In Memoriam: Conrad Mecheski (1968-2014)

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Picasso and Conrad Mecheski in Barcelona
 
"Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist"

- Ralph Waldo Emerson


Conrad Mecheski, who passed away in early May from cancer, was an artist who had a very pure sense of the role that art should play in his life.

Born in Northern Ireland, Conrad attended high school in Vienna, Austria and then studied at the Art Institute of Boston. After 1991 he spent a number of years in the Kensington neighborhood of San Diego, living simply in a small apartment filled with paintings and exhibiting his vividly colored canvasses at local galleries. More recently he had moved to Florida where he faced his final illness.

Although his work was most often called Expressionist, Mecheski was very much an individual, and the appearance of his work varied considerably over time. At one point Mecheski had wanted to be a writer, and his art often incorporated written commentaries. His imagery wandered freely between art historical references, fantasy and reality. Mecheski's work had a wide emotional range: it could be sentimental, erotic, angry, inventive, lovely or flat-out silly. He worked in a variety of media including drawing, painting on paper and canvas, and iPad. He also made polychromed sculptures and loopy pen doodles.

"When he woke up in the morning he had nothing in mind," explains his wife Mia Aguilar. "He would have his banana, set up and put paint on paper. He had no preconceived notions about how the painting would unfold." One of Mecheski's short artist's statements also emphasizes his dedication to art as a form of exploration:
Many people have given me advice and have tried to fix me. It is difficult for a human to just be. That is what I can try to do. Just be. We don't need to give each other anything. To just be with each other is enough. There is peace in that. We don't know what will happen, we never have known. That is why I love to paint so much, because I love the mystery of not knowing the outcome of the painting. I don't know the outcome of my life. Never did, never will. It remains a mystery. It is exciting up to the end.
Mecheski was in many ways a rather private man who preferred to be in touch with a few close friends, but the paintings he posted on Facebook in his last months were in essence public statements that allowed a wider group of friends and acquaintances into his life. Along with posting paintings he also posted his personal musings:
To be misunderstood is fantastic. There was a time when I painted to be understood. Then I realized it was limited. This is not something i try to do. It happens, It's misunderstood.
Although most of the paintings Mecheski created during his hospitalization were imaginative fantasies filled with invented characters, one of his final paintings included all the members of his immediate family.

Mia and Conrad married on May 2, the day before he passed away.

Beauty Fierce as Stars*, Groundbreaking Women Painters 1950s and Beyond at Mythos Fine Art & Artifacts

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Ursula O'Farrell, "Reunion (Seascape)," 20" x 30,"oil on wood
 
At Mythos Fine Art & Artifacts in Berkeley, co-curators Karen Zullo Sherr and Sue Steel are presenting the first of two exhibitions showcasing the works of women painters who were active in the Bay Area art scene of the 1950s. It is their hope to bring forward the achievements of women who were often "behind the scenes" in an era largely dominated by men. The show also includes the works of notable women artists who followed in subsequent generations.

I recently interviewed Karen Zullo Sherr and Sue Steel and asked them about the genesis of the exhibition, and what they have learned as its curators.

Can you tell me: how did this show come about? 

Karen: Our last show in January was about the Beat Era, Rebels, Hipsters and Visionaries, Bay Area Poets and Artists 1950's and 60's. We were surprised that there were so few women represented in the work we managed to gather for the show. We also looked at a film about the period and the women were presented as wives, girlfriends and helpers, behind the scenes.

During the events for our show we presented a few films by Mary Kerr, who highlighted a number of women -- besides Joan Brown and Jay De Feo -- working during the period, and we glimpsed some beautiful lyrical painterly abstraction -- the kind of work both of us love -- and so the idea of for the show grew and we decided to track these and other women down.

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Mary Kerr, Sue Steel, Karen Zullo Sherr 
 
I am a painter and knew some local women who had influenced me, and Sue knew some too. We also got a lot of help from Deanna Forbes, a strong figurative artist of the period -- included in the show -- who put together a list for us of women to investigate. We started to collect so much work, that we have planned a second part of the show to open in September.

Sue: Another key woman painter, Ariel (Parkinson), who painted during the period, was the inspiration for the original, Mythos Fine Art and Artifacts Gallery. When I first encountered her work, I thought I'd been hit by a force of nature. I started my gallery to showcase her powerful original work.

Eventually Mythos Gallery in its various incarnations began to concentrate on painters and poets of the "San Francisco Renaissance" of the 1950s and 60s (with the help of the Jess Collins Trust and Christopher Wagstaff). There were a few women: Mary Fabilli, Lyn Brockway and Madeline Gleason, who surfaced, but the painters recognized today are largely men. This show is for me a continuation of my interest in the spirit and vitality of these times in the Bay Area, both in painting and poetry.

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Lyn Brockway, "Wild Flowere", 1962, oil crayon on board, 31" x 37," Private Collection
 
Why were there not more women from the 50s and 60s who became well known?

Karen: There were a lot of constraints on women because of the culture of the 50s. And so I think their were not many opportunities for them to show their work and gain exposure and then experience all the give and take that comes with that process. It was hard for them to be taken seriously and also to present themselves as serious artists.

We will be showing a couple of films of New York artists Grace Hartigan and Joan Mitchell, and although prominent now, they struggled to be shown and considered as good as the men. They talk about it eloquently in these films.

One of the artists we visited to pick up work was married to a very well known painter of the period and said "I don't want to complain, never want to complain about what happened to me." She was talking about feeling overlooked at the time. But it is still hard for people who were raised during that time period to confront that.

Sue: Some of the women artists, remained in the background because they believed that was their role and some discontinued their careers to raise families, such as Lyn Brockway.

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Adelie Landis Bischoff, "Orange Abstraction", oil stick on canvas board, 16" x 20"
 
Are there any discoveries?

Karen: I would not use the word discoveries because most of the women in the show have exhibited their work over the years quite a lot. But in terms of a few women I had never even heard about we are very impressed with the rich abstractions of both Ann Morency and Lynn Faus. I had known Bernice Bing (Bingo), so I was aware of her work, and the examples we have in the show are light-filled and radiant. After her death supporters have campaigned to have her work viewed more widely and that should continue.

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Bernice Bing, "Mayacamas No. 3", 1963, oil on canvas, 35" x 33"
 
Although in the end we were unable to include a painting of Mary Lovelace O'Neal -- she did not have one available that fit and hope to get one for the second show -- I think her work has not gotten enough attention. Sue and I both loved the work of several women, who continue to paint in a figurative and abstract expressive way and admire greatly the brave, risk taking painting of Lisa Esherick, and younger painters Lin Fischer and Ursulla O'Farrell.

A personal discovery of mine I guess is the work of Adelie Landis. I have know of her of course, but seeing more of her work I see how strong her old and her newer abstract is and we hope to show more of her work. We also want to show more of June Felter's more typical work in the next show.

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Lisa Esherick, "Poker--Stuttgart," 2001, acrylic & latex on paper, 27.5" x 39.25" 
 
Tell me about the response to the show.

Karen: We have been pleased with the response. After we got it hung and had a chance to relax we thought the show beautiful and very rich. That is the response we are getting from viewers too, both from people who know about the period and others too who are not aware of the history. Many people have commented on the brilliant color and strong emotional impact of these highly charged paintings and say that the current art scene rarely seems to yield such intense passionate work.

Sue: We feel heartened to bring back together several generations of women painters, many of whom were colleagues at the San Francisco Art Institute, to celebrate their work and bring them more recognition for their wonderful creations and to encourage an interest in a fascinating explosive period of art, which continues to influence young painters today.

* * *
Beauty Fierce as Stars*, Groundbreaking Women Painters 1950s and Beyond

Featured Artists: Ariel, Bernice Bing, Adelie Landis Bischoff, Nell Blaine, Lyn Brockway, Lisa Esherick, Mary Fabilli, Lynn Faus, June Felter, Lilly Fenichel, Lin Fischer, Deanna Forbes, Jane Freilicher, Sonia Gechtoff, Ann Morency, Ursula O'Farrell, Mary Lovelace O'Neal, and Deborah Remington.

May 9 - June 21
Mythos Fine Art and Artifacts at Firehouse North
1790 Shattuck Avenue Berkeley, CA

Can Jerry Saltz Save the Art World and Dan Colen's Pigeons?

In a May 15th report on a recent contemporary art auction held at Phillips, New York, Carol Vogel of the New York Times, noted the following:
A suite of four canvases filled with nothing but pigeon droppings by Dan Colen, another popular American artist, also brought a strong price. David Mugrabi, a New York art dealer, bought the work for $545,000, in the middle of its $400,000 to $600,000 estimate.

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A screenshot of the auction results for Dan Colen's Untitled, 2006-07

I didn't come across this bit of news while actually reading the New York Times. It was shared on Facebook by a painter friend who posted it along with only the briefest commentary: "The art market, jesus." 

I feel for Carol Vogel who has to report auction results like this one with a straight face. By the way Carol, there were five pigeon shit covered canvases in the lot, not four, so maybe editorial oversight at the NYTimes isn't what it used to be. Is a correction forthcoming?

The real commentary these days happens on blogs and social media sites -- Facebook and Twitter -- where there are no editors to vet content for accuracy and no advertisers (i.e. auction houses or art dealers) who might be offended. I certainly enjoy being able to say what I think about art here on the HuffingtonPost where the advertisers for laser eye-bag removal haven't yet objected to anything I have said.

At any rate, the news of this $545k birddoggle got 49 shares just on my friend's page and when I re-posted it there were some pretty good quips. "Well...it's not bullshit" was one.

 The way I understand Colen's "success" is that it is a social phenomenon, not an aesthetic one. For decades now one of the most common accolades given to artists has been that he or she is "pushing boundaries." Never mind that there are almost no boundaries left: if you can find one -- for example, the idea that art shouldn't just be pigeon poop -- then you have a created a binary situation. There are going to be those who are appalled and who shake their head at how awful your art is and there are going to be those that say "Hey, this is amazing." In a 2010 interview Colen spelled this situation out quite clearly:
"It's such a paradox. You come from this place where you want fame; you don't want to be bourgeois, but you want to be successful. You want to be accepted, but you also want to be going against the grain. You want to be on the outside, but you want to be on the inside."
Exactly. if your reaction to Colen's "Untitled" is "Ewww... I wonder if his canvases could transmit ocular histoplasmosis?" you are bourgeois. Well, or you are an art restorer worried that you may be called to the Hamptons to re-glue some wayward shit onto one of these next season... The job of art critics is supposed to be to protect us from really bad art, but Robert Hughes has been gone nearly two years now. Alberto Mugrabi -- the brother of David Mugrabi, the dealer who bought Colen's "Untitled" -- told BusinessWeek after Hughes death that "In another year, nobody will talk about this man anymore." The curse doesn't seem to be working among my Facebook friends -- we still talk about Hughes -- and in regards to protecting us from Colen and some of the other artists who are "pushing boundaries"

Jerry Saltz is doing some heroic work on Twitter. Since he understands the social dynamics surrounding art auctions, he has been using sarcasm and ridicule to make his points. For example, here is the tweet he posted after a Colen M&M drawing sold for $65k:

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Saltz also called out the "rubes" who paid $320k for a work by art world hot-shot Oscar Murillo:

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Jerry, I really appreciate what you are doing: it is heroic and sooner or later the Mugrabis of the world may be cursing you too. I sometimes feel like the art market is a ship that has been taken over by dollar-waving pirates: the same ones who brought us junk bonds and the mortgage meltdown. Their weekend homes are filling up with works by Dan Colen, who just bought himself a farm with his art world loot. I'm imaging it as a kind of factory farm filled with cooing pigeons who are busy right now Pollocking up another suite of masterpieces.

Only your tweets can save them -- and the art world -- from a very dismal future. In the meantime, the spokescandies for M&M say thank you!

Correction: After posting this blog it was brought to my attention by Kenny Schacter on Facebook, that Mr. Colen no longer uses actual pigeon shit for this series: he is using oil paint as reported in the Guardian on May 9th. In fact, nobody seems to know if actually Colen or his flocks of assistants ever did actually use real birdshit. He does, however continue to use crack pipes and bubble gum in his work. I stand at least semi-corrected.


Spectacular Auction Results Aren't the Real Art World News

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On May 13th, a painting by Barnett Newman sold at Christie's for over 84 million dollars. If you follow art world news there is a good chance you already knew that. Spectacular, over-the-top, record-breaking art prices are regularly in the news now. Auctions are being "live-tweeted" lot by lot and as soon as the auctioneer's hammer falls the results are everywhere.

In fact, auction results often dominate the news coverage of the "Art World." That is really too bad. After all, sale of works of art at auction are simply transactions. Prices don't tell us anything about the art or its original intention or meaning: they just remind us that works of art have become powerful financial instruments that are increasing favored by the ultra-wealthy.

Honestly I would like to see stories about auction prices covered as financial news: a few graphs and charts would tell the story just fine. That way, art critics and bloggers could devote their time to reporting on some more fresh and compelling art world stories.

Now that I have had my rant -- and hopefully I still have your attention -- I would like to tell you about what I consider a very real and moving Art World story.

Dominic Quagliozzi is a 32 year old interdisciplinary artist, originally from Massachusetts, who earned his Masters in Fine Art from Cal State University LA and who now lives and works in Los Angeles. He lives with cystic fibrosis and often has to deal with medical procedures including intravenous infusions, blood tests and urine samples. His art -- including paintings, digital images and performances -- references his medical issues and his mortality.

Now that his lung capacity is only 19% Dominic has been approved to receive a double lung transplant at Stanford University Medical Center. Here is there now, waiting.

In mid-April, while at Stanford for medical business Dominic was given a special viewing of a painting he has always wanted to see "Orange Sweater," a 1955 oil painting by Elmer Bischoff. Dominic had wanted to see this painting for many years, but it had never been on view when he visited the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which owns the painting. SFMOMA's main building is now closed while major construction takes place, but Dominic's mother was able to contact some helpful staff members who arranged for Dominic to see the painting in an undisclosed location.

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Dominic Quagliozzi with Elmer Bischoff's painting "Orange Sweater"

Dominic spent 45 minutes with the painting, and later wrote a blog telling the complete story of his experience. Here is just a bit of what he wrote:
When I saw Orange Sweater in person, my eyes lit up. Reproductions had left the painting with an overall grey sensation, but my eyes saw passages of yellows and oranges and reds somehow dominating the canvas. As we looked at the painting and talked about it, the thing that kept being brought up was how much the painting changed with every look-away/look back. Bischoff really mastered something so lyrical and so visceral here, giving us new feelings with each eye movement. 
In the presence of Orange Sweater, I could be that kid again, gaining painting chops, seeing like an artist. I could be that kid with a future, strong and not worried about anything--the one without the terminal end of Cystic Fibrosis breathing down my neck.
Now that is an art world story. It is about kindness, and about a work of art speaking to something deep, when deep really matters.

Oh, and regarding tonight's Sotheby's auction? Expect some more high prices.

Yawn...


Two Recent blogs for Hyperallergic.com

Installation view, ‘Wolf Kahn: Six Decades’ at Ameringer McEnery Yohe (image courtesy Ameringer McEnery Yohe)

Six Decades in Wolf Kahn’s Landscape

 Richard Diebenkorn, “Girl with Cups” (1957), oil on canvas, 59 x 54 in. (149.9 x 137.2 cm),

Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Richard Brown Baker, b.a. 1935, 1975.110.1 (image © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation)

Bridging the Coasts: Bay Area Figurative Painters at Yale

 


Victoria Dailey on "Tea and Morphine" at the Hammer Museum

If you were to ask writer, independent curator and antiquarian bookseller Victoria Dailey "What is the most shocking image of the late 19th century?" her answer would likely surprise you: Eugène Grasset's La Morphinomane (The Morphine Addict), which Dailey feels is "at least as shocking" as Edvard Munch's Scream series of the same era. La Morphinomane -- a desperate image of a dark-haired young woman shooting up in front of what Dailey describes as a "lurid-yellow wall" -- is one of the highlights of the not-to-be-missed exhibition "Tea and Morphine: Women in Paris, 1880-1914" at the Hammer Museum in Westwood. The exhibition closes on May 18th, so take out your calendar now...

I recently interviewed Victoria Dailey and asked her not only about the exhibition and its key images, but also about what she has learned from her involvement with the material.

John Seed in Conversation with Victoria Dailey
 
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Victoria Dailey
 
Can you tell me how you and your co-curator Cynthia Burlingham conceived this exhibition?

I had been advising Elisabeth Dean on her collection of late-19th century French prints, and arranged for her to donate the collection to the Grunwald Center at the Hammer. To celebrate the gift, Cynthia and I decided to do a show drawn from the collection, and we knew women would be the focus of the exhibition. The Mary Cassatt etching of a woman having tea had recently been added to the collection, and I have long been fascinated with Eugène Grasset's lithograph, Morphinomane, and the idea just struck us. Tea and morphine encapsulated so much about women in Paris during what is usually called "La Belle Epoque" and we just knew that this title would yield an interesting, provocative show.

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Eugene Grasset, La Morphinomane [The Morphine Addict], 1897.
Color lithograph, 22 ½ x 16 7/8 inches (57.2 x 42.9 cm).
Collection UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum.
Promised Gift of Elisabeth Dean. Photograph by Brian Forrest.
 
What were some of the discoveries and revelations that you made while doing the research for "Tea and Morphine."

While I was aware that many women had difficult lives in 19th century France, I was astonished at how deeply misogyny ran throughout French culture; women in France didn't even get the right to vote until 1945! No wonder they turned to morphine, they were shut out of nearly everything (except prostitution).

Another shock is that France didn't really have a democracy until the 1870s, that despite the French Revolution, France continued with monarchy for nearly a century. After the Revolution, they had an emperor--Napoleon--then they restored the monarchy they had so violently toppled, going so far as to crown Louis XVIII and Charles X, brothers of the guillotined Louis XVI. After the Bourbon kings, they had King Louis-Philippe and another emperor, Napoleon III. By the time France had its first democratically elected president, we in the United States were on our 18th president, Ulysses S. Grant. To me, this is a staggering fact.

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Henri Jean Guillaume Martin, Le silence [Silence], c. 1894 - 1897.
Color lithograph, 22 ½ x 17 inches (57.2 x 43.2 cm).
Collection UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum.
Promised Gift of Elisabeth Dean. Photograph by Brian Forrest.
 
Could you mention and briefly comment on a few of your favorite works?

I mentioned Grasset's Morphinomane; it is my favorite work. It is so extreme and bold, I think of it as a companion piece to Munch's Scream. To see a young woman injecting herself with morphine in a work from 1897 is more than surprising. Another favorite is Henri Martin's depiction of a young woman as a Christ-like figure; female Christ figures are extremely rare in art, and this one is extremely haunting and mysterious.

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Eugène Grasset, La Vitrioleuse [The Acid Thrower], 1894.
Photo-relief with water-color stenciling, 22 7/8 x 18 inches (58.1 x 45.7 cm).
Collection UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum.
Promised Gift of Elisabeth Dean. Photograph by Brian Forrest.
 
A third favorite is another work by Grasset, The Acid Thrower. An urban myth had been initiated during the Paris Commune of 1871 that involved stories of women throwing fire bombs, but no actual case ever came to light. In the 1880s, some women did throw acid onto their romantic rivals, reviving the stories about dangerous, acid and bomb-throwing women, and Grasset's image shows the angry, frustrated, green-with-envy woman about to commit her crime. This is a far cry from the usual images of the period that show Can-Can dancing, frolicking, feather-flaunting women.

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Mary Cassatt, Tea, ca. 1890, drypoint, 8 1/8 x 13 3/4 inches
Collection UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum.
Promised Gift of Elisabeth Dean. Photograph by Brian Forrest.
 
In a show about women, are women artists included?

Some visitors have asked why there is only one woman artist in the show--Mary Cassatt. The answer is that there were very few women artists at the time. Along with everything else, women were shut out of higher education, including art schools, and prints by women are rare. Luckily, Mary Cassatt made etchings, and her work depicting a woman having tea is the basis for one-half of our title. Furthermore, the few women artists that did exist were mostly painters; printmaking was just not something women did at the time. It was difficult, messy, and required strength to operate heavy etching and lithograph presses; the printmaking world of the time was run by men.

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Paul Albert Besnard, Morphinomanes ou Le Plumet, 1887.
Etching, drypoint and aquatint, 12 11/16 x 17 1/4 inches (32.2 x 43.8 cm).
Collection UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts. Purchase.
Photograph by Brian Forrest.
 
Is it fair to say that the subject matter found in this exhibition's prints rarely made its way into painting?

Yes, printmakers often dealt with subjects that were taboo, difficult or hidden; they weren't as public as paintings, and their frequent use as book illustrations created a literary connection that just didn't exist in paintings. Prints could depict images that explored the deeper recesses of culture that paintings often missed, and since prints were sometimes issued as a series, a range of images could illustrate one theme. In the exhibition is Albert Besnard's series La Femme, a group of twelve etchings showing the life of a woman, from marriage and childbirth to rape and suicide.

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Victor Emile Prouvé, L'Opium, 1894. Color lithograph, 24 3/8 x 17 inches
Collection UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum.
Promised Gift of Elisabeth Dean. Photograph by Brian Forrest.
 
Will visitors to this show find themselves looking over some of the shows more difficult themes -- including prostitution and addiction -- and feel like nothing has really changed?

Yes, visitors are astonished that drugs were so prevalent in the 19th century; drug-addiction is not a new phenomenon, but we tend to think of our ancestors as somehow naïve or innocent and that our problems are new ones. Similarly, we don't really understand how prostitution was a huge social problem over a century ago, and that it was probably worse than today since women had so few choices in life back then. In actuality, prostitution was one of very few career choices for women.

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Alfredo Müller, Beatrice, c. 1899. Etching and aquatint, 25 x 19 ½ inches
Collection UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum.
Promised Gift of Elisabeth Dean. Photograph by Brian Forrest.
 
Is there anything else you would like to mention about this show? 

 I want to give credit to Elisabeth Dean for being a fearless collector, always ready to acquire something new and interesting in order to expand and improve the collection. It has been a pleasure working with her for nearly thirty years. She has a deep understanding of French printmaking and her devotion to the subject has resulted in an extraordinary achievement. Her generosity in donating her collection to the Hammer is being recognized as one of the museum's most significant gifts.

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George Bottini, Sagot's Lithography Gallery, 1898.
Color lithograph, 14 7/8 x 10 7/8 inches (37.8 x 27.6 cm).
Collection UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum.
Promised Gift of Elisabeth Dean. Photograph by Brian Forrest.
 
What are you working on now? 

I am working on the effects of the French Revolution on women, and specifically on the role that prostitutes played in French culture, especially in the first half of the 19th century. I have discovered that as the Inuit are said to have one hundred words for snow, the French have nearly three hundred words for prostitute...from "adoratrice" to "wagon," and I am especially fond of "fleur de macadam" and "Vénus populaire." I am compiling a list that I will publish with the rest of my findings.

Tea and Morphine: Women in Paris 1880 to 1914
January 25, 2014 - May 18, 2014
The Hammer Museum at UCLA
10899 Wilshire Blvd Los Angeles, CA 90024

John Nava: Selected Portraits at the Vita Art Center

John Nava, one of America's pre-eminent realist artists, is the subject of a small show of twelve portraits -- paintings, monotypes and Jacquard tapestries -- now on view at the Vita Art Center in Ventura. Sober, affectionate and keenly observed, his portraits display what Nava recognizes as a "consistency of attitude" that has persisted in his work for many years.

I recently interviewed John Nava and asked him about the Vita exhibition, his politics, and his views on art and modernity.

John Seed in Conversation with John Nava

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John Nava

Tell me about the works on view in Ventura: are they all relatively recent? 

The show in Ventura is at the Vita Art Center which is small non-profit arts program. They work hard in a pretty tough neighborhood to serve the community with ambitious art experiences and presentations. The work I put together for Vita is a selection of pieces in different media - all portraits - that range from some monotypes I did in 1992 to paintings I just did this year.

In going through things to put in the show I realized that to a great degree everything I do, no matter what the project, ends up as a sort of portrait. This is true even if it's a 20 minute figure drawing.

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Sarah, 1992, monotype, 25 x 33 inches

None of the works in this show were formal, commissioned portraits. Moreover, I don't think of myself as a portraitist per se. For me, rather, the business of a likeness is more the result of wanting a deep and specific engagement with the particular subject. That demands a level of serious and precise and honest observation that ends up yielding a recognizable "portrait." If it's generalized or kind of glibly stylized it lacks compression for me and even respect for the model. Almost everyone in this show are family and friends. Another big part of my motivation to paint them with care comes out of my affection for them.

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Installation view with R. E. II (Rachel), 2005, Jacquard Tapestry, 82 x 77 inches

Tell me about the tapestries in the show. 

Mostly I do tapestries for commissioned projects. However, this show includes some woven portraits done with different approaches. One (R.E. II) uses a sort of mosaic-like weave structure to render the face with a very strong surface "terrain." Another, (Chloe) is a purposely made fragment with unfinished edges that is mounted and framed rather than conventionally hung.

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Chloe, 2007, Jacquard Tapestry, Edition of 10

Another -- Our Torture is Better Than Their Torture -- was part of a series I did starting in 2005 as a protest to Bush era interrogation and detention policies of the time. On Monday, April 28th, 2014 (last Monday!) Sarah Palin said to roaring approval in a speech "Waterboarding is the way we baptize terrorists." That disgusting, imbecilic and disgraceful "cute" remark made my seven year old piece seem relevant - unfortunately.

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Our Torture is Better, 2008, Jacquard Tapestry, 115 x 77 inches

Many people seem to still feel that there is something inherently "conservative" about representational painting, but in your case your themed works make it clear that your personal politics are left-leaning and eclectic. Do people continue to be surprised about your politics? 

I haven't received a great deal of negativity about the political work. More often people are quite supportive. Maybe it's the art world or maybe it's California. Ironically I kind of consider myself as a critic of "conservative" representational painting. I'm thinking of what seems to be a vast amount of work being done that idealizes what I consider second rate 19th century art. It seems to lead to unquestioned conventionality and a general lack of imagination.

The obsession with certain kinds of technical mastery seems to eclipse everything. Bouguereau and Gerome and Alma Tadema are all quite fascinating in many ways but nothing in their work approaches Goya.

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Installation view with Our Torture is Better Than Their Torture


It is just over half a mile from the "Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels" in Los Angeles -- where your 25 tapestries are on view to MOCA where the Mike Kelly show is on view: it would be quite an aesthetic experience to see your works and Mike Kelly's in one day. Have you seen the Kelly show?

 I have not seen the show but I have seen Kelly's work going back many years. The work in the cathedral would contrast most significantly to your hypothetical MOCA visitor in that it lacks irony. The intentions and meaning of art within the "sacred" space are utterly sincere. Every bit of the work has unquestioned meaning and unquestioned importance to the faithful. From the sacred point of view, the modern, "profane" world suffers the crises of unreality.

The anxiety of the modern artist resides in the attempt to somehow, out of a blank canvas, invent meaning, invent something true, to speak something of import. At every step of this process we are plagued with doubt and uncertainty. This is the world I was familiar with when I first began to work at the cathedral and this drastic reversal of the dilemma of modernity was what struck me the most.

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Peter with Red Shirt, 2013, oil on panel, 10 x 8 inches

What are you working on right now? 

I'm working on a number of commissions all of which are in process at the moment. I just completed a great project at Princeton University for the Firestone Library.

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Portrait of a Swimmer (Rebecca), 2010, oil on panel, 60 x 60 inches

Is there anything else you would like to say about this show? 

It's a small show but because it covers work of different sorts from different periods it was kind of a revelation to me. I can see a certain consistency of attitude that surprised me and also a persistence in trying to find different surfaces.

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T. Sitting, 2014, oil on panel, 14 x 11 inches

Have you seen any art or shows recently that you liked? 

I liked the last show by my old friend Mark Stock who suddenly died very recently. It was at Lora Schlesinger Gallery. I also recently spent some time with David Jon Kassan in New York. He is doing wonderful work.

John Nava
Selected Portraits: Paintings and Tapestries
May 2 - May 30, 2014
The Vita Art Center
432 N. Ventura Studio 30
Ventura, CA 93001

April Gornik: Recent Paintings and Drawings at Danese/Corey

The paintings and drawings on view in April Gornik's current show at Danese/Corey -- roiling seas, active skies, and serenely lit forests -- come across as truthful. Gornik believes that "truth should involve complication" and the apparent beauty of her paintings is heightened by the artist's awareness of the circumstances and forces surrounding them.

Just as John Constable's paintings of the English countryside hinted that the Industrial Revolution was bringing change to the landscape, Gornik's world is permeated by her wistful recognition of environmental forces. She loves the scenery she paints and her work doesn't have the requisite ironic distance of true postmodernism: Gornik is too much in touch with the way she feels about the landscape, and in its spiritual potential, to let a cerebral approach dominate.

I recently interviewed April and asked her about her work, her methods and her personal concerns and interests.


John Seed Interviews April Gornik:

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April Gornik: Photo by Ralph Gibson

Tell me a bit about your early life and education. When did you know that you were an artist?

 I was raised by my well-read but stay-at-home mom and my jazz trombone-playing tax accountant dad in a suburb on the east side of Cleveland. I have a younger brother who is seven years my junior. I went to parochial schools, first attended the Cleveland Institute of Art and then transferred to the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design for my BFA. My first realization of my commitment to art was when a guidance counselor I had for my senior year of high school said she couldn't fit my art class in that year's curriculum and I insisted pretty aggressively that it was my most important class because I was going to be an artist, so she had to make room for it, which surprised me as much as it did her. I did take that art class.

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Light After the Storm, 2012, oil on linen, 78 x 104 inches

For more than 30 years you have consistently created beautiful images of the landscape and defied a cultural tendency towards being ironic. How did you find the guts to do that?

I have to mention that I was lauded at first for making ironic paintings referencing the history of landscape painting, and I just kept my mouth shut. Eventually people's inherent need for meaning and being moved took over, I guess, and I've been generally accepted as an eccentric. I don't think it's guts, it's some kind of necessity in myself.

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Snowfall, 2014, oil on linen, 72 x 108 inches

Tell me about your working methods and places. Do you work outdoors, in the studio, or both?

I work only in the studio. I get completely overwhelmed when I try to work directly from nature. An image usually strikes me because it has an eerie familiarity, like something I already know or feel deeply. Then the trick is to get the scale right, so I typically order a canvas or cut paper after I've worked the image out compositionally for the scale I imagine will suit it.

Composition is where my work gets its power, and the work gets reordered all along the process of its making, from the initial sketch -- which is usually worked out in Photoshop -- to the drawing on the canvas or paper, to the actual painting or drawing, all of which have lives of their own and changes and adjustments -- sometimes radical -- that necessarily occur.

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Radiant Light, 2013, oil on linen, 78 x 90 inches

I know from social media that you have some personal interests in environmental and social issues. Tell me about some of the causes that interest you.

Oh man: I have a lot of causes. I'm very concerned about climate change and preserving wilderness. I was asked long ago if my work were meant to be "ecological," and I always said "no," since it comes from a more inner, psychological place and I don't feel political about it, but now frankly if it inspires people to in some way care about the world and what a mess we've made of it, I'm thrilled.

I'm a big animal rights person. I think factory farming is one of the greatest examples of mass sociopathology ever. The ocean is a mess. Need I go on? I'm proud to be a treehugger. And I am very involved in local organizations out in Sag Harbor where I've been living. It's easy to go nuts if you try to actually take on the global scope of all these problems.

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Storm, Rain, Light, 2013, oil on linen, 68 x 72 inches

On your website you present some thoughts about "Visual Literacy" and lament the fact that we are "bombarded" with images. Can you say a few things about how you became interested in this predicament, and how you are pushing back against it?

 I'm not against the fact that we're bombarded with images, it's just a fact. I prefer it to being starved for them, but I worry about people not being able to experience the physicality of art because of it, and that's really the way that art works. There's nothing like a painting, in its scale and physicality, to connect to another person through the hand, decisions, and imagination expressed there by the artist.

Paintings to me are machines that generate emotion, thought, and real experience through what's been embedded there by the artist. If a person is inured to that from image overkill, they'll just see a painting as an image and not go into the hand within the work. It's a loss I'm trying to push against.

I think people need to be taught how to look at art just like they need to learn to read literature. And the best way by far to ensure that is if a person has had art classes and understands the mind-hand connection that way.

Tell me a bit about one or two of the works on view at Danese... 

Well let's look at two tree works. One of the paintings is called Green Shade, which is a reference to that great Andrew Marvell poem. It was an image I came up with by collaging, in Photoshop, various photos I had of the woods out back behind our house. I wanted to do a painting that had a kind of midsummer feeling, ripe and full but with a certain amount of stirring in the leaves & the light. I wanted dappled light, which turned out to be pretty daunting to paint, and I wanted an almost vertiginous sense of entry into the painting, so there's a kind of tipping of some of the trunks of the trees, the ground, etc.

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Green Shade, 2012, oil on linen, 72 x 108 inches

I start with a sketch, then work it out compositionally, then get the canvas -- and in this case I'd done another painting that was fall-like for my last show and have the intention to eventually make four seasons with the canvases the same size: 6 x 9 feet. Then I draw out the painting from the sketch, marking particular points from the sketch which are proportionate to the canvas exactly -- like where the fattest tree meets the top -- but then drawing in most of it freehand, then underpainting with colors that will I hope give some dimensionality to the top surface colors. I need to actually have a dimensional plane on the surface to work from: you can see that pretty clearly in the other paintings as well; vestiges of the underpainting coming through in spots.

Then comes a loooong time of just painting away, and watching the painting move in a direction I hadn't anticipated, which almost always happens, adjusting for that, adding and subtracting whole areas, etc. This is finally followed by the long dance to the end of the painting where at that point it looks like a painting should fundamentally, but isn't good enough. So that entails endless small adjustments and occasionally major changes. In the case of Green Shade the streaky lights and shadows of the forest floor were endlessly reworked. The color of the trunks of the trees kept changing: and then there's a point at which the painting just kind of closed up and was finished, and I couldn't get back into it.

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Light Falling Through Trees, 2014, charcoal on paper, 36.25 x 50 inches

I approach the drawings the same way, with a sketch, and again make adjustments as I work. Light Falling Through Trees made the most radical shift from the Photoshop sketch I started with, as I opened up that sketch enormously in the drawing, taking out trees, changing the weight of the shadows, etc. In the case of the drawings I can't underpaint of course, but I do start with a lighter, harder charcoal and then work up to a much blacker one to activate the light that's inherent in the paper.

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Water World, 2013, oil on linen, 78 x 70 inches

What are the emotions you hope people will feel standing in front of your paintings?

 I like to think of the paintings as having the potential to generate different emotions in different people. I hope I build them well enough to do that, so that someone might feel a soaring, happy feeling looking at, say, Radiant Light and someone else might feel a kind of vertigo and uneasiness at the way it shifts in front of you. Landscape for me is a complicated attempt to locate myself in the world spiritually and emotionally and there's never one single feeling I have looking at something that feels true -- as opposed to real -- although many people just see that they're "realistic."

Truth should involve complication.
***
April Gornik Recent Paintings and Drawings 
April 25 - May 31, 2014 Danese/Corey
511 West 22 Street New York, NY 10011

Note: A new book, April Gornik: Drawings is being released this month by FigureGround Press and distributed by D.A.P. The book includes essays by Steve Martin and Archie Rand, an interview conducted by Lawrence Weschler, and a composition for piano and cello by Bruce Wolosoff. A book signing will be held at Danese/Corey on May 29 from 5 to 7 p.m.

The catalog for Recent Paintings and Drawings can be purchased on blurb.com (see below):