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 Chapel 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 is that as a child as he drew a sheep on a rock, 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. It was so realistic Cimabue tried to whisk it away several times. Many years later, the fly became 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 as I crossed the Mall in Washington on my way back to my hotel, I decided I had to duck into the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, part of the Smithsonian, and see the Asian work there. On display was the Price Collection, on loan from Los Angeles. The first piece I saw as I entered the exhibition was “Pine and Plum Trees in Snowstorm” by Katsu Jagyoku, the 18th Century Japanese artist.
The room was dimmed and soft light fell on an enormous screen with branches and falling snow. I felt completely enveloped by the piece. I had both a calm and emotional response to it, a feeling that has stayed with me to this day.
Katsu Jagyoku. “Pine and Plum Trees in Snowstorm,” a/k/a “Crows and Plum Tree, Rabbits and Pine Trees in Snow ,”
A representation of these screens on a computer cannot begin to give you the feeling of the atmosphere, nor the enormous scale of the pieces.
I was impressed by the way so much was conveyed with such an economy of means, and almost no color.
When I am shaken by a work of art like this, it will find its way into my work. The piece that was most directly affected by this experience is this one:
I chose to use the motif of the almond tree, which I have been working with for years, perecisely because I am so familiar with it. I can work with it freely.
This time I painted it on several panels to give it the feeling of the Japanese screens. I limited the palette, as Katsu Jagyoku had. I preserved his scale and the mood of the original screen. What is impossible to see here is that I have used reflective paint that makes light bounce off the surface of the canvas and also changes with the light.
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All projects have their precedents, and The Grid Project is no exception. For many years I used photography as an aid to my painting. I kept looking for subjects that were more and more abstract. I want the image to take on a new meaning as an abstract construct that has nothing to do with the subject. But I also want to retain in the image some of the things I explored in my painitngs: transparencies, translucencies, reflections, and qualities of light.
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 curtain 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 nobles to court, where he could keep his eye on them, and then he sent his minions to the provinces 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.
Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp
This summer as I was framing over a hundred pieces for an Open Studio event, my hands decided to rebel. At first it was my right hand. The thumb became a stiff rod in what I came to understand was a trigger finger. I could not bend it at all! I had some notion about what was up because of the Rembrandt painting of Dr. Tulp showing his students that the tendon he is holding in the forceps in his right hand controls the motion of the fingers that he is demonstrating with his left hand. Soon after my right thumb went out, the left one followed. I felt as though my thumbs had been slammed in a car door. And as a painter, I was desperate to fix my hands without doing further damage. The fear was choking.
As luck would have it, one of the best hand doctors in the region came to the Open Studio. I didn’t know it then, but found out when I was sent to him by my general practitioner. Our first line of defense was a shot of cortisone. Shots in your hands are terribly painful and I screamed, “I hate you,” at the doctor. Unfortunately, I seem to be allergic to cortisone and it exacerbated my situation. It also sent me running for an alternative cure. I spent months receiving massage, seeing an accupuncturist, wearing a brace, seeing a physical therapist. Nothing, no change. I finally conceeded that surgery might be the only solution.
Leonardo da Vinci, Anatomical Drawing of a Hand
For the doctor the proceedure was a rather simple thing, a ten minute operation that can be done under a local anesthetic. As you can see in da Vinci’s drawing there are bands that hold the tendons in place. The operation consists of cutting the band at the base of the thumb. My mantra to myself was — please make my hands strong and flexible.
I had the hands of Michelangelo’s “David” in mind.
The stitches were removed today. I still have some swelling and I don’t have full range of motion yet. But the thumb bends well enough to handle a brush, and the doctor assured me that this would continue to improve. In the meantime, the left hand is going back into a brace to try to delay what may be the inevitable. I brought the doctor a print of the painting by Rembrandt and for a brief moment our worlds aligned.