After yesterday’s plunge into the right side of my brain (discussed in the previous post), I decided to fully embrace my right hemisphere. I unabashedly begin from left to right.
But I put my koi into little squares for the sake of my rational left hemisphere. Don’t want it sitting there with nothing to do.
I was thinking about making a still life using pictures of flowers from a calendar. And I took it a bit literally. I kept the flowers inside the pages of the calendar and imagined the pages laid out above the vase. Makes prisoners of the flowers. And yet a drawing on a sheet of paper with the square edges is a little bit like this idea. To see the world around you as material for drawing. Everything being laid down into the square edges of the page. Lines around everything. And the pen lines being like thoughts that put them there.
It may seem odd, given how much I paint the koi in their pond, that I am always looking for ways to do more of them. I am a very business-oriented koi person. I try to increase production. The koi themselves try to do that too, but they use different methods.
Anyway, one — among the many appeals of the grid is that it leads nicely into more work. The picture, for me at least, becomes a kind of knitting. All the “what if” is removed for a while and it’s simply a matter of rolling up one’s sleeves and getting to work. And the work is all laid out in the form of these squares to be filled. Fill them and move on — to more squares! And more!
When I was a child everyone entering the room during pea season was expected to grab a pan and start shelling. I feel that way about these koi drawings. And when I have a bunch of them, it’s nice to look back and be glad of the work.
So, be warned. If you ever come by my house in koi season, expect to be handed a watercolor pan. For when the koi are in, everybody’s got to paint!
I’ve been told that math replicates nature and that other things — patterns especially — express mathematical relationships. And I cling to this notion, I do. For the mathematical nature of reality is something I deeply respect. Indeed I respect all the ways that Nature is understood, even if (as with math) I don’t understand the representations. I am beyond math illiterate. Math illiteracy would be a step up from my dungeon of unnumerical ignorance.
Anyway, on a whimsical morning I squared myself using a very mathematical tool, my computer. And it seemed to be a fitting gesture — a kind of handshake in thought to poor Ellsworth Kelly who I mischieously disparaged (and doing so has brought my little bloggie many hits) and to Jennifer Bartlett, the now somewhat overlooked but very clever painter of steel tiles and gridded life since the mid-1970s.
I will square my little fishes, my beloved koi too, but that is for another day. The squares are a device that’s becoming a bit over-worked in artists’ studios, but what of that. Who would deny us our fun, those of us who turn the image into big chucky bytes?
Anyway, like Betty Crocker I am seldom seen photographically. But I thought I’d make one brief appearance, and then it’s back to my pencils and self-portraits.
I can’t help it. All my inner squares wish to be heard. I remembered this story while noticing the tiles in the bathroom, as I wondered if my bathroom tiles could ever possibly inspire me to paint pictures as great as Pierre Bonnard’s fantastical tiles of paradise inspired him to paint Marthe in the Bath.
Anyway, while I pondered, I remembered a time when I was a little girl. We visited my uncle and his wife and my cousins in Dobbin Heights at their little house on the edge of town. My cousins were playing with tiles in the paradise that was my uncle’s quirky back yard. They had tiles of all colors, and we quickly turned the handling of these tiles into a rich game. Whether my uncle had recently redone his kitchen or whether it was for some other reason that he had all these tiles I never knew. But they were small tiles about an inch square and there were all sorts of beautiful colors.
I played with my cousins the entire time of our visit, and when it was time to go home my uncle put a large bunch of tiles into a paper bag for me to take home from the family’s huge supply.
And I loved those tiles. It was one of the earliest times that I became aware of loving color — just loving color plain and deep and pure.
Interesting to notice now that the tiles were a gift. People often give us the very things we need before we’re even aware of needing them. My uncle (who has always loved to build things) was thus one of my earliest art teachers. He gave me a bag full of tiles.
I wonder if some of my readers would be willing to share your art stories? What got you started along your path of color and line?
Come visit my store on CafePress!
For those unacquainted with the painting of Jennifer Bartlett, you are in for a lush surprise. Ms. Bartlett makes some of the most beautiful, ostensibly “modern” pictures that you’ve “never heard of.” Actually for a period in the late seventies, she was the queen of painting and has done quite well commercially since her august beginning with a landmark work called Rhapsody. Meanwhile, each of the squares in the painting above, modeled after Rhapsody, called Swimmers is one foot square and made of thin steel. The grid of white is the wall showing through the individual panels. And what is visible here is just a detail of an enormous image.
I know what writers suffering from the famous “writer’s block” feel as I try to describe this picture. I find myself at a loss for words. I am not tongue-tied by admiration exactly, either. Other painters have produced paintings that I prize over this one — Monet in his Nympheas, for instance. What causes me to stumble for words is the sheer enormity of trying to explain what Ms. Bartlett is doing, as well as my awareness that I am not certain myself what she’s doing or why I find it so compelling.
Suffice it for now to observe that she has, in this picture at least, portrayed water in a most unwatery way. As a consequence of being mesmerized by her ocean, I now have an invisible grid overhanging my koi pond of thought.
As I have already mentioned I’m painting koi these days. And the koi painting is a very abstract and free image since the fish are moving and their precise shape and anatomy is not visible. My koi sometimes won’t even come to the surface to greet me. Then at other times they fly out of the water as though they’ve momentarily forgotten that they’re fish. Consequently I see them as fluid distortions that blend with the water in which they live, and their presence reveals both surface and depths.
So it seems odd that I should be thinking about little squares, but I am. For a long time, I’ve had a complicated emotional relationship to the works of another artist, American contemporary painter Jennifer Bartlett. (More about her later.) While she certainly did not invent the square, to which delight I think we owe thanks to someone among the ancient Greeks, she did give the square rather more of a high profile than it had enjoyed in a long time. Even there, of course, she borrows (whether knowingly or not) from a famous precursor Pierre Bonnard — who saw squares everywhere, even in the foliage of the trees.
Perhaps it is not strange then that I look at my koi paintings with an eye to discerning the grid that possibly overlays their pond. If I sought a very precise rendering of the image that I’m painting, as I translate from a reference photo to the canvas, I might impose a grid over the photo and block it in square by square. Since it’s interpretation I seek and not a photographic idea, I have no motive to desire such precision. However, the idea of the grid still beguiles me. I think of each square as a window that opens up a more intimate view of that section of the picture as though we might open a door onto some little corridor of reality. I want to peer into those squares to see what each one holds.
But the grid that overlays reality, conceals as much as it reveals. Ce que tu montre et que tu cache … there is this elusiveness, this ineluctable something, this je ne sais quoi that persists. It is the mystique.
[Top of the post: Photograph of a shower curtain (with a design in blue squares behind which can be seen parts of a paper mache fish), photo by Aletha Kuschan]
Earlier I posted a squared up drawing of this bridge, which was a study for the landscape of a large commission. Here’s another. Both pictures are drawn from the same photograph. Both are approximately the same size (about 8 x 10 inches). Yet the differences in media transform them into quite different works. In an earlier era (just after the dinosaurs roamed) this was called “translation,” at least as regards rhetoric. But I think the old masters (some of whom are my personal friends) took this rhetorical idea and used it (translated it) into their visual idiom.
I’m quite sure Rubens did. He had the most distinquished rhetorical education. Never would he misplace a modifier, of that I’m quite sure!
So, let’s see. Rhetoric and Rubens makes this picture traditional. Whereas the grid, that staple of Dame Jennifer Bartlett (with the authority vested in me I’ve just knighted her — or Dame-ed her) ah hem, I was saying that Bartlett-sizing it makes it modern. And grids are just tiles by another name, which brings back my old pal Pierre Bonnard who actually invented Bartlett. (I wonder does she know?)
I’m on a goof ball roll. (Somebody stop me!)
[Top of the post: Watercolor study of a foot bridge, by Aletha Kuschan]