finding the fish

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A close up view of the fish drawing is pure abstraction.  You can hardly tell there’s a fish there except for a bit contour — that along with being told — does vaguely produce a minimum of fishiness.  I am an abstract artist — in some respects.  Someone told me this, one of my insightful students.  I wasn’t even aware.

Why do I like the scrawl of the crayon more than the specific features of the fish itself?  Well, I only like them better in some pictures.  In other pictures I’d be quite content to imitate the look of a koi sliding through the water. But here the energy of crayon markings in bright colors has gotten the better of me.  The markings capture some of the alacrity of koi energy.

There’s still fish there.  And it matters too that they’re fish.

This detail occurs in the giant rehearsal drawing.  I reworked it based on some random lights and shadows that fell on the drawing when I was outdoors photographing it.  Here’s a picture of it indoors with the tool box and step stool to give a sense of its actual size.

drawing indoors

Racing Koi

The fish rush a point just off center.

fast swim

See them gathered in a converging crowd of fish motion. The impression of rapid swimming and lightening quickness is characteristic because the koi are swift swimmers. In truth kois can be quick or lazy but all their interactions are choreographed like a ballet, fulsome and energetic yet focused.

When the fish swim time feels fluid.  Bright colors flash across the moving water. Rich and blue like the sky it reflects, the water offers you serenity.  You can watch with delight.  Some of the fishes are white and gleaming — their colors are bright and sharp across the surface — red and orange, shades of orange, some colors warm and deeper than others, mixtures of orange and red and pale yellow the color of butter, they cluster and demark a place where energy coalesces. Soft shades of blue like silk frame highlights where the light striking the water shines brightest.  Dark reflections create linear energy that echoes the strong contrasting contours of fishes’ bodies.  As the fish push toward the center and gather there, some appear in clearness with personalities and agency.  Others are blurred with movement. Those whiz past in mystery.

Racing Koi  is a pastel painted on Canson Touch Mi-Teintes paper measuring 28.75 x 20.75 inches

The Story of Little Squares Continues

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An image from the Rouen Book of Hours takes us down another path in the journey away from Ellsworth Kelly, while staying inside the land of little squares.  One could easily suppose that squares lack meaning, particularly in an exercise such as I described in the last post.  However, the square itself (along with the imperfect, but square-ish box) is an intriguing shape and one that does not occur in nature — so far as I know — at least not on the scale of things visible to ordinary sight.  If it exists in the microscopic world of small scaled things, or in the subatomic world of the structures of things perhaps some scientist will let me know.

However, the square as an idea — as a perfect form — holds a certain fascination for some people, and in the medieval world, squares play a very prominent role in images of divine events.  Squares appear in medieval art in a variety of ways.  The image posted here shows how three squares are used to decorate the left side of a page illustrating the Kiss of Judas.  Each of the three squares has illuminations within it of patterned flowers.

I can’t say why the squares are there or what the particular significance is of three squares — whether it relates to the Trinity or to something else — why two squares are colored pale gold and one is red or why the squares are decorated with flowers — or why these squares share so much of the page with the narrative picture which is quite small in comparison.  All I can say with certainly is that squares have an important, playful/serious role in the art of very early times.

This post is part of a series of short essays related to answering why Ellsworth Kelly is not a “real” artist, while I take the reader into a meditation on the meanings and “true” uses of squares in art.

Thus the “sterile” use of Kelly’s squares has had a vibrant, adventurous life elsewhere in art’s long history.  But stay tuned for more squares.

Find picture here.

Creativity verses Ellsworth Kelly

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Vincent Van Gogh, back when he was a nobody, wrote eloquently about the dangers of putting over much confidence in “names” in art.  He was prescient.  Today the official art of the museums consists almost entirely of names — which is to say that the contemporary objects on display do not necessary strike a visual person as being particularly interesting to look at, yet we are urged to accept the objects as the highest forms of art.  And it strikes me as significant that the chief selling points of the objects is that they are purportedly made by “important” artists of our era, who are usually people that we’ve never heard of.

A certain kind of art is plausible only for audiences that possess a university degree.  No farmer from either Missouri or Bangladesh is likely to be persuaded that a uniform grouping of various colored squares is important to look at or to contemplate.  However, the same inartistic farmer might be very moved by the extraordinary skill evident in something like the precise rendering of forms found in Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks.

It’s obvious in the case of the uniform squares that anyone could produce a similar effect and equally obvious in the case of the Leonardo that one is seeing something rare, difficult, meaningful, enigmatic and skillfully made.

I’m discovering from my blog stats that a surprising number of people are visiting here specifically in search of information about Ellsworth Kelly, since my one previous post on the man has garnered the most traffic of any of my posts!  (Sigh.)  I’m guessing that these unknown visitors are students from classes in contemporary art, come hunting perhaps for useful quotes or information.

To demonstrate my willingness to be helpful, let me refer you to a video on Youtube of an interview with the not terribly interesting and now elderly artist.

The problem of Ellsworth Kelly, which needs to be explained only to educated people and never to farmers from Missouri or Bangladesh, is that he isn’t really doing anything.  It ought to be perfectly obvious, but your college professor is standing there telling you that the man is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and meanwhile perhaps you don’t possess the highest confidence in your own powers of visualization.  But you are being duped.  I’m sorry that there’s no kinder way to phrase it.

Ellsworth Kelly is a classic case of “what you see is what you get.”  His canvases are plain shapes painted different colors and hung on museum walls.  Anyone, however, can get their image on a museum wall these days.  At the top of the post I feature a lovely scene where my painting Lattice shares space with Joan Mitchell abstractions in an enormous exhibit at MOMA.  Lattice really holds its own, don’t you think?  And look how bravely the guard protects my painting, too ….

It would take a long post to explain what art does that Kelly does not do.  The range of things that genuinely comprise what art is includes a great variety of images and objects.  But certainly one short cut to a definition of art in purely practical terms is that it equals something that matters in your own life.  If my readers find genuine meaning in Ellsworth Kelly, if they look at his colored surfaces and find rapture, well far be it from me to dissuade them from whatever works.  But the more visually alert a person is, the more of sensibility that one possesses — whatever intuition of nuance and mood and evocative power stirred by seeing the ordinary objects of common living experience, the images that draw out our deepest feelings and thoughts — these are not, I think, found in his spare fabrications.

They are squares.  That’s what they are.  Somebody tell the professor.  But don’t believe me.  Believe Van Gogh who diagnosed this problem over a hundred years ago.  It’s the worship of “names,”  though even that doesn’t quite explain it in Kelly’s case. Here, it’s the odd worship of nothing.

I first discussed Kelly here.