Saturday, 16 August 2014

Echoing Joan Miró's Wisdom


Joan Miró's studio, Palma de Mallorca (image courtesy of the Fundacion Pilar i Joan Miró)
The Fundacion Pilar I Joan Mia Mallorca is a wonderful place in which to spend a hot summer morning.  From the sunswept terraces that overlook the brilliance of the Mediterranean to the cool, diffuse light of alabaster screens in the exhibition spaces, all the senses are awakened by unexpected juxtapositions of interest and beauty.  Rafael Moneo designed the exhibition spaces as a complement to Miró’s studio and Pilar and Joan Miró’s home.  Gardens and reflecting pools are glimpsed from the building through often low windows, enhancing the building’s spaciousness and its spare simplicity.

In a way, the buildings follow a concept that Miró enunciated about his paintings in black and white.  Writing in 1959, Miró said, “My wish is to achieve maximum intensity with minimum means”. Many of his paintings verge on the oriental in many ways during this period. 
Painting on a White Ground, Joan Miró, 1968 (image courtesy of Tate Britain)

Painting on a White Ground, Joan Miró, 1968 (image courtesy of Tate Britain)
His desire to use an intense but spare vocabulary in monochromatic work resonated with me, for increasingly, that is what interests me in my metalpoint drawings.  How to say a lot in a condensed or powerful fashion, using the minimum of means…  In truth, metalpoint is such a simple, humble drawing medium: just a piece of metal, making marks on a smooth surface prepared with a ground.  Its range of tones is limited, its scale often limited because of the slowness of execution, its discipline of technique demanding.  Yet despite all that, like Miró’s black and white paintings, metalpoint at its best is quietly powerful.  Its lustre is alluring and unusual, its economy of form arresting.

One of the masters of silverpoint/metalpoint was of course Leonardo da Vinci. He led the way in the maximum impact-minimum means league.
A Rider on Rearing Horse Trampling a Fallen Foe (Study for Sforza Monument), Leonardo da Vinci, metalpoint on blue prepared paper, (image courtesy of Windsor Castle, Royal Library)  
Another silverpoint artist working today with a very different approach is Roy Eastland, a British artist.  Nonetheless, to my eye, he is highly successful in the impact he achieves with the humble medium of silverpoint.
What wouldn't I give to grow old in a place like that, Roy Eastland, 2010, silverpoint on gesso
One of my minimalist recent metalpoint drawings owes its origins to the patterns I saw recently on a huge plane tree one hot July day in France.
Traces IV-V-VI, silver-goldpoint, 2013, artist Jeannine Cook

Friday, 8 August 2014

Rules of the Plein Air Game


It is always fascinating to realise how one evolves as an artist.  I am constantly surprised at how things change, whilst the core impulses and responses remain consistent.  I was reminded of this yesterday as I found myself responding to the intricate beauty of ancient olive trees and mighty Mediterranean pines in a way that I would not have done a year or two ago.
Olive Tree (Olea europaea)
Mediterranean Pine (Pinus halepensis)
Yes, I love trees, and have always found them of intense interest and delight.  But now, with my eyes more attuned to their texture and patterning of wood and bark because of the way I am frequently drawing in metalpoint, I “see” differently.  And more than that, I find myself learning more and more adapting and moving to a very selective mode of drawing en plein air.
There is an interesting passage in a book I read some time ago, Monet by Robert Gordon and Andrew Forge, published by Abradale Press in 1989.  Discussing painting (and by extension drawing) en plein air, “To paint directly, to follow the rules of the plein air game, means to start with what is given from a particular position.  Studio painting avoids occlusion problems (i.e. one near form hiding another behind it), but plein air means you have to choose your position and you have to deal with being blinded by overlapping features.”  Where you chose to stand or sit, what details you pay attention to: these are critical decisions for the artist to make at the onset of a work of art. The passage in Monet gives the example of a view down a straight road.  It establishes the visible world in depth at the same time that it establishes the position of the observing eye.  It defines the relationship between seer and the seen within a geometrically precise structure.
Every time now that I start a metalpoint drawing, I need to decide on my position – where I am going to sit.  This determines the details that visually jump out at me amid the welter of detailed information on the patterned bark of a tree, for instance.  Those selections dictate the “geometrically precise structure”, the composition that I have in mind (although that tends to evolve as I work). It also means that I have to “prune away” details that will not fit nor strengthen the drawing towards which I am almost instinctively groping.  It is indeed ideally a rather instinctive, non-conscious-thinking mode that I hope to achieve because I find that is when the best drawing happens.  Not always possible, alas!
These are some of the more recent choices I made whilst sitting in front of mighty trees as to where I sit and what details are thus predominant and visible.  

Walnut Freize, silverpoint, artist Jeannine Cook
Oak Labyrinth, gold-silverpoint, artist Jeannine Cook
Oak Labyrinth I, gold-silverpoint, artist Jeannine Cook
 The rules of the plein air game become paramount.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Pouring your Life into your Art



Whether you like it nor not, your art is often the reflection of who you are and where life has taken you.  That may be an unnerving idea, but it seems to be one that most artists, in all disciplines, have to come to terms with.
“You don’t make a photograph just with a camera.  You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved,” wrote Ansel Adams.  And for photography, you can substitute any art form, from dancing to singing to visual arts or theatre. Images of Sacha Copeland dancing on a wine barrel at La Porte Peinte residency in Noyers, France, as she choreographs a new work, The Wine Project, tells us about all her past experiences and ideas. As she herself writes about The Wine Project, "There in the glass was the soil of a place and in that soil was a soul”.

Sacha Copeland, Artist Director, Java Dance Company, New Zealand (photograph courtesy of Emma Hellowell)
Sacha Copeland, Artist Director, Java Dance Company, New Zealand (photograph courtesy of Emma Hellowell)
Sacha Copeland, Artist Director, Java Dance Company, New Zealand (photograph courtesy of Emma Hellowell)
Frequently, the artist has little awareness of what is going into the art being created, if that small inner voice is in charge.  It is only later that one realizes that there is a wonderful circularity in what is happening, a reason and its result, direct and obvious or much more subtle.  It may be years and years later that something seen, something experienced comes floating up and into the art.
I began to realise, for instance, that my childhood exposure, on walls of my home in Tanzania, to Japanese woodcuts, wonderful prints that had been created after the 1923 earthquake in Yokohama, Japan, was the reason for my always feeling comfortable with negative spaces reaching all four sides of a piece of paper.  Drawing or watercolours, it does not matter: I feel almost compelled to use the entire surface of the paper, edge to edge, to create “dis-balanced” spaces that play into the whole composition.  To me, it is part of my concept of art-making; I feel very strange when I confine the work I am creating to the inner parts of the paper, leaving blank space around the image.
Marronniers III: Chestnut Bark, gold-silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist
Le Chant des Pierres III: la Bourgogne Profonde, gold-silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist
To me, the richness of art forms resides to a great degree on all these inner layers of life experience that the artist brings to the act of creation.  Sometimes you capture and understand them, sometimes you don’t.  There, again, part of the fascination of art is how each of us completes the dialogue of the art work.  In other words, sometimes that artist’s life experiences resonate with the viewer.  Sometimes they don’t because the viewer has had a radically different life and finds it difficult to find bridges stretching across to the artist’s world.  
 
The question that lingers at the back of my mind is: what happens as present-day ever-accelerating giant changes in technology, urbanization, life styles and cultural mores show up more and more in art forms?  Do these changes create huge divergences in art and its adherents, particularly between generations? Or do we continue to acknowledge that certain art, in whatever form, transcends generations and centuries because the richness and power of its content and message? And, ultimately, who amongst us is the arbiter of the enduring character of that art? The super-wealthy buying at art auctions, the more “humble” supporters of all forms of art, governments and/or non-profit art organisations funding the arts, or who?
I wonder if Ansel Adams thought of those “down-stream” aspects of art-making as he created his wonderful photographs.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Environments that Help Artists

Every artist instinctively seeks an environment that helps them create their art.
It is not always so easy to find either the place, nor the time and serenity to create, however.  Every artist knows those stumbling blocks.  Sometimes they are easily surmounted, other times it is not so easy.

Sometimes, luck intervenes too.  In my case, Lady Luck definitely came calling this summer. 
  
For a multitude of reasons, it has become difficult to have the time to spend in my studio, so I have been fortunate enough to be able to slip away for a while to different art residencies that I have been awarded hither and yon.  This year, I had a magical two weeks in spring in Portugal.  I was then able to have time at another residency, La Porte Peinte, in Burgundy, France, a country I adore anyway.
 
It is of course always a bit of a gamble going to art residencies.  It may be a wonderful place, with good studio facilities, but the area may not sing or the people who run the residency may not be terribly compatible… there are so many variables.  Until you get to the place, it is difficult to judge accurately whether you will be able to be truly creative there.  Even recommendations from other artists are not always an accurate gauge for one’s own needs.
La Porte Peinte, in Noyers sur Serein, in north-east Burgundy, near Auxerre, proves to be the most wonderful place in which to create art.  I have just spent the first half of a month’s residency there, and it was the most supportive, comfortable and welcoming place I could have dreamt of.  For a start, the medieval village is a delight. You enter from the south over the Serein river.

At the entrance to Noyers sur Serein, photo J. Cook
And these are views from my eyrie perch window in my room.
Place de l'Hôtel de Ville, Noyers, photo J. Cook
Up the street from La Porte Peinte, photo J. Cook
L'Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), Noyers, photo J. Cook
Michelle Anderson Binczak, the Executive Director of La Porte Peinte, is not only the most gracious of people, but her very international approach and wide knowledge of people and places make her able to help in so many ways.  She also knows a lot of local people and that means that an artist has suddenly all sorts of insights and introductions into other ways of life in the area.  That is beyond price.  Her husband, Oreste, runs their elegant and diverse Gallery and does a million other things to make life at La Porte Peinte so pleasant and constructive.  And yes, La Porte Peinte is situated in rue de la Porte Peinte - how about that for destiny!
The more I spend time at art residencies both in the United States and Europe, the more I realise that the atmosphere created by the people in charge is critical to an artist’s ability to create, explore new horizons and grow as an artist.  There is a subtle difference between being left to one’s own devices, to work in peace, and being left to be independent but at the same time, being offered the opportunity to involve oneself in the local cultural world, to meet other artists of all descriptions and disciplines and to be psychologically supported as an artist.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

The Power of a Line



I saw a really interesting small exhibition that came from the Josef and AnniAlbers Foundation in Bethany, Connecticut.  It was at the Fundación Juan March in Palma de Mallorca and will be at the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español in Cuenca from now until October 5, 2014.  Josef Albers: Process and Printmaking (1916-1976) was a small exhibition, divided into three sections.
His first woodblock prints, in black and white, are a far cry from the vivid colours and abstractions of his later work in the United States.  Albers was first inspired by the coal mining landscapes of his native Northern Rhine-Westphalia region in Germany; he turned to print-making not only for its economy of production but also for the creative liberty that the medium allowed him.  He was deeply engaged, not only in the manual involvement of how art is made in the printing process, but also in the exploration of how far he could push the possibilities of the medium.  Endlessly inventive and questing, he clearly kept saying to himself, “What if… I did this… or that?”  Questions that every artist should be constantly asking him or herself.
One particular series was especially interesting to me, for it showed just how powerful each line can be in a drawing or print, and if one changes the emphasis of just one line, the whole composition and content of the work changes.  As Albers said, “Everything has form and every form has meaning”, and his simple series that ended as Multiplex A-D done in 1947-8, demonstrated that perfectly. Alas, his preparatory drawings which are in the exhibition don’t seem to be available on the Web. But even there, the progression of ideas and different emphasis each time on a principal line versus a secondary line underlined how Albers understood so well how art can be changed a great deal, even just by a thin or thicker line.
The preparatory drawings and studies for the Multiplex series ranged from pencil drawings on paper, then on tracing paper, sometimes using a red pencil for emphasis, sometimes a blue pencil.  Finally, having worked out the range of possibilities for that play of lines, Albers moved to studies on paper for each version of the series, then gouache over proof of a woodblock print.
Meticulous and yet questing, the preparation for such seemingly simple prints is instructive.  Josef Albers had planned out exactly what he wanted to say, the emphasis each time on his view of each line’s importance.  In other words, the more he prepared and thought about each work, the more pared down and powerful it became… a lesson for us all!
These are the woodbock prints that are the results of the Multiplex series’ preparation.  Each line is eloquent and functions as a vital part of the composition, in a “major” or “minor key”.

Multiplex A, 1947, Josef Albers,
Woodblock on paper, 16 1/2 x 12 1/2"

Multiplex B, 1948, Josef Albers,
Woodblock on paper, 16 1/2 x 12 1/2"

Mlutiplex C, 1948,
Josef Albers,
Woodblock on paper, 16 1/2 x 12 1/2"