Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Window shopping, St.-Paul-de-Vence

Window shopping, St.-Paul-de-Vence
This spring, I plan to attend SAQA's conference in Philadelphia. One of the events will be the Spotlight Auction, and I've just completed my contribution. As requested, it measures 8" x 6", but will be matted to 6.5" x 4.5". It is based on my photo taken in the beautiful hilltop town of St.-Paul-de-Vence, a village in the south of France filled with art galleries. I chose the colours to represent the lively, fun atmosphere of the street scene there.

The French expression for window shopping is lèche vitrine, literally, "window licking", which I think is very apt.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

"A Brief History of the Art Quilt": free download

Torrid Dwelling, Molly Upton, 1975

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, SAQA (Studio Art Quilt Associates) has compiled four essays by art quilt insider Robert Shaw that will give you a great base for understanding the evolution of the genre. You can download the 24-page publication here.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Happy Christmas!

Marché Saint-Roch, Quebec, Kathleen Morris, 1925

Season's greetings to all, and warmest wishes for a wonder-ful and creative New Year!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Inventing Abstraction - Week Four

Henri Matisse, Self-Portrait in a Striped T-shirt, 1906
Henri Matisse and the Fauves were the subject of Week Four of "Inventing Abstraction", taught by Jessica Houston at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
André Derain, Charing Cross Bridge, London, 1906
We began by looking at paintings by Matisse and André Derain, considered to be the co-founders of Fauvism, a name derived from the French for "wild beasts". We observed that their use of colour was "liberated" from the constraints of representation.  Matisse said, "When I put a green, it it not grass. When I put a blue, it is not the sky."

Henri Matisse, Portrait of Madame Matisse, 1906
We questioned how the use of complementaries (red with green, or blue with orange) created a visual energy, and helped to define form. If you look at the portrait above, also known as The Green Stripe, observe how it changes if you block out that green vertical on the face. Does it not become flatter? Somehow the green stripe adds a spatial dimension to the portrait, without the traditional use of shading.

The use of open brushstrokes was also observed. Sometimes the raw canvas appears between brushstrokes, another innovation.

At this point, the instructor flashed some forty images of Matisse paintings on the screen. We were asked to note the use of colour, and the emotion that it created. With only about ten seconds for each image, my notes were very basic. "Red = energy", for example, or "warm advances, blue recedes".

Henri Matisse, Dishes and Fruit, 1901
We were then given an image of a Matisse painting. We were asked to place it upside-down on our table and attempt to make a quick copy of it. Even though I had 30 minutes, I only covered half of my paper. By working from the upside-down image, we were able to dissociate from the representational aspect of the painting, and observe the essence of shape, colour, brushstroke. A great exercise that really required us to look carefully.

For a second exercise, we had been told to bring to class a photocopy of an image, something cut from a magazine, a landscape, whatever, and to paint over it, changing the colours to something non-representational. I brought one of my preliminary cityscape drawings...

... and applied transparent colour to it, allowing the lines to show through.

A fun experiment that could be useful when planning a colour scheme.

For our final assignment, it was suggested that we try to incorporate an aspect of Matisse's work with an exercise from a previous class, synthesizing something new and personal. I had been impressed with Matisse's The Red Studio, and the way the various objects in the studio had been represented with red paint over a light ochre background, leaving a yellow outline.

Henri Matisse, The Red Studio, 1911

I took my cue from an exercise I did in the first class, on Cubism, a jumble of stools from various perspectives...

... but didn't get very far. I was working completely freehand, without benefit of a pencil sketch, and I lost my way in the positive and negative spaces and the lines that delineated them. I do think that this is an exercise I would like to pursue.

What I am enjoying about this class, aside from the variety of imaginative assignments, is that the focus is on each student developing their own personal imagery.  I find myself asking constantly, "How can I translate this idea into cloth?"

Class Five: Sonia Delauney, Hannah Hocke and Sophie Taeuber-Arp

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict

This recently-released film, directed by Lisa Vreeland, is a portrait of a truly remarkable woman.

Peggy Guggenheim was born into a well-to-do family whose members ranged from the eccentric to the criminally insane. In 1920, at the age of 22, she left her New York home for Paris where she immersed herself in the bohemian life. She opened her first gallery in London in early 1938, and found herself on a buying trip to France at the outbreak of World War II.

Using her contacts in Paris and a budget of $40,000, she snapped up many works of modern art, setting herself a goal of "one a day". Artists were desperate to sell their work at that point, with the closing of many French galleries and the campaign of the German occupiers to condemn progressive work as "degenerate". When finished, she had acquired ten Picassos, forty Ernsts, eight Mirós, four Magrittes, three Man Rays, three Dalís, one Klee, and one Chagall, among others. She opened her New York museum/gallery in 1942.

Ms. Guggenheim considered her "discovery" of Jackson Pollock to be one of her major achievements. Another was surely the establishment of her museum of modern art in Venice, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

The film itself is a standard documentary, nowhere near as colourful as the life of its subject. Some of those interviewed express opinions about Guggenheim's appearance and personal life which seem inappropriate to the modern viewer. At least one of the journalists who converse with Guggenheim is unskilled in the art of the interview. Despite these shortcomings, the movie paints a vivid picture of an extraordinary person, the fascinating people she drew into her circle, and the vibrant world of mid-century art, both American and European.

The film is playing at Montreal's Cinema du Parc until at least December 24, along with a Hitchcock retrospective. Bon cinema!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Helen Frankenthaler

Trespass, Helen Frankenthaler, 1974
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is offering a film program about women artists in conjunction with its exhibition of the Beaver Hall Group. Recently two films were screened together, one about Georgia O'Keeffe and another on Helen Frankenthaler. Though I'm familiar with O'Keeffe, the work of Frankenthaler was a revelation to me.

Born into privilege in Manhattan in 1928, Frankenthaler began exhibiting her abstract expressionist paintings in the early 1950's. She is credited with inspiring a new movement, Color Field painting. One of her innovations was to work with very dilute pigment, first oil and later acrylics. When applied, these paints stained the canvas rather than lying on top of it, much as dye is absorbed by cloth. This allowed her to create very atmospheric effects.

For Hiroshige, Helen Frankenthaler, 1981
The best part of the film was showing the artist at work. What struck me about her process was how restrained she was in applying her paint to the canvas. Whether she made a broad stroke across an enormous canvas with a mop-like brush, or licked a dollop of thickened paint off with a single finger, she was always looking for an instance of beauty, of interest. She allowed the properties of the paint to make their own magic.

The Human Edge, Helen Frankenthaler, 1967
Said Frankenthaler,
"What concerns me when I work, is not whether the picture is a landscape, or whether it's pastoral, or whether somebody will see a sunset in it. What concerns me is - did I make a beautiful picture?"
Coming up in the film series are "Frida, Nature Vivant", "Finding Vivian Maier" and "Alice Neal". More information is available at the museum's "What's On" site.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Gender and the Beaver Hall Group

Recently I attended an engaging lecture by art historian and Concordia professor Kristina Huneault on "Gender and the Beaver Hall Group." This is one of the many events that complement the current retrospective at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. She noted that the BHG was roughly half women, but is often thought of as being a women's group. (Check out the group's Wikipedia entry if you have any doubt.) The thrust of her talk was “Why do we think of the BHG as a women’s group?” and “What happens if we add the male members back into the group?”

Why this concentration on the women? Several reasons, as Huneault explained.

Country Scene, Anne Savage,
member of BHG, painted (mostly) stylized landscape
First, in 1966 Nora McCullough of the National Gallery organized a show about the BHG that focused on the women. Charged with putting together a traveling show that would introduce Eastern artists to Western Canada, she contacted Anne Savage, one of the few group members active at the time, to inquire about individual painters. It was only when Savage began to talk about the BHG and the ongoing friendships among the female members that McCullough grasped onto the “hook” of the BHG, and put together a show focused on its women. Until the current show at the MMFA, there has not been any other retrospective of the Beaver Hall Group.

One film was made about the BHG, "By Woman’s Hand", and it profiled three of the women painters. Two books have been published about the women members, “Painting Friends: The Beaver Hall Woman Painters” by Barbara Meadowcraft, 1998 and “The Women of Beaver Hall: Canadian Modernist Painters” by Evelyn Walters, 2005. (I have read the first of these books and it is rather dry.) So we see that the women of the group have had more exposure than have the men.

Baie-St-Paul, A.Y. Jackson,
member of BHG and Group of Seven, painted wilderness and towns 
Secondly, the group was more important to its women members because they had few other options. The male members could join other groups, like the Pen and Pencil Club, that were closed to women. The best-known male members, A.Y Jackson and Edwin Holgate, also belonged to the Group of Seven, and they are remembered for their membership in the Toronto group, not for their membership in the BHG. Likewise Adrien Hébert, who is well-known in Quebec but not as a member of the BHG.

Self-Portrait, Edwin Holgate,
member of BHG and Group of Seven, painted landscape, nudes, portraits
Third, there has been some backlash to the primacy of the Group of Seven in Canadian art history that has caused some to have another look at the BHG, its contemporary. Huneault made the point that people love to think in binary terms. Group of Seven: painters of wilderness, monolithic, Toronto-based, establishment, all-male. Beaver Hall Group: painters of the city, diverse, Montreal-based, working in obscurity, all-female. Not all factual, but sometimes the nuances get lost in binary thinking.

Corner Peel and Ste-Catherine, Adrien Hébert,
member of the BHG, painted urban landscape
Fourth, Huneault pointed out that Janson’s iconic “History of Art” published in 1962, did not mention a single female artist. It is understandable that feminist art historians, beginning in the 1960’s, tried to correct this situation, and were happy to highlight the BHG women.

Self-Portrait, Lilias Torrance Newton,
member of the BHG, portraitist
Huneault didn’t really answer her second question. But she was pleased that the current exhibition celebrates the men of the group alongside the women, and would like to see more research done on those men who are less well-known.

This current retrospective of the BHG, which has been very well-attended, raises questions about many dualities: male/female, Montreal/Toronto, cityscape/wilderness, English/French. But, as so often in life, the reality is more complicated than easy.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Inventing Abstraction - Week Three

Figures and Dog in Front of the Sun, Joan Miró, 1949
Another great class in Jessica Houston's "Inventing Abstraction", at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. In Week 3, we focused on Surrealism, and the work of Miró.  We learned that Surrealism, a breakthrough in its time, was born out of the chaos of World War I, with the widespread questioning of the role of art. Its imagery was inspired by the unconscious, by dreams and imagination.

How does the artist access the unconscious, when logic so often wants to run the show? Miró used a number of techniques, including something he called "automatic drawing".  This approach actually inspired an entire art movement in Quebec, the "automatistes". Its best-known members are Paul-Émile Borduas and Jean-Paul Riopelle.

Sea Gull, Paul-Émile Borduas, 1956

Perspectives, Jean-Paul Riopelle, 1956
For Miró, "automatic drawing" was something like doodling, just letting the brush wander over the blank page, without any input from the conscious mind. Another technique Miró used to access the unconscious was to begin with "frottage", or rubbing textures onto paper to form a background that inspired imagery. Sometimes, he crumpled a sheet of paper and then flattened it out, to see if the wrinkles suggested any imagery. Like cloud formations and ink blots, these random shapes and lines can suggest different things to different people.

Woman in Front of the Sun, Joan Miró, 1950
It's important to note that Miró edited his shapes and lines and transferred them to a painted background. At this stage, he exercised control to impose formal concerns like balance. Viewers of Miró's work were expected to make their own personal associations from the lines and shapes in his paintings.

We warmed up by participating in a fun "exquisite corpse" exercise, a visual game invented by the Surrealists.

Our main task for the class was to identify some of our own personal imagery by accessing our unconscious. We did this in four ways: automatic drawing, frottage, crumpling paper, and pouring liquid paint. Right there you have the element of chance, and the imposition of your own imagery that is inspired by a chance event. Miró had his signature motifs, including stars and alien-type figures. What would ours be?

produced by pouring liquid paint
Next, we were asked to go back to the four sheets we had produced with the various techniques, and to cut out six things of interest. Then we developed each of the six by refining or expanding on various aspects of them. We numbered them on the backs, from one to six.
#1, produced as part of my "automatic drawing"
I didn't feel it needed any further re-working but certainly there could be variations.
#6, also produced as part of the "automatic drawing"
variations on #6
I found myself going back to one of my favourite quilting motifs,
a bit like pebbles in a confined space

In preparation for the final exercise, we painted two backgrounds in a mottled colour and then rolled a die. Whatever number turned up, that was the motif we were to use, placing it on the background we had painted. Once again, the element of chance, and then the "massaging" of that chance using your more conscious sensibilities: the distribution in your composition of elements like colour, contrast, scale, placement.

Fortunately, I rolled a 6. At this point I had a chat with the instructor. I explained that because I work with cloth, I seem to easily revert to patterning. Do I embrace this or try move beyond this? We agreed that the purpose of the exercise was not to make a Miró, but to unleash our own visual vocabulary. She suggested I look at how my pebble shapes relate to each other, thinking of them almost as figures, and move through a process of eliminating a shape or two at a time. This idea of the shapes in relationship to each other really resonated with me.

motif #6, developed a bit
motif #6, developed further
Beginning to look like a Henry Moore.
Maybe a red shape would be a good addition?
So, though I feel no great affinity for the Surrealists, I benefitted greatly from this exercise. For me, the whole point of taking this class was to explore abstraction, and to push further abstraction in my work. Yes, I am drawn to grids, but to organic shapes as well, and this activity has helped me broaden my go-to imagery. I can even see the sketch above expressed in a large format with hand-dyed cloth and stitching. Later, the instructor suggested that I look at the work of Montreal painter Karine Léger, who works with similar shapes.

Next week: Matisse and Fauvism. Yum!

Sunday, December 6, 2015

St. Paul de Vence

St. Paul de Vence, 11" x 8.5"
Here is my response to the latest 12 by the dozen challenge. Every three months each member of our group produces a small art quilt measuring 8.5" x 11" and featuring a particular colour. This time it was my turn to name the colour and I decided on "Apple Green". Choosing the other colours was just instinctive: I like the way they work together.

I was inspired by a photo I took while in the south of France earlier this fall. This little hilltop town is home to dozens of art galleries. I was happy to include the figure of the woman perusing the gallery windows: she gives life and scale to the scene.

While in Nice, I saw an exhibition of work by Raoul Dufy at the Musée des Beaux-Arts. I was intrigued by the way Dufy superimposed a black line drawing on very loose swaths of colour. 

The Casino on the Pier at Nice, Raoul Dufy
(Is that the French tricolour as a background?)
The paint applied to the background was "liberated" from the boundaries suggested by the outlines. I tried to create an effect like that with this piece, loosening the drawing from its background shapes. Not there yet.

Casino Bleu de Nice, Raoul Dufy
To see how the other 12 by the dozen members handled the Apple Green challenge, please visit our archive and blog.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

SAQA's Art Quilt Collector

I was thrilled to be chosen as an Artist to Watch for the new journal, "Art Quilt Collector", published by SAQA.  Issue 2, just released, includes a four-page spread on my work, and similar coverage of two artists whose work I very much enjoy: Natalya Aikens and K. Velis Turan.

The issue focuses on urban landscape, and includes an article on documenting your collection, another on storage, and an in-depth look at the recent work of Michael James, as well as other features. For information about subscribing to "Art Quilt Collector", please click here.

With SAQA's permission, I have included my profile below:

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Inventing Abstraction - Week Two

Mondrian was the focus for Week Two of the Inventing Abstraction class at the MMFA. Our instructor, Jessica Houston, spoke less this week, possibly because she feels her French is not adequate for the francophones in the group. I was sorry about that because I felt an overview of Mondrian's work would have been useful.

We launched immediately into working in pairs. One of us was given a reproduction of a Mondrian painting, concealing it from our partner. We were to describe it in detail so our partner could reproduce it with paint and paper. A great exercise. Here is the image I described to Peter,

and here is what he produced:

Then it was my turn. Here is the image that Peter described to me

 and here is what I produced:

This activity really required you to look at the original in detail and describe it accurately.

Then we were asked to do a quick painted sketch of a plant, using only black and white. Here is the plant

 and my sketch, as always, unfinished.

Then we were asked to distill the shapes a bit more with another sketch. I tried to capture the essential butterfly-like triangles. Again, unfinished.

Finally, we were to try to reduce the image to its essence, in a horizontal and vertical grid. I didn't feel that my subject really lent itself to horizontals and verticals, so I just continued to work with the triangles. Everyone else continued with paint, but I chose to cut up black construction paper and glue-stick shapes into an arrangement. This is probably because I am not a painter: paper collage is similar to working with cloth.

Jessica made some kind comments about how I was able to create a play of positive/negative, and how, like Mondrian, I had created some "live" spots where the eye is tricked into seeing a colour at the empty vortex. I discovered how very difficult it is to create a neutral kind of pattern that appears to be totally random. It would be interesting to reproduce this on a painted background with some minimal flow of colour.

Mondrian is better known for his later work, so it was good to learn about his evolution from expressionism to abstraction.  Our instructor explained that essentially all his early work was based on the form of a tree. He felt that all natural forms could be reduced to a vertical/horizontal structure.

Grey Tree, 1911
Eucalyptus 1912
Composition  No. II: Composition in Line and Colour, 1913
Broadway Boogie-Woogie, 1942-43
Next week: Miró