The Art Market and Art Criticism Will Divorce in 2013: An Allegory


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"The Divorce of the Art Market and Art Criticism," Ex-Voto Painting by Matthew Couper

NEW YORK -- In a joint prepared statement issued earlier today, The Art Market and Art Criticism -- two allegorical figures whose uneasy marriage has been under visible strain in the past month -- have confirmed reports that they intend to divorce next year:
"After long and careful consideration on both our parts, we've decided to end our marriage. We have loved each other deeply for many years, but recent developments have strained our ability to sustain a loving and meaningful partnership. It is a painful time for all involved and we ask that you respect our request for privacy at this very difficult juncture."
The announcement ended considerable speculation - fueled by a spate of reports in tabloids and art blogs - that the marriage was in trouble. Coming less than a week after reports that artist Damien Hirst was ending his affiliation with Gagosian Gallery, the news rattled rattled their friends and associates who struggled to make sense of the seismic instability that has recently shaken the art world.

One party close to the situation says that the marriage's problems first became apparent after Art Criticism, a classically trained scholar known for her wit and erudition, and her husband -- a high-powered businessman and financier -- engaged in a nasty public shoving match in front of a Jeff Koons balloon dog on the roof of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art last month. The following week, Art Criticism was observed by a neighbor leaving the couple's palatial Manhattan brownstone clutching a Goya painting in one hand, and a box of books in the other. A blurry cellphone photo of the incident has been widely re-tweeted.

Musée M. Bord, a longtime friend of the pair, told the New York Sun that Art Criticism had been enduring considerable personal strain in the past year. "While the Art Market has been spending so much time at art fairs with oligarchs and billionaires Art Criticism has been relying heavily on her friends, but they have their own problems" she lamented. "The recent deaths of her longtime supporters Hilton Kramer and Bob Hughes hit her hard, and seeing Blake Gopnik laid off by Newsweek didn't help. Sure, there are a lot of bloggers who call themselves critics, but they are too self-absorbed to be of much help."

Christie Sothebys, another friend, offered this observation about Art Criticism's social circle: "She is just now beginning to realize that many artists who she thought of as friends have actually sucking her dry for years. Once they had become 'brands' they told her off and laughed in her face."

Art Forum, a close friend of the Art Market, offered a somewhat different perspective. "As anyone with a pair of eyeballs can see, the Art Market has been wildly successful in the past decade, and I think that grated on Art Criticism, who honestly has never really embraced his success. There is some real jealousy here, and I would remind Ms. Criticism that her husband has been exceedingly generous to her. And by the way, she needs to tell her busy bee friends Dave Hickey and Sarah Thornton to shut up."

A source who declined to be identified hinted that an affair may have been a factor. Last summer photos of the Art Market sipping champagne with Curatorial Integrity at a London Bistro briefly appeared on the Tattler website, but were quickly removed. "This is a very sad moment," the source commented, "as this couple complimented each other so well for years. Art Criticism does have a sharp tongue, but she can be very funny and through the years I think she has stabilized the Art Market and given him credibility. Honestly, I think he is just living in a bubble."

Dr. Connie Faux, a professor of Art Theory at the New School of Linguistic Obfuscation, and a long-time associate of Art Criticism, told ArtNews that she was "conceptually saddened" by the pending divorce. "During their long marriage, the Art Market and Art Criticism consistently functioned symbiotically within the web of differentiation which spans the chasm of the non-human over which we constantly live. They have left indelible traces on my personal epistemology."

Art Criticism's mother, Art History, has made only one public comment, posted as a status update on her Facebook page. "They never should have married in the first place, and I told her so when they became engaged. From the start, they had very different aims and were basically incompatible: I don't know how the marriage lasted as long as it did."

The Art Market and Art Criticism have three adult children: Pablo, a hedge fund manager, Andy a filmmaker, and Jean-Michel, a street artist whose struggles with drugs and alcohol have been widely reported. The couple will reportedly share custody of their 10 year old adopted daughter: The Chinese Contemporary Art Market.

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To my readers: I'm sending my best wishes for a Happy New Year - John Seed

John Brosio: Tornadoes, Twisters and a Jerk in a Road

You have to like John Brosio: a guy who appreciates a bottle of Chateau Yquem, but is equally happy with a can of Budweiser. Brosio, who paints Texas twisters with the aplomb and sensitivity of Corot, is an artist who can make you smile and scare you at the same time. His canvases fuse dark humor and a dose of awe into memorable images that get you in the gut. I recently interviewed Brosio about his work and ideas. His responses, like his paintings, are emphatic and engagingly quirky.

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John Brosio
JS: You are showing tornado and twister paintings at Sue Greenwood Fine Art. Can you tell me what originally attracted you to tornadoes as subject matter?  

JB: This question has come up before of course but I never took enough time to really think about it. It has always surprised me. I've spent all kinds of time on wording in the past to chase down some kind of justification for what seems like a "weird" or off-center choice of mine and that might have been a mistake. To tell you the truth it seemed obvious.

I was at the time even racing with the imagery, thinking that someone else would beat me to it. What would truly interest me is to interview one of many given artists and ask them why they paint people sitting in chairs, dogs, or what have you. We have a TON of paintings like that and no one ever asks about it because our programing -- yours, mine, everyone's programing -- is to instantly consider legitimate that kind of subject matter as all but part/ parcel to the definition of modern representational "Painting." And to be honest I am bored with a lot of that.

The really truly good ones I enjoy no end, the works that articulate space, but there are so many paintings these days of figures intended to look quirky and contemplative but end up as overly expressionless and comfortable as if painted while listening to a lesser episode of Prairie Home Companion. I want to ask someone, "what attracted you to painting people in rooms?" and see what happens.

Back to the tornadoes though: they did not originally start out as being exclusively about weather. I had a series of paintings where people were hanging out with a variety of larger-than-life subjects. In the beginning I had folks looking at tornadoes, a B2 bomber, dinosaur skulls on display, a giant dead shark on a pier, etc. The series went that way but the twisters took off with the crowd. And that was fine with me because I loved all of it but ran with my reception.

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John Brosio, "Texas Road," 60 x 36 inches, Oil on canvas
 
JS: Is it fair to call you a "Romantic" in the sense that your work transmits a sense of awe about the force of nature?  

JB: Ha! I would call myself a "Romantic" in that sense but a lot of people don't see it in my every day life. There is not much of a chance to explore certain things in every day life. No context for it.

But I always thought that what sense of awe I feel and 'transmit' in my work was common to all of our appetites. I used to think that at least. My take on it now is that we are all naturally dazzled by those things but most of us end up crowding them out of worry and wonder by way of our daily considerations such that they get relegated to oddity. And that's dicey I think.

Curiosity has been crowded out. It sometimes even goes uncultivated, even in children, and that's just wrong. I've even had people, more than one, ask me why I was looking at the sky when all the stars are out and the more pressing question is, "Why are you not?!" Those natural forces are right next to us and all the time. They are gorgeous, incredible, and dangerous. Living as though they don't affect you is even more dangerous because it is irresponsible. Tornadoes though are probably the most pictorially accessible thing for me to use in representing these forces but I am speaking to the whole dynamic.

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John Brosio, "Unleashed," 50 x 68 inches, Oil on canvas

JS: Your work seems to blend realism and invention, science and mythology. Tell me about the mix of these elements.  

JB: This may be hard to answer because I don't see much of a difference among these elements. They at the very least breed one another. By "realism and invention" I will take you to mean "representational vs. manipulated." Let me know if that is in error and I would be happy to answer a subsequent question. But I think I end up, even if incidentally, in the seeming language of surrealism.

The thing with surrealism though is that it often invites us to seriously contemplate the absurd and non-sensical per se whereas I employ it with leanings toward narrative. There are things in the works though here that will be a little more unhinged so stay tuned. Science though in some ways is nothing more than defined mythology but I think that folks are making a mistake there too if it causes any of the wonder to diminish.

I mean, shoot -- we're being told now that there is another whole universe just a tiny bit to the side of every given point in the one we perceive -- right next to you in fact. There are also many more dimensions involved than the ones we know. There's this thing called the holographic principle that not only fits into all of the best math and physics being worked up but that means there is a duplicate of you, right now, 13.7 billion light years away, reading this sentence. Current science. Myself, I might have very much enjoyed pursuing cosmology but I very much do so in my own way.

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John Brosio, "Nocturne #3," 60 x 40 inches, Oil on canvas
 
JS: How does your sense of humor shape your work?

JB: It shapes it more and more! I spoke above about a disconnect between folks and the forces of nature and, the wider that gap gets, the funnier everything seems to be. Pointlessness is a rich source of humor to me. I love it. Making up things to do is great too. Heck, I tell my students that there is no reason not to take drugs and watch t.v. None at all.

 But the flip side of that is that there is no reason not to attempt some of the greatest things that have ever been done. That is just as crazy if not more so. What is tragically comedic to me too is the middle ground: students turning in B to B+ work in order to race through schooling and not demand more of the process. Question it! Come to me in class with ideas from Mars if you're reading this! The rest is a gorgeous "whatever." I love that "whatever" and I can be very celebratory and simultaneously dismissive of it; I think this duality is very much at the core of my "Edge of Town" tornado series. My chicken painting is not far behind.

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John Brosio, "Edge of Town," 35 x 40 inches, Oil on canvas

JS: What kinds of skills and techniques do you employ?  

JB: While I could always draw I had originally been drawn to making movie monsters - sculpting, mold making, etc. I'm probably just as proficient at sculpting those things as I am at painting. But I ended up very deliberately choosing to confine myself to the format of traditional painting. It is a confining thing in some sense but challenging too in that I should be able to speak with the use of a known language without having to be "louder."

I mean, were I to travel outside of painting I might need to rent an airship hanger and that's just not practical when I can tackle the same concerns where I stand. I still very much use the palette of Wayne Thiebaud, who was a teacher of mine. I added a few colors here and there, removed two...it's still an extrapolation of his palette. Beyond that I execute my paintings with the eventual use of a delineated wash. Many painters use this traditional approach. Thiebaud demonstrated that for his students on many occasions and someone like Sargent did the same thing. I sometimes model things underneath my imagery using white but not always. I sometimes sand, sometimes glaze, and have stopped using varnish.

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John Brosio, "Tornado and Moon," 36 x 29 inches, Oil on canvas

JS: Outside of painting, what interests you?

JB: Oh, dang - I like film making. I love stop motion animation. I enjoy baseball, chess, and Beethoven. I love planetary science and cannot wait for the Webb telescope to enter orbit. I love cosmology, black holes, and quantum mechanics. I love modern classical music composers from Schoenberg to Ligeti. I love the works of Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, and Carl Sagan. Mark Twain. I enjoy writing too but am not finished with my book. I had wanted through most of my youth to be a herpetologist and work with snakes but my favorite snakes are black mambas and Indian cobras.

I also enjoy very high end culinary experiences but eat very simple things most of the time. I enjoy connecting with people over the edges of life, the needed surrender as part of coping. A bottle of 2001 Chateau d'yquem and foie gras helps. So does a case of Budweiser and honey bbq corn chips. I almost bought a cast of a tyrannosaur skull at one point but have settled on an original Darth Vader mask. There are a lot of great masks out there. My favorite movie is currently Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven but the French Connection is growing on me.

I know how to use a bullwhip and am dazzled by the work of Cecil Henderson. I enjoy bats, wolves, and dusk in the forest. I love sequoia trees. I enjoy the rain and traveling by train through the desert Southwest. Planes are spectacular but I prefer ocean liners. I wish someone would build a transatlantic dirigible again too but they would have to serve cheeseburgers.

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John Brosio, "Jerk in a Road," 35 x 35 inches, Oil on canvas
 
JS: Does this show include "Jerk in a Road?" Somehow that painting of a determined jerk blocking our path seems just right for the political era were are living in...

JB: It does!! I love that piece: and it is a little different for sure. It is more of an intuitive piece about how people take a stance and start posturing over nothing. I don't know if the twister is something that makes our jerk meaningless or if it is his backup man.

John Brosio's work is on view in a group exhibition at Sue Greenwood Fine Art through December 31st.
 
Sue Greenwood Fine Art, 330 North Coast Highway Laguna Beach, CA 92651

Jed Perl: Magicians and Charlatans



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Jed Perl, Magicians and Charlatans: Essays on Art and Culture, Eakins Press, 352 pages

Jed Perl, who has served as the art critic for the New Republic since 1994, has a new book out: Magicians and Charlatans: Essays on Art and Culture. Published by the Eakins Press, the book is a collection of essays written between 1995 and 2011. The writings include profiles of seminal cultural figures such as Meyer Schapiro and Lincoln Kirstein, historical studies of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin and Édouard Vuillard, and critical commentaries on contemporary artists Robert Gober, Gerhard Richter and Jeremy Blake.

Perl, who poet John Ashberry has called "an almost solitary and essential voice," opens the book by stating that in the past few years he has found the art world "unpredictable, fragmented, disorienting, like a hair-raising rollercoaster ride." An erudite critic who delivers his opinions unvarnished, Perl gives high praise to the 18th century master Chardin, in whose works he detects "a bold but elusive presence." He slams the contemporary German painter Gerhard Richter in whose "chilly stuff" he discerns "a loathing for painting's true magic." In his 2008 essay "Postcards from Nowhere" Perl recounts his visit to the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at the LA County Museum, commenting that "BCAM is about high-end shopping" and that "you do not get the feeling that a curator has left a mark."

I recently interviewed Jed Perl to learn more about the book, his view of the art world, and about his personal approach to criticism.

John Seed Interviews Jed Perl
 
JS: Your book opens with a prologue titled "Laissez-Faire Aesthetics" in which you tell your readers that we are facing "a weakening of conviction, an unwillingness to take a stand." You also mention that one of your motivations for writing criticism is that you still care. In the situation that you describe, how do you keep your personal sense of caring about art and culture alive?

JP: The love of art and literature and music is very deep in us. Caring about these things is just part of being alive -- at least that's how I see it. So although I can be bummed out by a lot of what I see, the appetite is always there. Whenever I go to the galleries, whenever I go to a museum, I'm hoping I'm going to find something that satisfies this craving. And I do -- and I've written about those experiences in Magicians and Charlatans, not just the experiences with classics in the museums but also the experiences with contemporary art, like the DVDs of Jeremy Blake, about which I've written a long essay, included here. And then there's the challenge of explaining what I'm thinking and feeling; I find that challenge invigorating, even when the experiences are anything but upbeat.

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Jed Perl

JS: Clearly, you favor magicians over charlatans. Can you mention a few qualities that you feel consistently distinguish the works of the "magicians?"

JP: Magicians convince us that they've created a parallel universe -- with its own ambience and atmosphere and history and laws and legends. An artist creates an imaginative universe that is in many respects a reflection of the artist's personality and sensibility -- but also stands apart, that has a freestanding value.

JS: In your 2008 essay "Private Lives: The recession and the art world" you write that "Experience has taught me that every decade or so the art market gets weak in the knees, and when it roars back a few years later the picture palaces specializing in Warhol and other assorted idiocies are doing better than ever before." Do you see any indications that this cycle might be ready to end?

JP: Predicting the future is very difficult -- probably impossible. What has interested me in the past couple of years is the extent to which more and more people in the art world are talking about how fed up they are with our new Gilded Age. A few weeks ago, I published in The New Republic a very critical essay about Warholism and its adverse impact on the arts. I've been absolutely astonished at the depth and extent of the positive response. People I would never have dreamed of hearing from have been in touch and told me how much the essay means to them. So it seems we are at a moment when there's a lot of frustration with our market-driven art world. Where it will all lead, I can't say.

JS: Your 2002 essay on Gerhard Richter is very tough: you call him a "bullshit artist masquerading as a painter." Given that Richter is currently a market darling, have you taken heat for that statement?

JP: I've never worried about "what people think." I began writing out of a passion for art -- and out of a desire to get into prints ideas that were not in general circulation. My friends -- the people whose opinions really matter to me -- are artists and writers. I've always tried to be true to what I think -- and to more generally reflect the values and viewpoint of a community of artists and writers. I've been very lucky, in that I've found editors who support my work, often editors who are not by and large concerned with the visual arts. What has surprised me over the years, at least from time to time, is that I'll write something I think people will find absolutely outrageous -- off-the-wall -- but then it turns out that at least some people are glad I've said it. The Richter piece had that kind of impact.

Anyway, what exactly is a "market darling"? How do certain artists get that reputation? I sometimes suspect that even the people who are bidding up the prices at the auctions don't really know what they think about the work. They're just buying Warhol or Richter because their rich friends are buying it. And in some cases the main reason the museums are showing the stuff is because the trustees are major collectors. I don't think many people are really passionate about Warhol or Richter -- at least not the way artists I know are passionate about Giacometti or Morandi.

JS: "Ordinary Magic," in which you discuss the 2000 Metropolitan Chardin exhibition, comes across as one of the most heartfelt and inspired essays in your book. Is it fair to say that Chardin's ability to fuse the everyday with the extraordinary is something that few contemporary artists have managed to emulate?

JP: Different artists do different things. What Chardin did he did sublimely. But part of the glory of art is that it's as varied as human nature. And contemporary artists have their own qualities and characteristics. One of the great privileges I've had as a critic has been to write about the paintings Balthus did in his last decades when they were first exhibited. In Magicians and Charlatans I write about one of his last paintings -- a nude in a moonlit landscape -- and I do believe it's a work that adds something fresh and unique to the history art. There's always that possibility.

JS: What do you do when you aren't looking at art or writing about it?

JP: I read a great deal. Just walking around New York is something I enjoy enormously. I feel very lucky that I live in a city I find endlessly fascinating.

JS: What do you think that the situation of contemporary art -- which you indicate is driven by market forces and a desire for spectacle -- says about the times we live in?

JP: I'm a little wary about broad generalizations. Our period is a mixed bag. It's not all bad, not by any means. There are artists, writers, and curators who are doing serious work; I've written about some of what they're doing in "Magicians and Charlatans." Maybe the most important thing to remember is that we criticize because we care.

Margaret McCann: A Painter's Vision of Atlantic City

Painter Margaret McCann has a complicated mind. I found that out for myself earlier this year when I interviewed her via phone and email while writing a catalog for her recent exhibition "From Rome To Atlantic City." As Brett Baker pointed out when he interviewed McCann for Painter's Table Margaret has an "encyclopedic knowledge of the tradition of painting" and when I spoke to her it was clear that she is also interested in pop culture, Italian culture (she lived there for 8 years), film, politics, science.... well the list just goes on.

McCann's 2000 self-portrait, "Do I Dare," in which the artist sports a crazy coiffure that includes the Guggenheim Museum and the Statue of Liberty's crown, is her own way of humorously commenting on her busy mind's spiraling curiosity and tendency to fuse references.

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Margaret McCann, "Do I Dare," 2000, Oil on canvas, 53 x 23 inches

Getting to know Margaret and her paintings was Faustian: the more I learned the curious I became. In particular, as I wrote about her large three panel painting "What We Worry?" which is set on the boardwalk of Atlantic City -- re-imagined, re-configured and re-populated in Margaret's mind -- I began to wonder about the meanings and associations of the many pop culture characters she had included. "McCann has a mind like a tarot deck," I wrote in my essay, "jammed with meaningful characters that spill out onto her canvasses in eccentric troupes." In her personal vision of Atlantic City she uses these characters as a kind of "American 'commedia dell'arte' troupe" that together form a loving caricature of American culture.

I recently asked Margaret to tell me more about her paintings of Atlantic City and the characters that inhabit her personal boardwalk. I will let her take over from here on...  

Margaret McCann on her Atlantic City paintings and characters 

Atlantic City started as an idea, as the book "Boardwalk Empire" describes - the history of this improbable place is fascinating. It was the first working class vacation destination in the country, especially before air conditioning and air travel. It was also one of the first places that freed slaves could work in public -- rather than as private domestics -- in the service industry, although there was still discrimination, as the book "Boardwalk of Dreams" describes. Atlantic City didn't develop organically like most cities do, but was designed with streets named after states to attract tourists, so the Monopoly board is more literal than people realize. I've included Uncle Moneybags in several paintings, here as an infant:

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Margaret McCann, "Monopolized Still Life," 2011, Oil on canvas, 24x 24 inches 
 
Atlantic City is surreal, like a 3D collage, lots of contradictory things going on in a small space; hence I've painted the boardwalk in a cubistic Piranesi-prisonesque way. In Rome Piranesi's prints of monuments are everywhere, and for decades I've had students copy one of his crazy prisons: a great way to have them address measuring, texture, and atmospheric perspective. Over time Atlantic City became to me a kind of anti-Rome, all about levity and the ephemeral, so different from the gravity of the Eternal City. "Sphinx" expresses these kinds of contrasts; it was begun in Rome and finished in Portsmouth NH, where I added Las Vegas references, and then a few years later I wound up moving to Las Vegas' prototype, Atlantic City

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Margaret McCann, "Sphinx," 2006, Oil on canvas, 30 x 30 inches

Atlantic City was badly damaged by Sandy, but the aerial view initially shown on TV looked more devastated than it was; it already had an empty Antonioni-like quality, which the film "The King of Marvin Gardens" captures beautifully. The first time I visited as an adult, its north end (where I wound up living) reminded me of Palermo; the view from my balcony resembled an early Boccioni self-portrait. But there is a lot of humor too. I regularly encounter R. Crumb-like scenes: a singing bartender, a dangling nose earring, a policeman talking to people waiting for the bus about his pedicure treatments, etc. The fisherman in "Fishing Hole" is modified from an R. Crumb calendar.

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Margaret McCann, "Fishing Hole," 2007, Oil on canvas, 40 x 40 inches

I've painted giants and myself as a giant in my 'headworks' series, so painting myself diminutively in size and age, playing the jester, is a look through the other end of the telescope. My favorite insertion of a miniature self-portrait is seated at the bar in Ballys "Mountain Bar," drinking coffee and perusing a Cezanne painting of Mont Sainte Victoire; I might have actually done that if the gambling tablets on the counter wouldn't have been in the way.

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Margaret McCann, "Mountain Bar," 2009, Oil on linen, 40 x 50 inches

I started painting myself as a convict several years ago. I thought it was funny not just because of the image, and puns regarding artistic conviction, but formally - it spoofs concentric drawing technique, and simplifies planar structure enjoyably. The strong value contrasts automatically engage the picture plane as well - that's why these zany outfits are used; they're anti-camouflage, visually pop forward.

In "What We Worry?" Dumbo flies between a money sign from the casino below and some money trees growing out of the planks of the Boardwalk. To the right is the always-exuberant Rat Fink, another childhood fixture, riding a skateboard and carrying a surfboard - people do that searching for waves along the boardwalk (though now since so much sand was added to the beach around the Garden Pier some surfing spots like "Crystals" may be defunct).

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Margaret McCann, "What We Worry?" 2009, Oil on linen, 40 x 90 inches

Seeing Dumbo on the Walt Disney TV show, I recall being mesmerized by the psychodrama, magic, and especially the flying scenes, and how fantastically tall the tree Dumbo flew up to was. I found a copy of the book in grad school and used that extreme space in my "Self-Portrait as St. Sebastian," which by the way is in storage in Atlantic City now. The storage facility is very futuristic looking, adjacent to the wind turbines but right off the part of the Whitehorse Pike torn apart by Sandy: I still have check if my stuff survived. I put a kite in Dumbo's trunk instead of a feather.

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L to R: Betty Page, Dumbo and Ratfink, a detail of "What We Worry?"

That's Betty Page (though doesn't look much like her) diving off a high board into a small pool - inspired by another iconic childhood cartoon image, though it also references Atlantic City's famed "diving horse. Recently a club opened by that name with a sharp-looking diver graphic, but they eventually replaced it with the usual photographic close-up sign of dancing girls - I guess they had to make it more lowbrow for business reasons.

When I lived there it was awkward to occasionally pass prostitutes on the street, not in bad neighborhoods but near the corner store - do you acknowledge them? Obviously the injustice of it is disturbing - should you try to save them? Atlantic City is friendly, and it would have been rude to look away. I put Marilyn in the background with her dress blown up by the wave, not realizing the danger but also playing to the ocean, as most of the marquees along the boardwalk seem to - and a rainbow threading its way through the entire image, partly to hold it together.

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The Fisherman and the Lobster, a detail of "What We Worry?"

I bought the fisherman statuette at a drug store; I was struck by his elegant stillness, and amused by his indeterminate ethnicity - he looks spray-tanned. He has a "can of worms" (another corny pun). It was hard to get the foreground to work in this painting because so much of it contains the deeper space of the subterranean casino. I finally resolved it by adding the billboard with a seagull on it, which pulls out front.

I love cheap but well-sculpted figurines. The really bizarre ones - like a Dalmatian in a pink bikini sitting on a garbage can and drinking a beer, it might be a cell-phone holder - can make your head spin...who in what country thought this would be the kind of product an American would buy for 99 cents, and how did they conclude that? How many were produced and at what cost? What a crazy world.

The Lobsterman is from a photo I took of someone handing out flyers for a restaurant near the Pier Mall on the boardwalk - we joked around in a "mime" kind of way. In front of him a giant riches-filled paperweight is being lowered into the fisherman's boat. I've been interested in scale dislocations since living in Rome, especially from teaching a class called "Drawing Monuments" for Trinity College - we'd draw Constantine's giant foot off of Michelangelo's Campidoglio, which as an American reminded me of Claus Oldenburg before it made me think of the history of the personage it belonged to. You become very aware of your postmodern reactions when you spend a long time in a culture possessing a deep history.
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Alfred E. Neumann, a detail of  "What We Worry?"

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SpongeBob, a detail of "What We Worry?"

Regarding Alfred and Bob...what can I say about them that hasn't already been said in a thousand pop songs? The insanity of their optimism is apparent even to a child; both engage childhood's initial awareness of irony. Alfred is on a soapbox competing with a Teletubby for an audience. I've seen odd side shows on the boardwalk - not like the high quality shows you see on the street in NYC, more like some subway performers in their lack of polish.

The difference is it's easy to see the financial need of performers in the subway, but on the sunny stage of the boardwalk it looks more like performance art, especially when they're very low-key. A regular fixture is a woman who sings gospel songs out of tune but very passionately; she's not looking for money but will grasp your hand and say a prayer for you if you address her. SpongeBob is sitting near a trash can, money trees ready to be planted, and a psychic's placard; it's amusing to see psychics sitting in front of their kiosks talking on cell phones.

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The Shark, The Piggybank and the Old Lady, a detail of "What We Worry?"

I found the shark toy at Goodwill and have gotten a lot of mileage out of it, one of those things that are always fun to paint. There's a tiny jumping-off platform in front of it, a piggybank with a dumb look on its face on the boardwalk behind, and a foxy old lady with blue hair in platform shoes strutting her stuff in front (the actual statuette is amazing). When I first moved to AC the vulgarity was striking and pathetic, especially old people playing slots. But after a while I could understand why seniors would be drawn to it: casinos are friendly, colorful places with cheerfully chiming machines, where they can move around freely and safely - though many "Q-tips" scoot around not just inside the casinos and on the boardwalk, but all over town, obviously feeling very much at home.

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The Convict: Detail of Margaret McCann's "What We Worry?"

There on the right I'm doing a flip - if I would I could - near a smiling Buddha holding a die, and an abandoned lifeguard chair; s/he presumably fled at the sight of the oncoming tsunami, but I don't seem concerned - like Alfred says, "What we worry?"

Seven Questions for Painter Lisa Breslow

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Lisa Breslow
 
At Kathryn Markel Fine Arts, painter Lisa Breslow is currently exhibiting a dozen paintings of New York City. Breslow's panels, which favor atmosphere over specificity, are about the artist's genuine affection for the city she lives in and also represent a painterly exploration of the balance between representation and abstraction. They are intimate visions, to be appreciated slowly, that meditate on the situation of human beings in an urban environment. I recently asked Lisa a series of questions about her training, her work, and her artistic intentions.

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Lisa Breslow, Bow Bridge, Twilight, 2012, Oil and pencil on panel, 20 x 50 inches
 
Seven Questions for Lisa Breslow:  

JS: Tell me something about your training and your influences.  

LB: My father was a portrait painter who encouraged me from childhood to become an artist, so I knew very early on that I wanted to pursue this. Growing up in suburban Long Island, the walls of our home were filled with artwork. His paintings came out of a humanist tradition, and Rembrandt was revered above all. I started out drawing and painting the figure, and continued to focus on this at the Art Students League, where I studied with Will Barnet, Isaac Sawyer, and others. Figures were central to my work until I visited Fire Island in my early 20s and fell in love with the landscape. It touched me in a profound way and pulled me in a whole new direction. I became a landscape painter.

Over time, other major influences (short list) include Rothko, Avery, Morandi, Turner, Inness and the American Tonalists, 17th century Dutch landscape painters, Matisse, Porter, Diebenkorn.

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Lisa Breslow, West Village, Greenwich Street, 2012, Oil and pencil on panel, 24 x 24 inches
 
JS: Over time your paintings have evolved from tonalist landscapes to more clearly defined urban scenes. Tell me something about how and why that change has taken place.  

LB: About 8 years ago, I was invited to participate in a gallery group show in which the theme was New York City. Although I had been living in the city my whole adult life, I had never painted an urban landscape. Central Park Lake provided a setting where I could combine natural landscape with geometric architecture. I was especially drawn to the reflections in the water at different times of day. It was a magical discovery for me: it was as if I were seeing it all for the first time. From that point on, the city became my subject. I subsequently ventured into painting actual street scenes, with their inherently more complex compositions and structures. As in my earlier landscapes, these are places which touch me in some way, evoking an emotional or psychological response.

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Lisa Breslow, Central Park Lake 2, 2012, Oil and pencil on panel, 16 x 12 inches
 
JS: How do representation and a tendency towards abstraction find their balance in your work?  

LB: I'm always searching for the perfect balance between the two. In creating the urban scenes, my photographs enable me to capture a specific moment in time, and serve as studies. The painting that follows is very much about a real place and a real environment. It is equally about paring the subject down to its visual essence, a visceral, intuitive process of working and reworking the surface, and losing oneself in the paint. I constantly rotate the painting to free up my vision and open up fresh perspectives. When the painting speaks to me on both levels, I know it is complete.

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Lisa Breslow, From the High Line, 2012, Oil and pencil on panel, 24 x 24 inches
 
JS: Do you have strong feelings about New York City that infuse your depictions of it?

LB: Since I began painting Central Park, my experience and appreciation of the city has deepened. Many of my new paintings depict places from my day-to-day life, street scenes or locales that I walk past at different times, and in varying light. The beauty is there to see, in the reflections which animate a deserted street in Long Island City, or trees making a graceful arch over a West Village street on a snowy day. Once in the habit of seeking out natural beauty in places far from the urban jungle, I now have a world of possibilities at my doorstep. I feel a stronger affinity with people I encounter in the city, and more connected to humanity as a whole.

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Lisa Breslow, Jefferson Market Library, 2012, Oil and pencil on panel, 24 x 24 inches
 
JS: How important are sensations of temperature and weather in your work?  

LB: They are ever-present. One of the great things about NY is the changing seasons, and how each is such a unique visual experience.

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Lisa Breslow, Central Park Lake 3, 2012, Oil and pencil on panel, 16 x 12 inches
 
JS: Figures play a very minor role in your recent paintings. Do you think that might change in the future?  

LB: The figures are incidental in one way, but also significant. Like street signs, they play a role as abstract compositional elements, but for me they can represent something else as well. They are observers and participants within the painting whom I, as the viewer, can identify with.

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Lisa Breslow, High Line, 2012, Oil and pencil on panel, 24 x 24 inches
 
JS: As you look over your current exhibition at Kathryn Markel Fine Arts how do you feel about your own work?  

LB: I look at this exhibition, and feel excited. It all comes back to your earlier question about balancing representation and abstraction. It's an ever-constant challenge, and I met that to some extent, while still expressing my love for NYC.

Lisa Breslow: Recent Paintings
Kathryn Markel Fine Arts
www.markelfinearts.com
November 15 - December 15, 2012
529 West 20th, Suite 6W
New York, New York, 10011
T 212.366.5368

For Sir Ken Robinson: Art Making in the Age of Mouse Clicking



There is so much to like about Sir Ken Robinson's TED talk -- Do schools kill Creativity -- that I hardly know where to start. That said, here is a single sentence from his TED talk that deserves affirmation and discussion:

"We think visually, we think in sound, we think kinesthetically," Sir Ken points out while discussing different types of intelligence.

 I give a particularly high value to kinesthetic thinking. As I have come to understand after teaching studio art for over 25 years, the connections between our minds, our senses and our physical bodies need to be constantly tested, developed and refreshed to help us reach our intellectual and creative potential.

As a painter and a painting teacher I am constantly impressed with the power of the kinesthetic learning that goes with art making. I also worry that this type of learning is being undermined by our increasing embrace of technology and electronic devices. There is a reason that every graphic software has "brush" tools: it is because technology is trying very, very hard to emulate the subtlety of expression that only a physical brush applied a human hand to actual materials can truly offer.

Technology offers striking and obvious educational and intellectual benefits, and using it does have kinesthetic aspects. Children across the globe are indeed becoming highly proficient in aiming cursors, clicking mice, and touching screens, and they sometimes do these things while receiving an education of one sort or another. Students are also keyboarding and that is kinesthetic too: experts say that keyboarding develops "perceptual motor skills." Of course, from my perspective, the skills practiced in the utilization of technology are just a fraction of the skills that need to be practiced. They pale in relation to the subtle kinesthetic skills used in traditional art making.

If you are a digital artist or animator, or if you love Pixar movies I probably just offended you. Without getting too off topic, let me just say that I am moved and amazed by what can be done on a computer, but I think that Rembrandt had skills -- especially kinesthetic skills -- that today's most accomplished digital artists would and do envy.

 I wonder how the learning that goes with clicking and keyboarding compares to the learning that has gone on for thousands of years as children learned to write with pens and brushes. In learning penmanship and its more refined cousin calligraphy children had to develop dexterity that demanded a subtle and complete mind-body-hand connection that is no longer required. There is a reason that the ancient Chinese felt that an educated individual should master the rendering of poetry and images using a brush and ink: doing so took the development of the mind-body connection to its fullest potential.

When students learn to draw, paint or sculpt they are engaging in very challenging forms of kinesthetic learning. Yes, some have an easier time than others, but the arts offer an infinite set of challenges even for the naturally gifted. The problems posed by drawing a human hand or painting a tree with oil paint are enormous and there isn't a student in the world who won't benefit from holding a pencil or brush and struggling to render those familiar things. I know that outside my classroom many of my students are Zen masters when it comes to handling an Xbox controller, but those same students will falter when they have to hold their brush steady and add the right degree of shading to the nose on an oil portrait.

By the way, I haven't missed the fact that touch screens and tablets have made something very close to drawing and painting possible with digital tools. I am happy about those developments, and my daughters love to borrow my iPad and draw animals with the Zen brush app. Of course, even if technology is allowing increasing subtle kinesthetic learning, it is simply giving us new tools. There will never be better tools than pencils, sticks of charcoal, brushes and oil paints: there will just be newer and different tools.

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Where I teach -- at a California Community College -- I spend every Friday watching beginning painters learn to paint. As the semester goes on the room gets quieter and quieter as my students become more confident in what they can accomplish. It is a process that takes time, partly because so many faculties are being engaged and made to work together. To make a successful painting each student has to form a vision, and that vision comes both from what they see in the outside world and what they can conjure in their mind's eye. That vision has to travel from the eyes, through the mind, down the arm to the hand. In the hand, the mind reaches into the world of the canvas through the sense of touch. When you see a finished work of art you should always recognize that you are seeing the endpoint of a unique journey.

 Making works of art is, and always has been, a way of challenging and stimulating creativity. Of course many Postmodern works of art come more from the intellect than from the body and that worries me. When artist friends tell me that my ideas about art are conservative, I remind them that Ai Weiwei is my favorite Postmodern artist, and that he learned to write with a brush and then was trained as a painter. He had to right tools to develop into a shrewd, subtle and imaginative thinker, and I would argue that his experiences with brushes made him a more potent Postmodern artist.

Works of art that come primarily from the intellect have their place, but creating them is not necessarily rich in kinesthethic terms. A huge number of artworks in the future will be made with digital tools, but I hope that there will be a continued respect for traditional tools as well. With that in mind our department has recently applied for a grant to set up a traditional "Atelier" or workshop style classroom where incoming art students can learn and practice hands-on skills while working with an accomplished master artist.

Is there, or will there ever be, a better way of bringing together seeing, feeling, and imagining and connecting those things to the body, than through the physical act of making a work of art using tools that have been around for centuries? I say "no." In a consumer society where less and less of us are making things with our hands, the act of making a physical work of art with traditional tools is not only creative but verges on being counter-cultural.

When the connection between the hand and the mind isn't developed completely I believe something extremely precious is lost. When that connection is developed something extraordinary is gained. What exactly is that thing? Let's let the next generation tell us what it is in their terms. If we make sure that they have brushes, charcoal, pencils and clay they will tell us things they couldn't possibly say with the click of a mouse. I am optimistic that giving students old tools will result in their being able to create something completely new.

 It was his early mastery of the brush, and of representational painting, that launched Picasso's revolutionary creativity. There is a reason that Picasso was chosen to appear some years ago in one of Apple's iconic "Think Different" ads. Yes, let's give our schools computer labs and iPads. We just need to be sure that we don't shut down painting and drawing programs to pay for the equipment.

Alan Feltus at the Lux Art Institute

Normally, if you wanted to drop by the studio of painter Alan Feltus and see what he was up to you would need to fly to Italy. Feltus and his wife -- the painter Lani Irwin -- have lived for 25 years now in the hills behind the town of Assisi, just 20 minutes from the  Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi and its incomparable frescoes by Giotto, Cimabue, Pietro Lorenzetti and Simone Martini. However, during the month of November, Southern Californians have been dropping in to meet Alan and view a selection of his paintings during his residency at the Lux Art Institute in Encinitas, California, just north of San Diego.

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The Lux Art Institute
 
The Lux "Artist's Pavillion," a sleek five year old structure which hovers above a coastal canyon, includes a visiting artist's residence, a studio and an exhibition space. The Institute treats its resident artists very well. Alan Feltus arrived to find that foods he had requested on his shopping list -- which included Cafe Bustelo organic coffee, whole milk yogurt, granola and dried fruit -- had been stocked in his kitchen. In the studio he found Blue Ridge oil paints along with solvents, varnish, and brushes.

Feltus is a veteran representational artist known for his close-hued paintings of figures who carry an air of self-absorption tinged with melancholy. Remarkably, Feltus works without models, and for years has used mirrors, referring to himself as the starting point for the faces and bodies of both his male and female figures. Seeing his works together is just a bit uncanny: it's a bit like attending a Feltus family reunion. The upstairs exhibition area at the Lux has 14 Feltus originals on display -- a dozen oils and two drawings -- where they emanate burnished quietude and a hint of august strangeness.

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Two oils by Alan Feltus: "Mermaid's Story," 2003, and "Studio Days," 2004
On display at the Lux Artist's Pavillion
 
Feltus has set up a small studio area in the north corner of the gallery where he has been recreating a 1994 painting, "Angel of Santa Felicita," that was destroyed in a fire in a collector's home. As Feltus explains, his painting process is variable, and it isn't his intention to make a precise copy of the original.
I'm not making a duplicate of the lost painting, but a variation on that earlier painting. It has already changed a good bit in the last two weeks. I have to allow a painting to change and grow as I work on it. I want changes to take place from day to day, layer to layer. At first the changes are to locate things, which means to shift them around until the relationships between the parts (the objects or forms), and between those forms and the edges of the painting, are what I consider right. They have to take on a meaning in terms of the composition. They have to become right in my judgement.
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Alan Feltus' easel with his work in progress

His setup includes a selection of postcards that are there to provide inspiration and guidance. The early version of "Santa Felicita" is there under Francisco Zurbaran's "A Cup of Water and a Rose," along with a Hellenistic Venus, paintings by Balthus, Courbet, Gorky and others. Feltus moves easily between the classical and the contemporary, as his sources demonstrate.

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Alan Feltus' source images
 
During my visit, when I chatted with Feltus, or took in his work while he chatted with others, I was able to appreciate just what a remarkable situation the Lux Art Institute has created. Seeing him there among his works, engaging in conversation was like being in a Feltus painting. Having his studio, which would normally be private, in a public setting was also revealing and stimulating.

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Alan Feltus chats with visitors to his Lux exhibition
 
"I am guided by instinct as I watch what evolves on the canvas," Feltus explained in an email he sent after my visit. "Nothing is planned, anything can happen, but the changes that happen are within the context of my paintings over decades of painting this way. This is how most painters work. What unfolds is from within. In that sense it is personal."

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Alan Feltus, "The Best of Times," 2007, Oil on canvas, 47 1/4 x 39 1/4 inches
 
At the Lux Institute, Alan Feltus has allowed this personal artistic process to become public and transparent. If you live within driving distance, you should see it for yourself.

***
Alan Feltus will be in residency at the Lux Art Institute through December 1, 2012
His works will remain on display through December 29, 2012

David Lenz: The Egalitarian Realist

When David Lenz, a realist painter born and based in Wisconsin, was given the chance to create a portrait for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. he had to consider a limitation that challenged his egalitarian tendencies. The NPG's charter clearly states that it is to collect portraits "depicting men and women who have made significant contributions to the history, development and culture of the people of the United States." For Lenz, who has built his singular reputation by portraying the common folk of Wisconsin, the idea of celebrating an individual who was already a known figure went slightly against his grain.

Ultimately, Lenz tried to convince the officials of their gallery to enlarge their definition. "Everyone is important," he argued, and the compromise that followed -- he would paint a portrait of Eunice Kennedy Shriver accompanied by five Special Olympians -- resulted in an unforgettable painting: "Rare Halo Display: A Portrait of Eunice Kennedy Shriver." Brandon Fortune, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery who has looked hard at "Rare Halo" has this to say about Lenz's capabilities: "He (David) has a clear vision of what his paintings will be and how they carry meaning. Also, he is a consummate master of his materials."

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Eunice Kennedy Shriver / David Lenz, 2009 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Commissioned as part of the First Prize, Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition 2006
Oil on linen, 36 x 70 inches

One of the themes of the completed canvas is that life's apparent limits can dissolve in the presence of personal heroism and divine oversight. Transcending expectations is a recurring theme of  Lenz's portraits and also a theme of his life. Acutely sensitive to life's problems and possibilities, Lenz is a realist -- as a man and as an artist -- but also a visionary who carries an innate sense of overarching justice.

Lenz grew up in family that was deeply involved in art. His grandfather Nic Lenz was a painter and illustrator and illustrator, and his father Tom -- now a private art dealer -- ran the Lenz Gallery on West Pittsburgh Street in Milwaukee. "There was wonderful American art around," David recalls. "My father had a Norman Rockwell at one point, and I also remember him coming home with four large paintings of animals by Carl Rungius."

Inspired by the art in his home, and by visits to his grandfather's studio -- he still remembers the smell of gum spirits -- Lenz decided by the age of 10 that he would be an artist. He had an early success, winning the "Kiddie Corner Art Contest" offered by a local newspaper and winning the first prize of a $10 savings account at First Wisconsin Bank.

As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee in the early 80s Lenz majored in Visual Communication -- Illustration and Graphic Design -- when he realized that there was a "big divide" in the art department after being juried out of a student art competition. "Doing representational paintings made me an odd duck," Lenz notes, "doing something that was considered passé and out of date."

After graduating Lenz spent four years as an art director and then made the risky decision to become a full-time fine artist. Initially he painted landscapes, set in both Wisconsin and Canada, which have a luminosity reminiscent of Hudson River School paintings. After moving to the east side of Milwaukee the human figure became central to his practice as Lenz painted a number of children set in their urban environments. As these pictures developed, Lenz's ability to empathize with his subjects while also portraying them with unflinching realism became increasingly apparent.

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David Lenz, "Hooded Boy," 1998, oil on linen, 19 x 20 inches

In 1997 Lenz and his wife Rosemarie Feiza-Lenz welcomed their son Sam into the world. Sam, who was born with Down syndrome, was the subject of "a few small paintings" as a child, but between 2000 and 2005 Lenz was mainly occupied with a series of paintings of dairy farmers Ervin and Mercedes Wagner. In terms of style, subject matter and setting these paintings are about as far from "New York" as possible, reinforcing Lenz's commitment to painting people and places that he feelings a direct connection with, and also his lack of interest in art world trends.

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David M. Lenz, "Thistles," 2001, oil on linen, 32 x 54 inches

After seeing an announcement in ArtNews for a National Portrait Gallery competition Lenz realized that it was time to paint his son Sam. Lenz dedicated an entire summer to executing the painting, a risky move for a family man whose sole income has always come from his art and who has never been represented by an art dealer. "I'd actually grown discouraged from entering art contests," Lenz later told a reporter. "Realism has been out of fashion my entire career."

When he picked up his brushes in May of 2005 Lenz started by asking himself a question: "What should this portrait be?" As the answers took shape, so did the canvas. "What kind of background could describe his place in the world, " Lenz pondered, " and who he is in this place?" The answer to those questions is described by a metaphorical setting, as Lenz explains:
We own a little piece of land -- near Wagner's farm -- where we pitched a tent and got married on the land. It is a pastoral landscape that serves in the painting as metaphor for Sam's place in the world. The trees have been cut down and the land has been manipulated for farming. In a sense, it is an alteration of the Garden of Eden -- as given by God -- that has been made useful for man. Because of the 'perfection' we prefer -- suburban laws trimmed and sprayed with pesticides, shiny cars with no spots -- we have damaged nature.
If the re-shaped landscape of the farmland is a metaphor for the situation of the environment, the barbed wire fence behind Sam -- another man-made element -- is a metaphor for discrimination. "Sam will never fit the definition of what society considers perfect," notes his father. "He will always be his own person, and what is offered by the landscape beyond the fence will always be difficult to reach. "

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David Lenz, "Sam and the Perfect World," 2005, oil on linen, 44 x 46 inches

In the finished portrait eight year old Sam peers inquisitively forward while a haloed sun appears over his shoulder. Lenz painted the halo as a "big wonderful graphic element" and also to add a hint of the divine. "I've always loved the idea of halos -- it came from Hudson River paintings -- as a metaphor for God looking down on the earth. The halo reinforces that idea; 'God is looking down on this world. And we can wonder: what does He think of all of this?'"

In June of 2006 "Sam and the Perfect World" was awarded first prize in the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, beating out nearly 4,000 other entries. David Lenz received a $25,000 cash prize and also the commission to paint a "remarkable American" that would result in the Shriver portrait. In a sense, "Rare Halo Display: A Portrait of Eunice Kennedy Shriver" continues and extends some of the themes of Sam's portrait.

Painting portraits of people with intellectual disabilities has become what Lenz thinks of as the "third leg of the stool" in terms of his subject matter, and the fact that Sam has participated in the Special Olympics made Eunice Shriver -- the program's founder -- an appealing subject for his commission. "I went to meet Shriver in 2007," says Lenz, " and we spoke for about 45 minutes. She wasn't particularly interested in being in the spotlight, but the idea of sharing it with five Special Olympic athletes seemed natural to her. " As he considered Shriver's life and achievements, Lenz found a great deal to admire.
She worked for five decades to improve the life of people with disabilities and had started when nobody else was talking about it. After her sister Rosemary, who had a mild intellectual disability, went through a lobotomy that left her incapacitated, Eunice pushed the family to talk about her sister. She wrote an article in the Saturday Evening Post, which made her sister's condition public knowledge. And she started a civil rights movement on behave of all people with intellectual disabilities.
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Detail: "Rare Halo Display: A Portrait of Eunice Kennedy Shriver"

For the setting of his painting, Lenz depicted Shriver on the beach near her Cape Cod, Massachusetts home. She is joined by four Special Olympics athletes and a Best Buddies Ambassador: Airika Straka of Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, Katie Meade of Des Moines, Iowa; Andy Leonard of Reynoldsburg, Ohio, Loretta Claiborne of York, Pennsylvania and Marty Sheets of Greensboro, North Carolina. Behind them, the sun is setting and a halo similar to the one which appeared in the portrait of Sam appears. As Lenz explains: "If you look carefully you will see two bright dots -- sun dogs -- and a pillar of light. When you connect those there is a cross in the sky. It is there as a metaphor for Shriver's life and work."

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Detail: "Rare Halo Display: A Portrait of Eunice Kennedy Shriver"

Of course, the painting isn't just about Shriver: it is also about those who she helped lift up. Speaking about the individuals who join Shriver in the painting Lenz notes that "They would never normally make it onto the wall of the National Portrait Gallery. But, after the unveiling there were so many inquiries about them that a secondary label was added."

"There they are," Lenz says with pride, "as big as life." Since the painting is a tribute to the vitality and humanity of subjects, making them "larger than life" wasn't necessary. Lenz realized that they were already perfect, and just painted what he saw.

Kim Frohsin: Portraits of Numbers and The White Dahlia Series

It's a good thing that the Paul Thiebaud Gallery in San Francisco has two floors. Kim Frohsin, whose work will be on view there through December 22nd is currently taking advantage of both levels to present dual shows that she sees as "totally separate." Together, they form a striking essay in aesthetic agility.

On the gallery's first floor is a grouping of vivid, stripe-infused images of numerals, executed in mixed media: Portraits of Numbers: 2011-2012. On the second floor is The White Dahlia Series, a selection of 96 life drawings that Frohsin made of female models who were asked to pose with a "noir" theme in mind: death. As a tribute, and a kind of coda, there is also third small show also on view featuring selected photographs by the late Philomena Ryan, who documented Froshin at work with her models during the creation of The White Dahlia Series. Something about working twin artistic tracks, which Frohsin has done now for over a year, stokes her creative fires. "Last year in the studio was great," she says, "I worked at full force... didn't even get a cold."

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Kim Frohsin, "#80: A Nautical Woman," 2012
Acrylic, ink, gouache, dry pigment and pencil on archival board, 22 x 22 inches
 
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 Kim Frohsin: Drawings from the White Dahlia Series

Frohsin's number series came about as the result of an invitation. Asked to prepare for a 2012 "Portrait Show" at Fort Mason, Frohsin balked at the idea of portraits of people: "I wanted to make portraits of ideas," she recalls. Frohsin began with a portrait of her favorite number -- 21 -- and the series took off from there in non-sequential fashion. When developing the number paintings Frohsin generally has an association or personal connection in mind. For example, she thinks of 21 as being "somehow black and white perfect: it gives me comfort."


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Kim Frohsin, "#21 and Stripes," 2011
Heavy acrylic, ink, pencils , 24kt gold leaf, dry pigment on archival mat board, 22 x 22 inches

Other numbers, 27 for example, started out free of associations, but took on meanings over time. "I randomly chose 27," Frohsin notes, "It seemed to go nowhere. Then I went to Wikipedia: I never knew about the 27 club -- which is made up of popular musicians including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain, who all died at age 27 -- it changed the course of the piece. It all turned white.... I whited out everything and left floral veins of blue... that's the only color that came through."

Something similar happened when Frohsin took on the number 80. "Well," she recalls, "the font is something I took from a photo I shot of a Deco building in the Marina district. Then the palette made me think of water and the 0 is like a porthole: thus the "nautical" aspect. Then, if you look up meanings of the number 80 your will find it is a feminine number. So, voilà: #80 is A Nautical Woman."

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Kim Frohsin, "27 Club," 2011
Acrylic and mixed media on archival mat board, 22 x 22 inches
 
Whether a number begins with a "personal encrypted reason," as 21 did, or takes on associations later as 27 did, the random mix of ideas and poetry gives her the fuel to bring the work to its physical realization. "All these numbers are super layered," Frohsin observes. "I use power tools to build up and sand down the layers. I hardly ever use paintbrushes, but instead use palette knives, razor blades, tape, and dry pigment as "seasoning."

The White Dahlia Series came about after Frohsin was struck by a theme that she wanted to work with: death and crime. In a sense, the drawings that resulted have an aspect of collaboration and performance: "Not your usual figure drawing session..." is how Frohsin puts it. As she worked with female models who struck seven minute poses on an all white stage, the artist asked the models to imagine death and gravity. "How they felt, how they fell, how they abandoned themselves, how they let go... it was a special challenge."

Frohsin's models had very vivid reactions to her requests and to the emotional suggestions of the poses they created in response. "Taking on such poses," one of them told her after a session, "simulating death: it all makes me wonder what my own final death pose shall be, you know?" As Frohsin has written:
"Many of the models related to me that in taking on these 'death poses' their minds lead them to dear ones in their respective lives who have passed; they felt transported and saw the 'work' as a sort of therapy to evoke deep/buried memories & recollections of family or past loves and the broader, abstract aspects of being."
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A group of drawings from The White Dahlia Series
 
Some of the drawings have hints of eroticism, which Frohsin says came directly from the models: "That wasn't my prompting." Although Frohsin acknowledges that an erotic charge may be present, she is more interested in the spiritual and ethereal aspects that came through. She is hoping it will appear "as if these women/bodies, found in my lines, present as transcendent, angelic entities: anonymous 'white figures' floating in space and time."

The two approaches on view at the Thiebaud Gallery may seem divergent, but they share Frohsin's energetic willingness to explore new artistic territory. "I have been pigeon-holded as a Bay Area Figurative," Frohsin relates with some annoyance, "but I don't want just that label. I have to use my drawing skills, and also keep pressing forward in other media. For example, since June I have been exploring the world of experimental pinhole photography...with a little bit of Baldessari as an influence. That's how I roll."

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Kim Frohsin: Pinhole Self-Portraits, 2012

 
Kim Frohsin
Portraits of Numbers: 2011-2012
The White Dahlia Series: 2011
Paul Thiebaud Gallery
645 Chestnut Street
San Francisco, CA 94133
Opening Reception: Saturday, November 3, 4 to 6