student, "a hot deal," and in the second panel of "Pensione Ichino" she appears, a stunning apparition who reveals herself as she lifts a negligee over her head. She was, Wiktin remembers, a woman who enjoyed being looked at.

The artist is also present in the center panel, but only by implication. His shirt and tie hang on a chair in the painting, but Witkin is also very much there in the role of the artist/onlooker, conjuring up a real woman's memory amidst the studio props. Her sensuality and tangibility come across as a kind of paradox. "Witkin's subjects seem, if anything, overly immersed in the clutter of lived reality," says writer Joel Sheesley.


Jerome Witkin: Pensione Ichino, 1997, Center Panel

The love affair didn't last long, and after a short trip to Paris there was a breakup. Witkin remembers being miserable afterward, feeling the lows after the high of the affair. Love, and the emotions that go with it are another prevailing theme in Witkin's life and art. In 1986 he wrote: "Love and its folly; its non-being hurts me. Yet this is what I want to paint about. The wanting of love, the giving of it. Love as a healer. Without it one dries up."


Jerome Witkin: Pensione Ichino, 1997, Right Panel

In the third and final panel a young man -- a surrogate for the young Witkin -- slips the lace glove onto his hand. It is a moment of sensuality recalled and also an angry moment. When I spoke to Witkin he pointed out that the painting handling surrounding the figure was raw and somewhat violent. "Putting the hand through the glove," he explained, "has to do with destroying the memory, doing away with it." The memory of his lover is also suggested by the plaster torso, now just a reflection in the oval mirror.

"Pensione Ichino" is about the evocation of a memory, and ultimately about the artist's need to control and even destroy that memory. The emotions he evokes in the process are strong and specific: so strong that it is tempting to call Witkin an Expressionist. The problem with that label is that Witkin has much more control of his emotional range -- and his drafting -- than most Expressionist artists. His effects and images are refined and calculated, and if anything he thinks more like a playwright than a painter. Calling "Pensione Ichino" a "drama in three acts" isn't far off the mark.

Syracuse University is now organizing a 40 year retrospective of Witkin's work, tentatively slated to open in 2012. The "dirty little boy" who was once pushed to the floor of the Metropolitan Museum by its director is now seen as a leading representational painter. Critic Donald Kuspit says "Indeed, there are few painters working today who have as consummate and vivid a sense of the human drama, in all its personal and social complexity, as Witkin does."

At one point in our conversation Witkin mentioned to me that a few years back he received an award from the director of the Metropolitan -- not the one who had confronted him, but a later one -- and that he managed to control himself and not tell the director to "Fuck off." Listening, I wasn't sure if I really believed everything Witkin had told me about the incident, but I had become totally convinced of his brilliance as a storyteller. His art is a masterful blend of history, memory and fantasy.

The forty minutes we spent on the phone went very quickly, and Witkin gave me a great deal to think about. Looking over my notes later, one comment stood out for me. "When you make a work of art," Witkin told me, "you don't know where it will end up." Coming from a man who understands that emotions drive our lives, our institutions and ultimately, history past and present, I took that thought to heart.

In Memoriam: Nathan Oliveira 1928-2010


Nathan Oliveira, "Untitled Figure," 2010, Oil on Canvas, 50 x 66 inches

Image Credit: The Estate of Nathan Oliveira

A family friend has confirmed the death of artist Nathan Oliveira, 81, who died at his home in Palo Alto on Saturday, November 13th. Had he lived just two days longer, he could have attended the 90th birthday party of his great friend and fellow artist Wayne Thiebaud, held at San Francisco MOMA the following day.

Oliveira had a tremendous explosion of creativity in the months before his death. On November 1st his son Joe reported to me that his father was doing "great" and that he had over 30 paintings in progress, some small oils on panels, but also some large oils including the one shown above. The outpouring of work was remarkable, since Nathan was suffering from pulmonary fibrosis and was tethered to an oxygen tank. On top of that, he was still very much grieving for Mona, his wife of over 50 years, who died of cancer in December of 2006.

After Mona's death Joe stepped in. He stocked the studio, dealt with art dealers, and sorted through years of accumulated artwork. It wasn't easy for Joe to work for his father who could be forgetful and cranky. One morning Joe arrived at his father's home and studio to have Nathan ask him "Joe, exactly what is it you do for me?"

Thank you Joe, for giving your father the chance to pick up his brushes one more time.

Nathan was growing as an artist until the last moment. In a letter he wrote to me in 1987, congratulating me on my new teaching job, he told me: "...my world expands as I grow older. Painters aren't like athletes when everything is over at 27 years or so. We supposedly get better and have more to say." In Oliveira's case, he didn't need to include the word "supposedly."

Oliveira's work was a celebration of life, and his way of expressing that was through his lifelong depictions of the human figure. Two weeks ago Cigdem Dogan, a painter in Turkey, e-mailed me and asked if I could pass on two questions to Nathan for him. I am posting Cigdem's questions and Nathan's answers here so Nathan can speak for himself one more time:

1) What is Nathan trying to say with his figures?

"They are images that I can interact with, a visual dialog between myself and the figure..."

2) What does Nathan feel that art means to him?

"A means of expression, both cultural and personal. A cultural expression of a moment in time."

Nathan Oliveira was an exceptionally fine painter, and an empathetic teacher. In his own art, and in the art that he admired, he was involved in the search for something that transcended time.

The arc of Oliveira's life story is remarkable. Born to Portuguese immigrant parents, he was raised in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco by his mother and step-father: his father had drowned in the Russian River when he was a toddler. Dyslexic, Nathan struggled in school, and until he saw a Rembrandt portrait during high school he had planned on becoming a bookbinder. Nathan Oliveira died an internationally acclaimed artist, a Professor Emeritus of Stanford University, and a Knight of Portugal.

In 2003 he told writer Diane Rogers: "...whenever I go to New York, I go to the Frick and stand in front of the Rembrandt self-portrait there and see a human, living presence and an energy that touches me. It's that presence that keeps me painting."

Thank you for everything Nathan. I imagine that like the figure in your "Untitled" figure painting, you are walking towards the light.

Written for the Huffington Post, November 15, 2010

ARTFORUM: Slowly Sinking in a Sea of Bloggers? Not Quite...


Embarkation from the Island of Artforum (with apologies to Watteau...)

Magazines are in trouble, right? Readers are migrating to the web, where innovation, and a sea of bloggers are re-inventing journalism. That has been my view up to now, and I am finding out that it is both chauvinistic and more than a bit naive.

On October 15th, Kimberly Brooks, my editor at the Huffington Post, blogged about an idea that had come to her: Haiku Reviews. I was very taken with her idea -- a short "Tweet-able" art review -- and found myself gloating over the "coolness" of what is happening to art writing on the web. Impulsively, I posted a reply to Kimberly's blog:

I was in Barnes and Noble yesterday, and found myself staring at the huge, heavy stack of Artforum magazines. "These are the past," I found myself thinking, "and HuffPost Arts is the future."

"You know what they say," Kimberly replied, "flattery will get you just about everywhere."

Well, OK, Kimberly you nailed me on the flattery part, but there was some actual pondering going on underneath the sycophancy. What, I wondered, is the future of print art magazines, at a time when so much writing about art is appearing on the internet? In ten years won't we be reading everything on our monitors, our Kindles and our 14th generation iphones?

Artforum represents exclusivity: it sees itself as the private resort of art-world high society, with its own customs and language. Author Sarah Thornton says that Artforum "... is to art what Vogue is to fashion and Rolling Stone was to rock and roll." Art in America and ArtNews both have higher circulation, but Artforum has a certain cachet. You can likely find the International Edition of Artforum in Hong Kong boardrooms, in Davos spas, and on Qatari coffee tables.

Will the journalistic equivalent of global warming, brought on by the internet, cause a sea of bloggers to rise up and sink the island of Artforum? Can HuffPost Arts, and other online art sites, with their fantastic diversity and energy, swamp an art world institution?

Of course, seeing Artforum and Huffington Post Arts as competitors is a stretch to begin with. Artforum, has been around more than 50 years, and features scrupulously edited content written by paid academics and critics. There are of course, reviews, often of exhibitions held by the same galleries that purchase advertising. That must make for some interesting internal politics, and it is one of the reasons that the publication seems insular.

Huffington Post Arts has been around for six months -- one "vertical" on a growing mega-blog -- and is written by unpaid bloggers. Our editors, Kimberly Brooks and her assistant Nicole Campoy-Leffler, check our blogs for libel and insanity before they post them. We are on our own as far as out topics and approaches and there are no advertisers to please. At least I doubt I will ever say anything in an art blog that will tee off freecreditscores.com.

This leads to a very different vibe, and a staggering range of topics and of points of view. Consistency may be lacking, but there are some thrilling blogs from time to time. In some ways, the differences between the Artforum and Huffington Post Arts mirror the tensions between print and online publications across the board. Mulling this over, I realized I needed to re-scrutinize Artforum.

Back at Barnes and Noble, I noted that the "huge stack" of Artforum had dwindled down to four copies. That means that even where I live -- the recession-wracked Inland Empire -- people are still shelling out $10 for a 310 page art magazine that is 2/3 advertising. Maybe that is why my neighbors aren't watering their lawns: they are saving up for Artforum.

Speaking of advertising, as I looked over the many sleek and stunning ads in the October Artforum, I had to acknowledge that the publication seemed to be drawing tremendous revenue. A full page ad, for example, costs $4,200, and several galleries, including Gagosian Gallery, had costly multi-page spreads. Of the first 100 pages of Artforum, more than 80 contained paid ads and gallery guides. It looked like a very healthy, well-funded magazine.

In contrast, the Huffington Post as a whole reportedly became profitable for the first time in mid-2010 after five years in existence. In financial terms, it is just beginning to demonstrate its potential.

Chastened, I went home and put a question for artist friends on my Facebook status, and asked "What do you think of Artforum?" It turned out to be a hot-button question when posed to painters -- especially representational painters -- who feel that Artforum has largely neglected them. Ask a painter "What do you think of Artforum" and the answer is usually "The Emperor's New Clothes." Ask a New Media artist and they will say "The Cat's Pajamas."

My friends are painters:

"I stopped looking at Artforum long ago. There were never any paintings." - Patricia Cole

"I haven't looked at Artforum in over a dozen years." - F. Scott Hess

"SCLEROTIC." - Robert Morrisey. (Thanks Robert: I had to look that up...)

"Ya mean Art Borum? Too jargony." - Margaret McCann

Later, Margaret corrected her spelling to "Art Borem."

When I searched Google I found that Artforum has no lack of vocal blogger detractors. In 2005 Charlie Finch -- the resident curmudgeon of artnet.com -- blogged about looking over a copy of Artforum with dealer Brooke Alexander and raving about the magazine's circulation numbers: "...the same 35,000 people as always. How long can the same 35,000 people circle jerk each other until they are blinded by the come?" That is a good example of something a blogger can say that I doubt would ever appear in a printed art magazine.

Charlie Finch would probably be dismayed to learn that since 2005 the "circle" has grown. I e-mailed Amanda Schmitt at the Artforum circulation department, and she promptly replied with some current numbers:

"Dear John - Artforum magazine reaches 50,000 subscribers each month, and Artforum.com has over 100,000 unique visitors per month."

OK then, maybe the notion that Artforum is going to sink into a sea of bloggers isn't accurate. For one thing, Artforum, like other magazines has hybridized itself and has a healthy web presence that includes "Scene and Herd," which provides high-end gossip and handsome jpegs of art world somebodies. Artforum, of course, has bloggers too. Thinking it through, many well known art bloggers -- Tyler Green comes to mind -- are part of the web outreach program for print magazines.

To continue my research, I sent out a quick questionnaire to my email list of New York art dealers. Since Artforum had been described as "jargony" I framed a question about that:

"Some complain that Artforum is full of jargon and that it does not cover painting. Do you agree?"

Jamie Sterns, the director of PPOW Gallery answered simply "No."

Francis Naumann, a curator and dealer specializing in Surrealism and Dada responded "Absolutely."

Artforum, I was learning is a polarizer of opinion.

At least David Leiber, a partner in Sperone Westwater Gallery took a kind of sensible middle ground calling Artforum "admittedly theory strapped but not necessarily allergic to painting." Leiber went on to observe that Artforum "...does cover the media arts thoroughly -- film, video, music, etc. -- which seems appropriate in today's environment."


Drawing by Pablo Helguera for Artoons.

This gave me an epiphany. Artforum appeals to people who want carefully vetted content that has a vibe of exclusivity. The challenging writing, obtusely beautiful ads, and the sheer heft of the physical magazine have a special alchemy.

Huffington Post Arts is for anyone willing to click on a link, read for 10 seconds, and see if a blogger can draw you in. Some of the blogs I have come across on HuffPost -- Rebecca Taylor on her pilgrimage to Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty and James Elkins on looking at Mondrian close-up -- strike me as some of the freshest art writing around. Those are the kinds of blogs that got me over-excited in the first place.

With Artforum, if you find the writing too dense you can flip a few pages and scan some of the beautiful, often inchoate images presented in the gallery ads. On Huffington Post Arts, you are only a click away from reading items like "Brooke Hogan Shows Off Weight Loss In A Bikini." I love that.

Reading over the e-mails I got back from Gallery Owners and Directors gave me a reality check. Artforum isn't sinking in a sea of bloggers. It is thriving in a sea of bloggers, and other print publications.

Jamie Sterns, for example, reads Artforum, but also gets Art in America, Bomb, Frieze, Parkett, and TEXTE ZUR KUNST. She also reads the art content on the following blogs and sites:

Contemporary Art Daily, Art Observed, Artforum.com, Art Fag City, Dossier, 16 Miles of String, artnet.com, NYMag, NYTimes Art and Design, artinfo.com, artlovers New York, whitehot magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, and Paper Monument

In the end, Tamsen Greene, the Director of the Jack Shainman Gallery, and also a writer who contributes to "Modern Painters" sent me a comment that set things straight:

"There is nothing like a beautiful art publication. There is also nothing like having quick access to information. They both serve different purposes and together complement each other."

Tamsen, by the way, also reads a wide range of art print publications, websites and blogs. "And of course," she says, " Marina Cashdan's blog for the Huffington Post."

I still say that Huffington Post Arts is the future. So is Artforum, like it or not. The imminent death of printed magazines -- especially art magazines -- may have been over-dramatized.

Now I need to take a look at about a zillion other magazines, websites and blogs and see what they are all about. Would it be too much to try and say something flattering about all of them?

Mari Lyons: Every Object Rightly Seen


Mari Lyons in her Woodstock studio

Mari Lyons turned 75 last week. She has been painting for more than 60 years, but says that she is still struggling to be free of certain habits. "In my studio I have paintings that go back to the 50's," Lyons explains. "I can't help but come to painting with an accumulation: you can never get rid of yourself."

It is a very modest self-assessment by an artist who, in truth, creates paintings that radiate a constant joy of discovery. "Almost everything in Ms. Lyons's paintings is animated, excited, and alive," says critic Lance Esplund.

Praise from friends doesn't seem to affect Lyons, who is unassuming in general. Although she paints passionately, she knows her own limits well. Writing about her current series "Sunsets/Hillsides" she says "I have worked on this motif on and off for nearly a decade and I cannot grasp its infinite complexities."

One of Lyons's favorite quotes comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Every object rightly seen unlocks a quality of the soul" Lately, she has been looking out the three windows of her Woodstock studio, trying to "unlock" the secrets of her hillside. Even though she feels that her view isn't monumental -- "a modest forest of ash, hemlock, and pine" -- she is devoted to it. "Its just as hard and impossible to know a hillside as it is a person," she observes wisely.


Mari Lyons, Sunset Allegretto, oil on canvas, 36.5" x 49", 2009

"Sunsets/Hillsides" is about her meditation on the metaphorical potential of the landscape, and also about a kind of conversation with Paul Cezanne, an artist she discovered when she was 20. Of course, by that time she had already been painting for more than 7 years, and had more than a passing acquaintance with modern art and artists. Her education as an artist started early and has never really ended.

By age 13 her father was taking her Saturday drawing classes at the the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. "Still and Rothko were there," Lyons recalls, but she mainly remembers an encouraging instructor named William Brown. She drew the model for 4 to 5 hours at a stretch, a remarkable thing for a 13 year old to be doing, especially in the late 40's.

At 15 Lyons took a summer painting class at Mills College taught by Max Beckmann, the German Expressionist who came to teach in the US after WW II. "It was a motley group,"Lyons remembers,"older women with canvas boards, some not very serious painters, and then one or two serious students," one of whom was the Bay Area artist Nathan Oliveira.

Beckmann, who spoke little English, barely noticed Lyons -- "Gut Kinder" was the only comment she remembers -- but he and his art made an indelible impression on her. When he showed his works to the class at the end of the term the symbolism escaped her, but the power and intensity of the works, their "truth," was unforgettable.

The following summer Lyons studied with Fletcher Martin, a representational artist who had been an artist/correspondent for Life Magazine. Martin was very encouraging, telling Lyons that she was "The best student he ever had." Later, he gave her a more patronizing compliment: Lyons remembers bristling when he called her "A significant woman painter."

When she attended Bard College, 90 miles north of New York, Lyons studied with Stefan Hirsch, a German emigre who had once created a controversial WPA mural depicting an allegorical figure of "Justice" as being mixed-race. She also took classes with Louis Schanker -- an abstract printmaker once called a "radical among radicals" -- and Ludwig Sander, an abstract artist friendly with Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline.

Lyons also spent six or seven months in Paris where she studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumiere, at L'Atelier Fernand Leger, and also at the Atelier 17 of famed painter/printmaker Stanley William Hayter. Although postwar Paris and its great museums made a great impression on her, Lyons recounts that she often felt "intimidated and lonely" in Europe.

After receiving an MFA in painting from Cranbrook in l958, Lyons, now married, moved to Ann Arbor, where her husband Nick was finishing a PhD. In four and a half years the couple had four children -- the first is Paul, named after Paul Cezanne -- but somehow Mari managed to have a one woman show at the Forsythe Gallery. After moving to New York City in 1961 Mari kept a studio in the corner of her bedroom, and regularly drew from the model with upper west-side artist friends.

It has been a rich, busy life, and Lyons has been the subject of over a dozen one-person shows in New York alone. "A lot happened in the intervening years," Lyons reflects, "but I always painted." That is an understatement: Lyons's eccentric and vivid depictions of nudes, cityscapes, landscapes, still-lives, and interiors have caused critic Jed Perl to remark that she "has staked her claim as the complete painter, the master of every genre."


Mari Lyons, Exploding Cherry Tree, oil on canvas, 30" x 31", 2009

Since her husband Nick sold his publishing business, Lyons has been spending more time in Woodstock, where the landscape motif has called to her off and on. Writing in the New Republic about Lyon's 2008 exhibition, Jed Perl noted the "unabashed color," and "buttery seduction" of her landscape canvases. He felt that the show was "more than anything else, about color becoming light."

The landscapes of the "Sunsets/Hillsides" certainly are about light, and also about joy. "When you are connected, you feel a joy in seizing some aspect of the real world," Lyons says. Using color in "patch-like juxtapositions, derived from Cezanne's color modulations," her painting "Exploding Cherry Tree" achieves an exuberance tempered by a net-like interlace of dark strokes.

Although she has consistently worked as a representational painter, Lyons doesn't mind letting her work veer towards abstraction. "The question of whether they are realistic or abstract is irrelevant," she says. One of the values she seems to have absorbed from Cezanne is that there is an inherent abstract order to be gleaned from nature.

When her show opens at the First Street Gallery in New York on November 2nd, Lyons hopes that those who view the show will share her "joy of discovery." Of course, she says gently, "No two people feel the same." It is a sage observation by an artist who doesn't pursue fixed meanings or try to impose them on herself or others. Searching, not finding is her strong point.

Mari Lyons explains her constant curiosity this way: "I'm mainly striving to go deeper into the mysteries and challenges of an art that is always elusive." Elusive they may be, but moments of connection, joy, and spirit flicker brightly through the branches of the painted trees on her painted hillsides.

Rod Penner: Rust on Poles, Crumbling Asphalt, Light Hitting the Grass

"I'm interested in the look of things and the quality of being there, a moment that is completely frozen with all the variety of textures; rust on poles, crumbling asphalt, light hitting the grass. The finished paintings should evoke contrasting responses of melancholy and warmth, desolation and serenity -- everything that is small town America." -- Rod Penner

Rod Penner hardly stands out in Marble Falls, Texas, a town of about 5,000 residents, 40 miles northwest of Austin. "I'm somewhat of a recluse," the artist comments. Generally speaking, Penner likes it that way. Since Marble Falls is mainly known for hunting, fishing, and drag boat racing, it isn't too hard for an artist to stay under the radar.

In New York, it is a different story. When his exhibition of "minis" -- six inch square hyper-realist paintings -- opens at OK Harris Works of Art in New York on October 23rd, Penner will be the center of attention, a situation he finds vaguely uncomfortable. Fortunately, his paintings are the real attention getters. His six inch square vignettes of small town Texas command a retail price of $8,500 each.


Rod Penner, "Clayton Dry Cleaners," Acrylic on Panel, 6 x 6 inches, 2010


Rod Penner, "Bait Shop," Acrylic on Panel, 6 x 6 inches, 2010

To put it another way, Penner's retail price is $34,000 per square foot. That is more than the median household income in Marble Falls, which is $30,800. Remarkably, what sells so well in New York is precisely the fact that Penner has captured "melancholy and warmth, desolation and serenity," in a way that many of his collectors feel characterized the small towns where they started out.

Penner, who jokingly refers to himself as "America's favorite Mennonite Photo-realist" grew up in a tight-knit family Vancouver, British Columbia. His father, uncles, brothers and cousins all worked or still work in the construction trade. His parents, who noticed that he liked to draw were supportive of his developing interest in art, and his father bought him art supplies. He met his wife Debbie, a native Texan, in his late teens, and they married in 1986 when Rod was 21 and briefly moved to Canada.

Building on methods he had learned in college, Rod began to experiment with Hyper-realist painting techniques. Not entirely satisfied by Photo-realist paintings that he had seen in person -- they looked much rougher than they had in art magazines -- Penner tried to take his technique further, in an even more exacting direction.

In 1988 the Penners moved to Richmond, Texas. Penner's first images of Texas reflect the sense of isolation and strangeness he experienced there. "When I first moved to Texas it was like another planet," says Penner. It was "alien, the weather, the landscape: I didn't know what to make of it." Still, he was determined to find his subject matter close by: neighboring towns like Sealy and Clifton gave him austere, characteristically American images to work from.

For an artist tremendously interested in texture and detail, the dilapidated state of the buildings he photographed and then painted gave him his poetry and his visual interest. Peeling paint, cracked asphalt and weeds breaking through pavement interest Penner the way that light reflected on water interested Monet. "I could never paint new buildings," he comments.

The somber, elegiac tone of his early Texas paintings reflects a number of things: his wife's grief over the loss of a brother, the "Last Picture Show" vibe of small town Texas, and Penner's own sober view of life. Then, in 1991, the same year that Penner signed on to show his work at OK Harris, his youngest brother died in a plane crash. Two deaths -- that of his brother-in-law and his brother -- made indelible impacts that Penner feels affect his world view, and his work, to this day.


Rod Penner, "Pink House with Big Wheels," Acrylic on Canvas, 36 x 54 inches, 1992

People don't appear in his paintings, but their parked pickup trucks and their children's big wheels scattered on the front lawn remind us that they are missing. With fierce objectivity, Penner paints portraits of Texas small town life without ever showing us a single human face.

Penner's work ethic is very strong: it has to be, as he is the sole supporter for his wife a homemaker, and for five children. He is up most mornings by 4:30 for some early painting, and perhaps a walk. After breakfast he is usually back in the studio until 5.

His method of painting is methodical and systematic. Working from photos that have often been adjusted in photoshop, he paints a small, defined area each day. When working on his "minis," which are six inches square, he typically needs 7 to 10 days, which means that he is painting at the rate of a few square inches each day. Larger paintings can take up to four months to complete.

He rarely goes back and corrects his previous day's work. Penner, in this respect, is a little like an Italian fresco artist of the Renaissance who covered a single square of plaster each day, calling it his "giornata" or day's work.

The ingredients for his paintings are shockingly simple: acrylic paint and water, applied on small panels, or on wet-sanded canvas for larger works.

Penner doesn't mind being called a "Photo-realist" but comments that if anything his works are "Photo-realism in HD." People familiar with his paintings note that he goes beyond his subject matter, and manages to infuse very strong feelings into his work.

"He is a master technician, "says painter Leonard Koscianski, " but he is more than that. His paintings are actually quite expressive. There is a significant difference between his photos and the paintings he creates from them."

Penner's dealer, Ethan Karp admires the revelatory aspect of Penner's images, noting that "They encourage the viewer to look at painting, landscape and subject with a sense of objective discovery, and deliver a revelatory moment of clarity and startled awareness."


Rod Penner, "Snoball," Acrylic on Panel, 6 x 6 inches, 2010

Penner's recent art seems a bit more optimistic than it did 20 years ago. Pictures like "Snoball," which portrays a snow-cone shack with a yellow topped cone is softened by his gentle sense of humor: it is almost a "Pop" painting. The gentle rivulets of water in front of the shack suggest something melting, a wry comment.

It turns out that Texas is a great place to raise a family, and the hill country landscape around Marble Falls, where the Penners have lived since 2002, is actually quite beautiful. Life at the moment is very good for the Penner family, and his online photo album is full of snaps of Arkansas river rafting, fishing trips, and football games. Austin is less than an hour away when big city pleasures are in order.

Rod and Debbie Penner have begun to collect some modest Hudson River School paintings, and Rod is building a new studio. Both are luxuries they could have hardly imagined when they started their lives together. "We are blessed," Penner acknowledges.

When New York collectors pay big money for one of Penner's painting they are getting a piece of Americana. Hard working, and dead on honest, Penner and his paintings take us back to places and values that somehow look more and more attractive and endearing over time. Penner's paintings don't just tell us about desolation and melancholy. They also have some things to say about grit, candor and endurance: American virtues.

Penner's choice of style is also looking prescient, as the art world is paying more attention to photo-realist and hyper-realist art. "There appears to currently be a growing awareness and appreciation of hyper-realist painting as a substantial and acquirable art form," says Ethan Karp.

According to Wikipedia, Marble Falls has produced three "notable" citizens: a rancher, a 2nd place winner on "Nashville Star," and an Olympic sprinter. Another listing needs to be added:

Rod Penner: A Hyper-realist artist known for his painstakingly honest depictions of small Texas towns.

Michael C. McMillen: Every Dream Is New


Michael C. McMillen: Photo by Ari Young

Michael McMillen is a visual artist in the very broadest sense, careful to avoid narrowly defining just what it is he does. "The medium has to be in service of the idea," he told an audience of students at Art Center College of Design in 2005.

McMillen's shifting and overlapping job descriptions -- sculptor, installation artist, printmaker, cultural anthropologist -- reflect the fact that he is a searcher, never quite sure what he is looking for, always hoping to be amazed by what he comes across. An leading edge baby boomer -- he was born in 1946 -- his childhood was marked by a curiosity about the artifacts of postwar California.

Raised mainly by his grandparents, McMillen was surrounded from an early age by things older than he was: elderly people, antique furnishings, objects that had seen better days. Being older, his grandparents also tended to let him roam. Some of McMillen's childhood memories involve pulling a wagon down the alleyway near his their house, collecting junk that he would later organize and create stories about. Since many of neighbors were veterans of WWII, or had worked for Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica, McMillen often found items that conveyed the faded poetry of war and industry.

His imaginative drive also reflects the influence of his father, an actor who also worked as a scenic artist. Eventually McMillen Sr. worked for Channel 11, and Michael would visit him there. Walking among the sets, which he realized looked very different on television, got him thinking about the artifice and "duality" of media images. While attending Santa Monica City College he decided to become an artist: an epiphany that he says came to him like a "snap of a finger."

After earning his MFA at UCLA McMillen promptly gained attention for his mixed-media sculptures and constructed environments. "Like films," wrote one commentator, "McMillen's fastidiously constructed works function as portals into other worlds..." While building his reputation as an artist McMillen also did odd jobs in the film industry, creating props and special effects for "Blade Runner" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

Since winning the LA County Museum's "New Talent Award" and landing NEA Artist's Fellowship, both in 1978, McMillen's career has never faltered. His groundbreaking 1981 installation "Central Meridian (The Garage)" featured the cluttered interior of a 60's garage/workshop/catacomb, complete with the rusting bones of a Dodge Dart. Doug Harvey, writing for the LA Weekly, says that the piece "...remains one of the most subtle, poetic and experiential critiques of the institutional art environment ever devised."

Over the years, McMillen's interests as an artist have remained remarkably consistent. Deeply aware of the evocative power of things, he has been accumulating and re-assembling "objects of interest" -- some would call them detritus -- all his life. While building his stellar reputation as an artist, an inevitable by product has been a growing storage problem.

"I have an exotic collection of materials, artifacts, gee-gaws and what-nots" says McMillen. "To avoid unnecessary clutter, I have a simple rule: If I haven't used it in 30 years, I discard it."

One of the results of being "awash with stuff" has been a deepening exploration with film. This new direction has allowed McMillen to both literally recycle some of the physical raw material he has accumulated and also to recycle some of the overarching ideas of his career. He has been tinkering with film since 2003, and his 2007 installation/exhibition "Speed's Place" at the UnMuseum of the Contemporary Arts Museum of Cincinnati, included projections of his digital films.

His current exhibition "Lighthouse" at LA Louver Gallery doesn't literally include a lighthouse. The title, McMillen explains, "... is both metaphoric and a bit literal," as the installation includes a looped screening of his new short film "Quotidian Man" which projected onto the billboard of the "Hotel New Empire," a kind of tilting film set raised on a catafalque of stilts over a tray of water.

A precarious flophouse with a questionable past it is both a sculpture and a metaphor. Adding the element of the billboard/movie screen is McMillen's way of priming the image to receive an even richer set of suggestions. The billboard may also be a nod to the late painter James Doolin's "Psychic," a 1998 oil of a blank signboard hovering above a row of LA stores.

McMillen's films are reminiscent of old films, and nostalgia -- he has great affection for the days when movie magic wasn't so seamless -- is one of their key ingredients. Paradoxically, the poetry of nostalgia recycled creates something fresh and dreamlike. "Every dream is new: we don't know where they are going," McMillen points out. Spooky mirages, grainy and full of surprises, McMillen's films somehow feel inevitable, as if he has been making them all his life.

In a sense, he has. Working with history makes him feel fresh, like a child again.

Michael C. McMillen is a man who is fascinated by the past, but who isn't the least bit jaded. His imagination flickers brightly, like a Tesla coil in a monster movie.

Michael Mc Millen Artist's Statement for "Lighthouse."

The illusions of permanence and perfection are recurring themes in my work.

I use architectural references as a metaphoric language to express and reveal this
continuous state of flux and entropy.

The viewer's memory and sense of reality are subtly subverted by the use of altered scale and the fabrication of elements that are both familiar and strangely dystopian.

With the advances in digital motion picture technology, I have been able to integrate time based images into my installations. The movies blend and combine a multitude of varied images from our popular culture into personal dream-like narratives that animate and transport the viewer into unexpected realms.

John Nava: The Timelessness of Now


John Nava: Digital Output for the "Trojan Family Tapestry" (Detail)

In 1988, artist John Nava, who had just turned 40, told William Wilson of the Los Angeles Times that he was "looking for a way to paint the figure seriously in the 20th Century." Twenty-two years later, a decade into the 21st century, Nava is indeed creating figurative art of great seriousness, but there is a twist. His monumental depiction of a procession of 21 life-sized figures, now on view at USC's new Tutor Campus Center isn't a painting: it is a tapestry.

Nava's engagement in tapestry began in 1999 when he was commissioned to create 3 cycles of tapestries for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. Tapestry was initially chosen for acoustic reasons, but once the project got rolling Nava found other advantages. With a tight 3 year timeline he could paint figure studies, have them composed and compiled in Photoshop and then email the images to Belgium, where digital technology facilitated rapid production of the actual tapestries. Nava had also discovered a medium that was both sensuous and at the same time able to render subtle detail.

Besides alerting Nava to tapestry as a medium, the cathedral project connected him with a 2,000 year lineage of traditions and values surrounding the creation of religious art. Depicting the figure in a "serious" way was now more than just a goal: it was a requirement. Challenged to create timeless images for a contemporary audience, Nava had to answer a profound question. How could he express the ancient idea of sainthood and do so in a way that made sense for the 21st century?

His answer, three cycles of images portraying 135 saints and "blesseds" -- females and males of all ages, races, occupations and vocations from all over the world -- expresses to the cathedral's diverse visitors the idea that "a saint could look like me." It was a powerful theme, and it continues to resonate in Nava's recent works, both religious and secular. Nava says that "humanity, consolation and redemption" are the most important themes of his commissioned works.

After completing the cathedral project in 2003, Nava continued to work with tapestry. His 2006 exhibition at Sullivan-Goss Gallery in Santa Barbara, titled "Neo-Icons" -- a title meant as a rebuke to "Neo-Cons" -- featured tapestries and paintings of fresh-faced adolescent Americans.

Presented in a straight-forward manner designed to emphasize their innocence, each young man and woman depicted wears a t-shirt with a slogan decrying America's post 9/11 policies and actions. In the accompanying catalog essay Mr. Nava did not mince words when describing what he viewed as the "breathtaking arrogance, exceeded only by stunning incompetence" of the Bush/Cheney administration. One memorable tapestry from the show is of a young woman with straight blonde hair who faces the viewer with some apparent shyness. Her blue t-shirt says, simply "America Tortures."


Image by John Nava, 2006 | Jacquard Tapestry | 114 x 77 inches

After the gallery received nearly 100 phone calls, some threatening, Mr. Nava attended the opening with a bodyguard. He also caught the attention of Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who mentioned the exhibition in her weekly Santa Barbara newspaper column, slamming Nava for being part of an "anti-democratic" force that she characterized as "the greatest danger to world peace ever."

Ironically, the outcry caused by "Neo-Icons" points out one of Nava's greatest strengths as an artist, a strength that is readily apparent in his 22 foot square "Trojan Family Tapestry." Deeply knowledgeable about history, Nava takes the "long view" of art and history, but doesn't shy away from the particulars that define individuality and temporality. His USC tapestry features a procession of figures that emulates the reliefs of the Roman Ara Pacis of 80 AD, but at the same time features an image of a young man distractedly talking on his cellphone.

Each of the tapestry's 21 figures is an individual portrait of a member of the USC campus community; USC President Emeritus Steven Sample, alumni donor Ron Tutor, swimmer Rebecca Soni, and football player David Buehler, and 17 others. Each is beautifully individualized, but at the same time part of a flow that joins them together in time.

Woven near Bruges, Belgium, using cotton, wool and silk fibers, the tapestry also features a rich ground that Nava calls a "mosaic of texts." Among the included texts -- all taken from USC Library holdings -- are a 13th century Koran, a Mayan codice, an 1807 Japanese manuscript on the life of fisherman, and a page from the Nuremberg Chronicles. All of those texts, and many others, float in a field of binary code.

The wide range of historical and aesthetic sources quoted by the work create a kind of tension, something the artist fully intended. As Selma Holo, the Director of the USC Fisher Museum of Art points out, the tapestry makes "a point about the tension between the universal language of art and the moment." On the one hand, it seems fair to call Nava a traditionalist, but that assumption weakens if one considers his knack for contemporaneous details and images, and his fusion of traditional and new media. "Nava's art is always evolving and a unique blend of opposites; age-old tradition and cutting-edge technology," says his friend and fellow artist Jon Swihart.

The use of tapestry as a medium also adds to the feeling of timelessness that adds weight to the more particular and documentary aspects of the work. As Holo points out, most contemporary tapestries are reproductive, meaning that they are copies of recognizable works. A case in point would be the tapestry of Picasso's "Guernica" at the United Nations building in New York, commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller 16 years after Picasso unveiled the original mural. Nava, on the other hand, sees tapestry as a powerful medium for original contemporary works. That makes him one of a handful of artists re-inventing a medium that most art historians feel died 400 years ago.

Dr. Steven Sample, who recently retired after 20 years as the President of USC, is seen on the left side of the tapestry, walking alongside alumni donor Ron Tutor, taking part in the procession the way the donors might have in a medieval religious image. Sample, who Selma Holo credits with leading USC into the ranks of America's finest academic institutions, was standing in front of the installed tapestry recently when Nava asked him if he recognized himself.

"I recognize the University" Sample replied: a wonderful validation of Nava's achievement.


John Nava, 2010, The Trojan Family Tapestry: Detail of Figures.

John Nava has done something very rare in the field of contemporary art, offering a timeless portrayal of individuals in a democracy, moving forward together, bound to each other by mutual respect. It is worth noting that in the "Trojan Family Tapestry" the college president and the donor follow the students, acknowledging that they are the ones who will take this particular moment of time into the future.

John Nava will be speaking at an "Art Grand Opening" at USC's Tutor Campus Center on the evening of September 30th.


John Nava (Photo: Donna Granata)

Q and A with John Nava:

JS: Can you tell me just a bit about the influences behind your USC tapestry?

JN: For me the solution to depicting a "world" -- or perhaps more precisely a culture or human/societal milieu -- was the image of the frieze. The frieze of figures in passage within an environment was used by the Egyptians, famously by the Greeks in the Parthenon frieze and so on. I was particularly thinking about the frescoes of Piero della Francesca in Arezzo. In all these examples there is a certain formal, non-documentary realist aspect to the image. It has a "pageant" quality and is meant to be read, not as a "slice of life" scene but as a metaphor about the processes and timeless meaning of the life of the subject society.

At USC I was trying to show not only the grand, over-arching role of the university in civilization but also the ongoing process of perennial engagement and interaction with generations of students as they move through academe. Hence the juxtaposition of the students and the field of texts.

JS: You told the USC news service that you want the tapestry to reflect the "interior preoccupations and attitudes typical of all generations of students." Can you expand on that?

JN: I always think that the situation of students is hard to surpass -- they're young, beautiful and bright and get spend their time studying really grand and profound matters with fantastic scholars. However, as I remember from my days teaching, the kids themselves are not walking around in blissful awe but are, instead, wrapped up in all the adventures of this amazing period in their own lives with all the soap opera that often goes with it. So I wanted to get this quality as opposed to depicting them as bunch solemn medieval monks in procession weighted down by their intellectual labors.

JS: Did you also try to say anything particular about the current generation of students?

JN: I think that to make something "timeless" it is, perhaps paradoxically, necessary to be very observant and humanly true in the images of the figures. When we see a face in a toga on a wall in Pompey or another in a robe in a Flemish painting and it has that human truth we recognize it immediately and the ages that separate us from that work dissolve. And that recognition gives the image gravity and reality --we get it and we believe it.

So if I had done a similar group of figures from USC in the 1930's there would have been many of the same types peculiar to that school -- the football player, the cheerleaders, the band members and the kids in casual dress of time. But they would not have looked like they look now -- our time puts its own unique stamp on their appearance just as the classic texts they are seen with is saturated with binary code so typical of our age. But if the portraits were good and not stylized in some way to make them seem dated we would still connect with those figures and hopefully recognize them as a reflection of ourselves.