lilacs, lemons, chrysanthemums & carnation

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I was already someone who sought to find the motif through several variations of a subject.  Another bouquet is accompanied by four lemons.  (Other pictures had two lemons.)  The yellow lemons offer a visual foil to the violet lilacs.

This bouquet has other flowers besides lilacs — chrysanthemums (symbolic of long life) with also a single carnation, and possibly also a tea rose. The whole bouquet sits once again on the pale blue cloth now in front of the white wall.

I was learning from looking at Van Gogh’s paintings so the blue cloth has swirls of brushstrokes in waves creating shadows.  All the forms are delineated, as in a drawing that has been colored.

lilacs and lemons

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Sometime or other in the early 1990s I made a group of flower paintings.  Each was painted in one session.  Lemons of varying quantity offered a counterpoint to the violet of the lilacs.  This one has a bouquet sitting on the white enamel top of the stove.  To the right the burners are visible with black grill patterns.

The colors of the pictures are so different from the way I use color now, and yet looking back at them, I can see how they created a path to my present.

Some of the organization seems almost Oriental to me in the angular simplicity, the outlined forms, in perspective that tips forward, and in the overt use of negative spaces.  I was very affected by the paintings of Van Gogh at the time so I probably got the Asian influence through him.  Like many the artists of his generation active in France during the 19th century, he loved Japanese prints.

If I sound like I’m describing someone else’s painting, well in a sense I am.  The painting feels that way.  Only slowly do the memories return.

Insight is a Question and a Mystery

I was just searching for some of my own pictures on the internet using the innocuous search term “warm” because I surmised that I had written about warm and cool colors, and I was curious what the term would capture.

In an image search these two pictures came up coincidentally side by side.  One is a detail of a still life containing a honey jar shaped like a bee hive and the other is a detail from a drawing featuring a broad yellow tree in an oriental formal garden. They are so similar in shape!

Sometimes I absent mindedly put one canvas next to another while arranging things in my studio and glancing back upon them am stunned to discover that one line or form flows right into the scene of the adjacent painting as if by design!

Who knows what connections one’s mind has made while the consciousness wasn’t paying attention.  What do large dome shaped yellow forms mean in the grand scheme of things?  Now I feel oddly connected to Monet’s haystacks in a way I never guessed before — or to this amazing painting by Van Gogh ….

Van Gogh Wheat_stacks_in_Provence

Of course mine are pale echoes of Van Gogh’s powerful haystacks.

What do large yellow domed things mean?  Does anyone know?

Here’s another reason why we do art: to find out what the Sam Hill is going on inside our heads.  For that we need to spy thoughts with our own eyes.

Est ce que Van Gogh aurait aimé bloguer?

Bien sur Van Gogh serait bloguer extraordinaire.  On pourrais dire il etait bloguer avant la lettre.

Do you think Van Gogh would have loved blogging?  Of course, Van Gogh would have been an extraordinary blogger.  One could say he was a blogger before it was hip.  [I hope that’s what I wrote up there.]

He wrote innumerable, wonderful letters to his brother and to various friends in French, Dutch and English.

Meanwhile you can find the image above and other equally wonderful ones at artlex.

UPDATE:  You can find a blog of Van Gogh Letters here.

HERE’S: a scholarly internet site with the complete letters

[Top of the post: Vincent van Gogh, Tree with Ivy in the Asylum Garden, May 1889 (Saint-Rémy), pencil, chalk, reed pen, and brown ink on Ingres paper, 24 x 18 1/4 inches (61 x 47 cm), Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh, Amsterdam, F 1532.]

Under Cover

During the late eighties I took a figure painting class with an artist whose work I found interesting, Ken Marlow.  I already possessed then my own ways of painting, but I wanted to learn how Ken painted.  Granted the public character of a class would reveal only certain aspects of his approach.  Still, his class was there to take, and so I signed up.  He was a wonderful teacher, and had I been looking for instruction I couldn’t have recommended anyone better.  But as it happens, I had arrived merely to satisfy curiosity.

In the course of things, we did a nude figure.  Mine was painted on the small canvas above.  I cannot remember what it looked like or even whether it was a man or a woman.  At some stage Ken came round and offered suggestions, and he also offered to make some corrections himself to which I acceded.  Afterwards, though, the picture bothered me.  I can’t remember exactly why, but it had something to do with his having changed it.  It had stopped being my picture at that juncture. 

Had I been more mature … hmm… perhaps I would have kept it as a souvenir — after all Ken’s paintings command hefty prices now.  But I wasn’t interested in a souvenir.  I had gone there with curiosity only and persisted in curiosity only.  So at some later date, I decided to reuse the canvas, and I painted this bird’s nest over it. 

Now, maturer still … er … I’m glad I painted over the Me/Marlow life study.  I love this bird’s nest.  It is a testament to my other “teacher” of the time, Vincent Van Gogh.  As you’re probably aware, Van Gogh painted a series of bird’s nests early in his career during that period when his pictures were dark and overtly “Dutch.” 

When I painted this still life, I felt so much as though I was apeing Van Gogh that I was a little uneasy about it.  However, seeing it now I realize how thoroughly it was and is mine.  The round white stool was a regular bit of my life’s furniture, evocative of such personal memories.  The way that the bird’s nest sits on it, laying on a cloth (actually a piece of artist’s linen) is so much a gesture of presenting the nest — and animals and wildlife were a big deal in my formative childhood experience.  

That it covers over a different picture, one with interesting credentials, also fits in with the painting’s gesture.  I asserted my own life’s very different trajectory.  This painting was raw and unstudied — more a rough and rude Van Gogh idea than a smooth salon-inspired idea of art out of which Marlow’s visual sensibilities evolved.

Different strokes for different folks.  I realize the wisdom of that saying now more than ever.  The whole point of making pictures is to create something individual.  How else can one accomplish this except through the individuality of the self?
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[Top of the post:  A Bird’s Nest, by Aletha Kuschan, oil on canvas, c. 1988]

What if

      A thoughtful reader has challenged me to offer a more particular definition of what I consider “junk.”  And in time I will try to do so, because having raised the issue myself, I ought to be willing to face it squarely.  But until such time, I would refer readers to the previous post where I criticize the work of Ellsworth Kelly, who I put forth as representative of the artist-as-charlatan.  I do so boldly from the sense that Mr. Kelly himself is unlikely to stumble upon my remarks and is therefore in little danger of having his feelings hurt.  Or, even if he were to read them — “famous” as he has become, he cannot expect everyone to gush about what he does.  Obviously he has critics, as assuredly he’s aware.  If one cannot take the heat (as we all know), one has the admonition to stay out of the kitchen.  Right?

Now then, to more pressing concerns:  self-confidence.  What about the artist who fears that his own works are junk?  What about the over-fastitious individual who cannot accept the merits of what he does, who is overly critical, who is perhaps crippled by a sense of failure?  Sometimes highly talented people — just the sort who we’d expect to be “great” artists, are of this type.  So what about them?

Van Gogh had perhaps the best answer when he said, “if you hear a voice telling you you cannot paint, then paint My Boy, and that voice will be silenced.”  Van Gogh heard that voice.  He fought that voice, which sounded in his own head.  The paintings he left — in their great beauty and brightness — are the answers he gives us. 

The cure for a lack of confidence is work.  Just do it.


Establishing Order

Interior designers and artists have a lot in common when it comes to still life. Both are engaged in arranging objects into beautiful and significant relationships. Often the kinds of objects are similar too: vases, flowers, objets d’art, textiles, and tabletops.  Moreover, these arrangements are intended to tell us a story about someone’s life.
I had some inkling I was meant to be an artist from an early age because I was fascinated with anything visual, including carpets, textiles and furnishings. And now I recognize all over again, in a somewhat different way, that I’m meant for art every time I go to the grocery store and find myself faced with the task of putting my groceries on the conveyor belt.  Merely to lay out the items for purchase is not satisfying. I have to arrange them. It’s an odd inner need, evidently, almost a craving to establish order. Boxes must be arranged together by size. Cylinders must be placed with cylinders (this principle is good with paper towels, toilet paper, stuff like that). So, it often happens that humble tasks can reveal profound things about the self: as here my learning an autobiographical fact in a very plain and quotidian setting.
Anyway  —  in art, in still life — one has a decidedly more deliberate kind of ordering to recognize.  When I painted the still life of cabbage and potatoes, I was aware of Van Gogh having painted potatoes in his early work.  For Van Gogh the subject represented an identification with the peasants who dig their livelihood out of the earth.  For me, the subject represented an identification with Van Gogh as the 19th century painter who most epitomized my idea of the modern

That much accounts for the subject generally.  But the particular arrangement of objects, the cabbage in the center, the potatoes clumped around it like chicks around a mother hen — that specific ensemble has meaning — it really does! — but I was not aware of creating it.  Yet it is the very core of what the painting is about.

As I say, I always had something in common with interior designers.  When you are arranging things — perhaps quite unconsciously — all toward the purpose of discovering meaning, whether it is self-knowledge or knowledge about a whole society — that is certainly a very noble branch of design generally and even of interior design in the finest sense, understood as relating to the decoration of the soul.