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.
When Monet died, his step-daughter Blanche took over his home in Giverny. Once she died the place was passed to his son Michel, who had no interest in it, preferring to be on safari in Africa. Trees grew up in the large studio where some of his last paintings were still stored and Monet’s Japanese prints still hung on the walls. I knew people in Giverny who used to rummage through the house when they were kids. Much was stolen form the place, but not Monet’s paintings, nor the Japanese prints. When the house was restored, so were the prints. The influence of these prints on Monet’s work, and the work of the Impressionists cannot be overstated. At each juncture in Monet’s career, he returned to the Japanese for inspiration. (I will give some specific examples in later posts.)
I was fascinated by this connection and on my first trip to Japan I visited the southern end of Japan where the Dutch traded with the Japanese. There are several stories about how Monet first came into contact with the prints, but one is that while staying in Holland to avoid the draft during the Franco-Prussian War, these prints were used to wrap his groceries. he was so taken with them that he returned to the store and picked up a pile of them. Once you learn the process that goes into these prints, with each one taking up to a month to produce, you soon see that even when they were more common, it is unlikely that they would be used as ballast in a ship.
Here is a wonderful film about Canadian David Bull, who upon seeing his first Japanese prints decided that he had to learn how to do these. After some trial and error he packed up his family and moved to Japan, where he sought out master printers who would teach him the trade. Now, more than 20 year later, he is still in Japan. This film shows the process in some detail and helped me really appreciate what went into these amazing prints. http://woodblock.com/press/woodblock_shimbun.php?storyid=tv45
“For sixty years Pat Adams has approached painting with an empiricist’s concern for the nature of visual form and the intimist’s sensibility that addresses the layered complexity of being. With abstract paintings characterized by seductive colors and richly encrusted surfaces, Pat seeks to bring from her “gatherum of quiddities” – that stew of unnamed qualities – a visual situation that bestirs contemplation.”
Pat Adams (b. 1928), That is to Say, 2010, oil, isobutyl methacrylate, pencil and crayon on paper mounted to panel, 19 x 24 inches, courtesy of the artist
From 1973 through 1976 Pat Adams was my professor at Bennington College. Pat already had 20 years of experience as a serious artist, showing in New York and collected by museums. The “landscape” for women artists was not an open one. The art world was both smaller and fairly closed to women. Things were changing, but most advances were hard won. I’m not really prepared to talk about what Pat was up against. All I can tell you is that until the 1980s, I believe, only two women had had a one person shows at the Guggenheim — Helen Frankenthaler and Helen Frankenthaler.
Seeing Pat’s paintings today I wonder why I didn’t know them better; why I wasn’t more aware of what she was thinking; what her process was; what battles she was waging on canvas. This retrospective at The Bennington Museum gave me a chance to experience her work and also see some of her materials: things she was looking at, tiny drawings she compiled endlessly in her notebooks. It was a revelation.
It was the opening night and not the best opportunity to take in the work, but at the end of the evening, when the rooms emptied, I had a moment to look closely at some of the pieces with the director of the museum, Robert Wolterstorff. I was struck by how my eyes were pulled around the canvas, how I flet moments of speed and slowness, of agitation and rest, of chaos and precision — like I was entering the universe. I wondered at the surfaces. How she achieved tiny irregularly shaped dots in a grid, how she painted a curved line that was at once as precise as a calligrapher’s curve, and yet broken in spots revealing the paint surface beneath. There was something so illogical about this line, so confounding, I couldn’t figure out how it was made.
When I was able to speak briefly with Pat during the show, she told me that some of the marks on the canvas were achieved by a kind of printing or transfer process. Painting on mylar and “stamping” it onto the canvas. But I didn’t get a chance to ask her about the lines.
Pat’s paintings are full of texture and unusual materials, mica, sand, pigment, and other minerals. Wolterstorff was most taken by this aspect of the work, which made him think of both Keifer’s straw and Beuys’ lard and felt. I forgot to mention to him that there was a Beuys exhibition at the college in the 1970s.
As we looked at the paintings, the rigor of the composition struck both of us. To me, they felt like mathematical journeys. Jamie Franklin, the curator, had displayed some things that Pat had pulled elements from — postcards of a Gothic Cathedral, the composition of an old Master painting, the shape of a sliced geode. All of these were echoed in the work.
Pat Adams’ Notebook
I believe that in the misogynistic days of the 1970s, these elements were at times dismissed as decorative. Seeing them now I know that they were no more decorative than the letters of a formula. What, after all, can be eliminated from E = mc 2 .
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