I’ve been having conversations with Giotto di Bondone [c. 1267 – 1337, born in Florence, Italy] since I was twelve years old and my class studied the Rennaissance. The conversation became obsessive when in 1987 I created a cycle of paintings recreating the paintings of the Arena Chaple on seven shaped canvases, the largest of which is 18 by 24 feet. [You can see them here.]
“The Last Wall”, oil on shaped canvas, 18 feet x 24 feet, 1987
There are three stories about Giotto. One that as a child he was drawing a sheep on a rock and Cimabue saw this and was impressed and invited him to become his apprentice. Another is that one day while Cimabue was out Giotto painted a fly on Cimabue’s self portrait that was so realistic Cimabue tried to whisk it away several times. Many years later, the fly becasme a symbol of the artist and was inserted frequently into Dutch still life paintings.
But it is the third story that has occupied me recently.
Vasari [the chonicler of “Lives of the Artists”] relates that when the Pope sent a messenger to Giotto, asking him to send a drawing to demonstrate his skill, Giotto drew a red circle so perfect that it seemed as though it was drawn using a pair of compasses and instructed the messenger to send it to the Pope. The messenger departed ill pleased, believing that he had been made a fool of. The messenger brought other artists’ drawings back to the Pope in addition to Giotto’s. When the messenger related how he had made the circle without moving his arm and without the aid of compasses the Pope and his courtiers were amazed at how Giotto’s skill greatly surpassed all of his contemporaries. [Wikiwand]
This winter when I started to paint circles, of course I thought of Giotto, but never more so than when I began to draw them on a large canvas.
To do this I sort of dropped into a meditative state. If I thought too much about what I was doing my mind would interfere with my hand.
Several years ago I decided that I wanted to do a set of lithographs based on a painting I did of an almond tree. Having never made a lithograph before I thought I’d share the process with you and get your input along the way.
I made 4-plate lithograph, that I printed in different colors to represent different times of the day.
Then I took the separations and scanned them and made a digital version of the lithograph. With 4-scans, I was able to make each scan a different color. Being the art history nerd that I am I used this as an opportunity to explore the palettes used in some of my favorite paintings by some of my favorite artists — Van Gogh, Gerhard Richter and William Nicholson.
My image coming out of the printer.
The digital print being turned back into a painting.
I then used the digital rendering to inspire new paintings on canvas. In this process, it became clear that I didn’t just want to change the palette, I wanted to change everything about how I applied the paiint. I poured paint, and dripped it, I flung it and scaped it. I used brushes, and squeegees, and rags, and paint sticks, palette knives and my fingers. I used oil paint, enamel paint, metallic paint and highway glass.
What remained was as abstract image that was based in nature and had a certain quality of light.
And even then, I was not quite finished, I also went back to some of the lithographs and painted on them to further enhance the image.
This project started in 2008 and it isn’t quite finished. When people ask me how long it takes me to do a painting, I assume they are asking how long it takes to apply the paint — not how long it takes to conceive an idea, nurture it, modify it, deconstruct it and reinvent it.
This process is essential to me. It is not repeating an image, it is studying, investigating, and dissecting an image. And until I have discovered everything I can, I keep working on it.
But now something new is bubbling up. And again it is something I don’t quite know how to go about. So, I thought this would be a good time to share my journey with you. I have a vague idea where I want to go with the new work, but no idea how I am going to get there. If you have any ideas, feel free to chime in. The new project is called The Grid Project and I’ll explain it to you in my next post.
One day I was moving paintings in the “gallery space” of my studio and I heard the words, “French Revolution”. We had just been through a long spate of Trump tantrums and I believe it was that, as much as anything, that brought the French Revolution to mind. I love French history, and while I haven’t studied the Revolution in many years, I spent the afternoon in a revery of free association. I was working on some large paintings that are mostly abstract, but with a representational association. And I was using a lot of metallic paint. I decided that I wanted to paint one of those wide, diaphanous skirts worn by Marie-Antoinette. I found such a skirt misidentified as hers on Google.
The skirt was actually the wedding dress of Hedwig Elisabeth Charlotte of Holstein Gottorp. Mari-Antoinette’s wedding dress said to be made of a cloth of silver and covered with diamonds has not survived. It had all the qualities I was looking for — diaphanous, enormous, like a curatain on a stage, with layers and layers of labor-intensive lace.
As I started to paint this I thought of the French court and how a century before the Revolution Louis XIV declared, “L’état c’est moi!”. “The State is Me!” He brought all the nobels to court, where he could keep his eye on them, and then he sent his minions to the provences where they could corral the land profits for the State. This structure was unsustainable, as more and more of the wealth was concentrated at the top. While the Queen play-acted at being a simple shepherdess at her faux farm, her people were starving. Parallels mount as you look at our current situation.
I did not so much paint this picture as I attacked it. I flung paint at it and rubbed my hands in it. In the end came a shocking moment of beauty, like. the sparkling glass of a broken vase. Should I have called the piece, “Vanitas”?
Nine years ago I spent seven weeks as an artist-in-residence at AIR Vallauris, which is walking distance to the Mediterranean. One of the advantages of returning to a residency is that you already know where everything is; where to buy food, get your laundry done, and buy materials. You can hit the ground running.
When I first arrived in Vallauris I started photographing immediately. I knew that my eyes are freshest when I first land in a place and even after a day or two I can become visually immune to the environment.
I was looking for something very specific. I wanted my subjects to appear abstract, and I wanted them to have layered and visually ambiguous space.
That is not how things started for me in Vallauris. The first thing that caught my eye were the utility boxes that are inserted into the side of a building.
I went from that to the basketball court, to the crumbling walls between buildings. Most of these photographs I won’t print. They are an exploration of the place, but don’t meet the criteria I am seeking in my work.
In the eight years since I had last visited Vallauris much had changed. Vallauris was known as a ceramic center in France bolstered by the years that Picasso spent there working at Madoura. It still has a great ceramic museum and Picasso’s Chapel, but many of the great ceramicists, such as Collet and Derval, have passed away, and most of the ceramic studios that popped up around town have closed. Now many of the stores that carried their work are also closed. And this, finally, is where I found my subject.
It didn’t coalesce right away. I took dozens of photographs of empty store windows until I found just the quality I was looking for.
Leslie Parke, “Golf Juan I”, photograph, archival inkjet print on archival paper.
“Almond Tree – Tree in Twilight”, oil, metallic and enamel paint on canvas.
I was raised to think that art history evolved linearly – a straight line from Giotto to Pollock. I was not prepared for the halting, meandering movement of a career in art, where you race forward with one idea, retrack steps, add something new, abandon a direction and end up end up in the middle of a hi-way clover wondering which way to go. Nor was I prepared for all the things that would influence my work — art history, a random photo, a hand injury, the availability of materials. This is why I find it so unnerving to write grants — “describe your project”. My project is to get from where I am to where I am going without crashing. My destination is uncertain, the GPS is broken, I don’t have a map, but I do know that moss grows on the north side of a tree.
With my Almond Tree series, I decided to go deep. Explore the imagery every way I could, and see where that took me. The latest incarnation besides kicking the sacred cow of a Pollock drip, also involved using metallic paint. For most of my career I have used high quality artist fine oil paints, but after attending a workshop with Vincent di Siderio, where he told us that he started a painting with roofing tar and Rustoleum, I thought, why not? The importance of how paint “feels” cannot be overstated. Silver Rustoleum is a lyrical medium with a mecurial affect. With it I was able to add a layer to my Monet inspired landscape, where I was not only depicting the light, I was creating it. In these paintings the surface changes with the light. You never see the same painting. When you move, it changes. When the light changes, it changes. The surface was set in motion.
Funny thing about motion. I started taking photographs of the landscape while I was moving.
When I decided to paint the same thing, More adventures with paint suggested themselves.
“Tracings”, oil on canvas
“Drive By – Night” 68 inches x 42 inches, oil, metallic and enamel paint on canvas.
While driving around and capturing these images first as photos and then as paintings, I also observed what rain looked like as my headlights beamed off of the drops.
“Small Rain”, 40 inches x 72 inches, oil and metallic paint on canvas.
“Small Rain”, side view showing the reflective quality of the paint.
“Ebb Tide”, 70 inches x 70 inches, oil and metallic paint on canvas.
In the end the paint was able to create qualities that I observed in nature. Each effort suggested a new way of working with the paint, subjects that were at times representational and at others abstract. Trying to write about this in a grant is frustrating. All I can say is that I am skidding on black ice in a vehicle hoping not to crash.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s house and landscape have occupied our imagination almost as much as her paintings. O’Keeffe left New York to take up residence first on Ghost Ranch and then in Albiquiu, New Mexico. I had a vivid image of what her surroundings looked like mostly through the black and white photographs of her in these settings. What I found when I went there is that some images were remarkably accurate and others didn’t tell the whole story. I thought, for example, that her house was miles out in the dessert in complete isolation. But, in fact, she lived in a small town not unlike the one I live in, with a school, a bunch of houses, and a general store. She happened to live somewhat on the edge of the town, so that her views, at least in one direction were not obstructed.
This view, for example, could be seen from her bedroom. The road has been up graded and is much used today, but when she lived there it probably didn’t have much traffic. She did a painting of this road in winter.
The surrounding landscape is remarkably like her paintings.
Even parts of her house are represented in her work.
Before heading to her house I checked out the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and was happy to find her paintbox and brushes. She used mostly Blocx paint, but also had Winsor and Newton and Grumbacher.
Around her house there were the proverbial bits of nature.
The famous elk horn under which she was photographed.
O’Keeffe’s stone and shell collection.
And rustic door to her court yard.
What was more surprising was the interior of her house. It was completely modern with mid-century modernist furniture. We weren’t allowed to photograph it, but this skeleton of a chair was in the courtyard.