Orb and Cross

One of the greatest things I can witness as a teacher is the point in a student's development when they start to connect some serious dots. When someone has seen, heard, read enough about art and art history, things start to gel and they can make smart, illuminating comparisons between things. This kind of comparing is, as Edward Tufte says, the true thinking act. But it can also become a cheap trick, a meaningless round of Six Degrees that focuses on surface effects and doesn't speak to the essence of whatever it is you're trying to elucidate.

A detail shot of a recent abstract painting that sparked various associations, including the traditional orb and cross symbol.

A detail shot of a recent abstract painting that sparked various associations, including the traditional orb and cross symbol.

I didn't start out to make a painting of the orb and cross, but at some point in the process (after lots of applying, wiping, and sanding of paint) the 'head' of my X-shape started to look something like a globe, so I went with it. Up close it just looks like a blue circle with splotchy brown paint over it, but from a bit of a distance it really does look like our terrestrial ball. The image is trapped in the paint.

Orb and Cross, Acrylic on 12 panels, 48 by 36 inches overall, 2017

Orb and Cross, Acrylic on 12 panels, 48 by 36 inches overall, 2017

Any poetry worth its salt will suggest many different things in a single line. In addition to the orb and cross, this painting reminds me of the Eames "Hang-It-All", a classic of Modernist home furnishings. I also think of the typical desktop globe from my school days. The X-shape looks like a little man, a swirling stick figure with his arms out from his side. Laid out in a grid, it reminds me of the diagram they use in my home town, Ocean City, to teach semaphore to the lifeguards on the beach.

Ocean City Beach Patrol guide to the semaphore alphabet.

Ocean City Beach Patrol guide to the semaphore alphabet.

Hans Memling's "Salvator Mundi" (circa 1480) features an orb and cross.

Hans Memling's "Salvator Mundi" (circa 1480) features an orb and cross.

Hang-It-All, Charles and Ray Eames (1953).

Hang-It-All, Charles and Ray Eames (1953).

The kind of globe I would have seen in school, or on my bedroom desk in the 1970's.

The kind of globe I would have seen in school, or on my bedroom desk in the 1970's.

Ocean City Beach Patrol semaphore.

Ocean City Beach Patrol semaphore.

Sal and The Power of Illusion

Sal Scarpitta (1919-2007) was a teacher at MICA during my time there in the early 1990's. He was a big, gruff, generous sweetheart, as anyone who knew him would tell you. His work, especially his early painting-constructions, were and are a big influence on me, which I was reminded of on a trip to New York last winter. It set me to thinking about the relationship between illusionism in painting as a foil to the physicality of the painting as an object. A painting is a body, it has a skin.

From a journal entry dated December 19, 2016:

Went to NYC last weekend. Fragonard drawings at the Met–exacting and yet SO loose/gestural. Exhausting to behold. Fun, in a way, but heavy-laden w/detail, minutiae…Froth & Foliage. Then, Max Beckman. So Good. SO German 1920’s, but so American, too. Not ‘democratic’. Human. Commiserating, but not victim art. Lively...not like most Expressionists. I remarked to M and C that the figures still felt to me like persons, not separated into likeness vs. identity. They are one. Also saw Sal Scarpitta at Luxembourg and Dayan. Early works with bandages and rich surfaces in paintings w/mixed media. Burlap, relief structures behind canvas, straps, hooks, etc. SO robust. So many surfaces rich w/patina, though we often couldn’t tell if they were painted to look this way, or just old & dirty.

A 1958 painting by Sal Scarpitta made with bandages, the surface worked up to a rich patina.

A 1958 painting by Sal Scarpitta made with bandages, the surface worked up to a rich patina.

In the end, I think they were painted this way (and a little dirty). That’s a kind of illusionism, too. I guess it’s sometimes called a faux finish. But then a portrait would have to be a faux face…a landscape a faux place, right? Of course it’s faux. All painting is faux. A painting is a conceit. Dawn and I saw a live production of “Meet Me in St. Louis” a couple weeks ago in Rehoboth Beach. I almost teared up at the beginning, just because of all the people up on the stage and us in the audience. I thought, “We’re all pretending together!” If painting isn’t partly like that it’s a missed opportunity.

A painting is a body. It has a skin. Working hard to patina a painting's surface can lend the work, not the illusion that it is old, but a robust sense of timelessness. That this surface is a contrivance does not–as I once thought it did–compromise its authenticity. In a painting, illusionism is always part of the deal.

Sal Scarpitta In the early 1960's

Sal Scarpitta In the early 1960's

Image v. Symbol

Real painting is partly a matter of figuring things out as you go along. Sometimes I’m not sure if what I am reaching for in my work even exists. In the series of paintings based on the times of day, for instance, I think I am operating in a form language that falls somewhere between recognizable imagery and strict abstraction, but there may not be any such language. If I’m not careful, I could fall between two stools. I’m trying to figure out something that functions as image and symbol at the same time, but I’m not sure I can.

"Dawn Patrol", "Morning Star", "The Afternoon Inn", and "Last Wave"

"Dawn Patrol", "Morning Star", "The Afternoon Inn", and "Last Wave"

There’s a rising sun in ‘Dawn Patrol’. It is simplified, sure, but it reads pretty clearly as a rising sun. In ‘Morning Star’, though, the sun is completely symbolized (i.e. made over as a symbol). It does not look anything like the sun. It is only starlike in the way that familiar star symbols are: it radiates from the center, and it is pointy like a Star of David or an American flag star. In addition to the star symbol, though, there is also an image. A window is framed by the painted border around the edges of the canvas. In a sense, ‘Morning Star’ and ‘The Afternoon Inn’–the two most abstract paintings of the group–contain fairly clear nods to ‘realistic imagery’ in that they each have windows that appear to break clear through the surface of the paintings and into the blue sky beyond.

‘Last Wave’ has a surface that has been painted over many times, and then sanded back to reveal layers and forms buried underneath. There is a little of this in the other paintings, but this surface treatment is a major theme in Last Wave. It tends to emphasize the physicality of the painting-object. The painting is a thing, not merely a representational image (like the window) or a symbolic form (like the articulated black wave). ’Last Wave’ is all three things: image, object, and symbol. Maybe they all are. Maybe all of the paintings in this group function on all three levels. I guess maybe I am still figuring it out.

"Last Wave", Acrylic on canvas, 30 by 30 inches, 2016

"Last Wave", Acrylic on canvas, 30 by 30 inches, 2016

Wheels and Windmills

Round like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel
Like a snowball down a mountain, or a carnival balloon
Like a carousel that's turning running rings around the moon
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping past the minutes of its face
And the world is like an apple whirling silently in space
Like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind!

–from The Windmills of Your Mind, Music by Michel Legrand, Lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman

First recorded by Noel Harrison for the 1968 movie, The Thomas Crown Affair, it's Dusty Springfield's recording from the following year that everybody thinks of when this song comes to mind. It's a silly song, really. The melody and musical arrangements are so dreamy they never quite gel. The lyrics are too cute by half; almost gimmicky with their lists of rhyming rondels. And yet...Dusty's voice is so spot-on-otherworldly that the cheezy words and music add up to something almost transcendent. It sends tingles down the spine.

I didn't start out painting on round canvases with Dusty Springfield in mind. However, it wasn't long after I began using circular imagery that I thought of this song. The Thomas Crown Affair is a favorite movie of mine, and a milestone in fashion history. Much has been written about how stylish it was and how influential it has been. I've always thought of Steve McQueen's Thomas Crown as the ultimate fantasy collector of my work.

Beneath the stylish veneer, though, Windmills touches on grand themes like the passing of time and lost love. As an artist, what I admire most is the strange blend of reverie and modishness. I would like to think I can find a way to tap into some serious subjects in my work without sacrificing visual verve and a feeling for the style of the day. My latest group of paintings correspond to the seasons of the year, but there are seasons in our lives, too. We anticipate them and pass through them, we look back on and remember them. Like Windmills, I date from 1968, which may be why the style of this particular song rings my bell. The wheels-within-wheels imagery pricks my heart because of where it originates, too.

The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel.
— Ezekiel 1:16
Fall, Acrylic on round canvas, 48 inch diatmeter, 2017

Fall, Acrylic on round canvas, 48 inch diatmeter, 2017

Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968

Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968

The Eye is the Light

If I were going to write something about this new series of paintings, I guess I'd have to mention how very long I've been working on them. It's been something like a year-and-a-half since I started the Seasons paintings, though the work has been on and off. I'd focus on them for a few weeks or months and then set them aside. As often happens, the thing that led me to finally wrestle them to completion recently was that I had simply run out of other things to work on.

Painting on a round format was weird. I think this is probably why I kept putting it off. My work has always been about riding the line between composing and constructing, between painting and sculpture. Working on shaped canvases tends to result in paintings that are as much sculptural objects as they are paintings. But I'm always interested in working with image, illusion, and color, which are mostly painting things, not sculpture things.

Winter, acrylic on round canvas, 48" diameter, 2017

Winter, acrylic on round canvas, 48" diameter, 2017

Winter, the first painting in the series, operates on a pretty convincing illusion that the round canvas is actually a spherical form with a big tunnel running through the center of it. The dark interior of the tunnel frames a round opening through which a faceted spectrum of colors is viewed. I'm not sure I'm interested in trying to explain where the imagery comes from or what it means, but I do have a sense of some of the things that may have been working on me by way of influences or associations.

The oculus or round window in the dome of the Pantheon in Rome. Louis Khan's interior architecture, especially in the National Assembly Building in Bangledesh. Although this was sort of after the fact, the similarity to the CBS 'eye' is undeniable. Fontana's egg shaped paintings are literally pierced, whereas my paintings have an illusionistic opening. I can't help but read the spectrum of colors as a beach ball or beach umbrella.

I wanted the greatest distinction between exterior and interior. The husk of the form is blanched, dry, or maybe it's metallic and cold. In any case, the colors viewed through the window are incredibly vibrant by contrast. The spectrum is the stark, crisp light of a sunny winter day. The whole painting is like a big eyeball looking out on this light; as if the painting is your head and the round window is your eye.

The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.
— Matthew 6:22
Louis Kahn

Louis Kahn

Bond, James Bond

Bond, James Bond

The Pantheon

The Pantheon