Fifty Springs Are Not Enough colored pencil on bristol 2016
I made a drawing for my mother of a plum tree in bloom during the spring rain of flowers. I've never lived anywhere where there are so many blossoming trees, all blooming at once. It made me think of the line by Ezra Pound: 'petals on a wet black bough,' and also of A.E. Housman's elegiac poem from from A Shropshire Lad:
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom,
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
Three Candles graphite on paper 2016
My husband looked at this most recent still life drawing and said that it reminded him of Zurburan's still lifes, each candle sitting in a row in its own space much in the same way he sets up his spare compositions. I think giving each object its own space brings attention to the humble dignity of each thing; the way they live in time along with people and used by people, and over time develop a spiritual aspect, a kind of life of their own.
I am pleased that you want to write more reviews about artists who are women after you read Maura Reilly’s Art News article on gender disparity in the visual arts. It strikes me as a problem, though, that if you only found the work of 17 women interesting enough to write about before considering their gender that if you seek out more artwork by women to write about, the issue of importance remains----did you look at their work because you felt it was important and interesting in itself, or to rectify your previous omission? When I read Reilly’s article it occurred to me that at least part of the problem for women is one of perspective, especially the perspective held by the viewer of what is ‘important.’ Because the subjects that a woman finds important because of her life experience may well be different than what a man finds important because of his. It is an old distinction in the history of painting, most obvious in still life. Norman Bryson wrote eloquently about the concepts of megalography and rhopography and their relationship to gender in Looking at the Overlooked: “For as long as painting’s mode of vision would be constructed by men, the space in which women were obliged to lead their lives would be taken from them and imagined through the values of the ‘greater’ existence from which they were excluded.”
It takes a revolution of perspective to see past one’s own expectations. When you are a cat in a world of cats, it may be difficult to empathize with the perspective of a rat. When you are a man looking at a woman’s artwork, a leap of empathy may be needed, a change in perspective, an openness to unsettling your previous judgments about hierarchy and importance. Looking at art allows one to try on another person’s eyes for a while, to look about in their brain, to see into their life and philosophy. Importance necessarily shifts from artist to artist; judgment must be suspended until the other world view is fully inhabited.
You may not remember an evening five years ago spent visiting the studios at a small art school, but I vividly remember the first sentence you spoke as you entered my space: “Why so domestic?”
I was taken aback at the time, and didn’t have a chance to answer your question with my own: Why not? Our inner lives are most revealed in the privacy of the home. It is a space all share; everyone goes to sleep somewhere, has parents somewhere, fill the needs of the body somewhere. Domesticity is universal. Why would that be your first question unless, as I guessed to myself later, you felt that such a subject was unimportant and therefore my interest in the home needed to be justified?
It is the puzzle of perspective – we look at the same thing with different eyes --- and whose view is closer to the truth?
Life is lived within the circumference of gender. To make artwork about something means the artist feels such a thing is important, should be looked at, thought about, remembered. One’s own sphere of experience affects all definitions of importance. When you go out looking at women’s artwork with the intent to write more equitable reviews, I would like to ask you to stop and question what assumptions you bring with you. Can you make the leap of empathy – can the cat see a rat’s world with rat-like eyes?
Some day when you next look at my artwork, I hope you might not look at it straight with all your old judgments and assumptions, but slant, and backwards, and sideways, to see from where it was lived, and with what concern and wonderment.
Regard a Mouse
O'erpowered by the Cat!
Reserve within thy kingdom
A "Mansion" for the Rat!
Snug in seraphic Cupboards
To nibble all the day
While unsuspecting Cycles
Wheel solemnly away!
Andrea Del Sarto Study of the Head of a Young Woman (detail) about 1523 red chalk on paper
My husband and I were lucky enough to go see the Getty Center's new show Andrea Del Sarto: The Renaissance Workshop in Action. It is a beautiful show, full of wonders of the hand and spirit. His drawings are small, confidant yet delicate, and astonishingly full of feeling. What struck me most, walking through the show twice trying to absorb all the beauty, was his tenderness and respect for his subjects, something I usually associate most with Rembrandt. Yet his paintings were more DaVinci like, with soft sfumato edges and gentle chiaroscuro, but far more vibrantly colored. Unusually, there is an unfinished painting on display, a heavily worked, half-done, very large painting of the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. The angel is a cherub, a symbol of innocence in a moment that takes away Isaac's innocence forever. Isaac's face is ambiguous, maybe even ambivalent, as he kneels below his father's outstretched hand. The image is agitated, violence barely averted. My husband remarked that Catholic painters had to be interpreters of the scriptures, theologians as well as painters.
While it was interesting to see Del Sarto's working drawings and how they were used, sometimes repeatedly, in his paintings, I enjoyed his portraits most of all. The drawings of a woman which the writer of the wall-texts speculated was likely his wife Lucrezia had such tenderness, respect, and thoughtfulness that they almost glowed. You had the sense looking at them that here was a woman respected and loved. The oil portrait of a young man with lavender-grey sleeves was similarly remarkable for the directness of his gaze, the beauty of his expression and the mutual regard the viewer gets to share with the painting, looking and being looked at, a glimpse forever shared. There was also an exquisite and moody drawing of a young boy with ruffled hair in the same room, a study for a painting of a youthful Saint John the baptist, also on display. Del Sarto's use of chalk is really wonderful, how he could vary between softly blended shadows, hatchwork, and all kinds of varied lines to describe the contours of the face, the tendrils of hair. His range of emotion is wonderful, too, from astonishment to wariness to introspection to warmth and liveliness. He often didn't draw pupils in the eyes of his subjects, which gave them a dreamy other-worldliness, a look of reflection.
Speaking now of a different kind of reflection, on the state of art today, this morning I read Ben Davis' 'Why are There Still so Few Successful Female Artists?' and Mira Schor's response 'Just a Short Message From Venus.' It made me think of the recent headlines about Meryl Streep sending a letter and a book about equality to each member of Congress encouraging them to revive the Equal Rights Amendment. It shocked me a year ago to read a book on feminism and realize that there is no language in our constitution ensuring the equality of women in this nation. This despite Abigail Adams' passionate letter in March of 1776 to her husband to "remember the ladies" as he helped write the constitution. She warned him "all men would be tyrants if they could." After the initial shock began to pass into wonder, I found myself thinking how could half of America not count enough to have a few words added on their behalf? But somehow women are still overlooked, living a half-invisible life. How sad that it is not in our history books that while the Equal Rights Amendment was first written in the 1920s and passed in 1972, progress was halted in 1982 because it was three states short of the minimum needed to add it to the constitution. And here we are in 2015, still missing those crucial few words that recognize a self evident fact that all humans are created equal, all men, all women, all children, no matter what gender, age, race, sexual orientation, or belief, everyone is equal before God and should be equal before the law. Perhaps we need to re-read Abigail Adams' letter, and again warn the world that if "particular care and attention are not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion."
Perhaps we also need to look at more humanist art, to learn to look at others with respect and tenderness, alive to the nuances of individuality that Andrea Del Sarto so beautifully recorded in his drawings and paintings. I sincerely believe that art teaches us how to look, and that to look at the world (and other people) with more attention leads to greater appreciation and care for what we regard.
Yesterday I read Maura Reilly's Art News article on gender disparity in the art world. It wasn't surprising after recently seeing the Guerrilla Girls show and hearing two members of the group lecture at Pomona College Museum of Art, but it was disheartening. Half of the world are women, and yet only 30% of art shown in public institutions is made by women. It makes for a culture that is incomplete and out of balance, missing the different perspectives that come with different experience: whether that is the experience that comes from being a woman, of a non-white or mixed ethnic background, of non-heterosexual orientation, having a physical or mental disability or disease, or anything else that makes one's experience unique, distinct, unusual, an important addition to the full story of what it is to be human.
Here is a small selection of my favorite (representational) painters who are also women.
Gwen John The Convalescent oil on canvas 1923-1924
Christiane Pflug Kitchen Door with Ursula oil on canvas 1960
Louise Moillon Still Life with Cherries, Strawberries and Gooseberries oil on panel 1630
Rachel Ruysch Nosegay on a Marble Plinth oil on canvas 1695
Fede Galizia Still Life with Apples and Peaches oil on canvas 1607
Sofonisba Anguissola The Chess Game oil on canvas 1555
Clara Peeters Still Life with Cheeses, Artichoke and Cherries oil on panel 1625
Frida Kahlo Tunas: Still Life with Prickly Pear Fruit oil on panel 1938
Georgia O'Keefe Oriental Poppies oil on canvas 1928
Joan Brown Self-Portrait oil on canvas 1970
Suzanne Valadon the Blue Room oil on canvas 1923
Alice Neel Hartley oil on canvas 1965
Mary Cassat Young Woman Sewing in the Garden oil on canvas 1880-1882
Berthe Morisot Summer oil on canvas 1880
Paula Modersohn-Becker Self Portrait oil on panel 1907
Jane Frielicher In Broad Daylight oil on canvas 1979
Meria Sibylla Merian two botanical watercolor paintings about 1665
Paul Cezanne Chrysanthemums oil on canvas 1896-1898
"In The Transformation of Nature in Art, A.T. Coomeraswamy says that the transformation of nature has to do with indicating its mystic dimension, and nature just naturally is out there, so what! You see it in pictures, you go out in the fields and you see it again. But what the artist does by organization is to render a rhythmic statement that something of the mystery dimension comes radiantly through and touches us. Cezanne had a saying, 'Art is a harmony parallel to nature,' and the harmony that is stated in art is of the nature that is both the nature of our own lives and the nature out there. So we get an 'Aha!' a sense that, 'Ah yes, I've known that all the time.'"
Christiane Pflug Kitchen Door with Esther oil on canvas 1965
"Good art is a truing of vision, in the way a saw is trued in the saw shop, to cut more cleanly. It is also a changing of vision. . . Why ask art into a life at all, if not to be transformed and enlarged by its presence and mysterious means? Some hunger for more is in us--more range, more depth, more feeling; more associative freedom, more beauty. More perplexity and more friction of interest. More prismatic grief and unstunted delight, more longing, more darkness. More saturation and permeability in knowing our own existence as also the existence of others. More capacity to be astonished. Art adds to the sum of the lives we would have, were it possible to live without it. And by changing selves, one by one, art changes also the outer world that selves create and share. . . Artists. . . perceive the extraordinary within the ordinary by changing not the world but the eyes that look. Within a summoned and hybrid awareness, the inner reaches out to transform the outer, and the outer reaches back to transform the one who sees. . . To form the intention of new awareness is already to transform and be transformed."
--Jane Hirschfield Ten Windows
Dan McCleary Protection oil on canvas 2009
I have been reading the new book 'Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life,' by Karen Armstrong, who was a nun before she became a renowned religious historian who wrote 'A History of God,' among other books. In 'Twelve Steps' she says that "one of the chief tasks of our time must surely be to build a global community in which all peoples can live together in mutual respect," and goes on to emphasize the importance of compassion in building that community of peace.
Reading it made me think of a show my husband and I went to see two weeks ago. Dan McCleary: Every Day Sacred is at the USC Fisher Museum of Art until March 7th. What strikes me most about Dan's work is how respectful it is of its subjects, and how compassionate his gaze is towards the friends/strangers/'other' who he depicts. I worked for Dan for a time as a model and as a drawing teacher at his program for young adults called Art Division. Dan is indeed as compassionate and kind as his artwork suggests. He is one of those not "motivated by self-interest, a truly humane person. . . oriented toward others," as Karen Armstrong describes a little later in her book. His portrait paintings and drawings show "a consistently empathetic consideration of others (which) can introduce" the viewer of his artwork "to a dimension of existence that transcends our normal self-bound state."
His paintings allow us the chance to share a gaze or gaze upon another person depicted with respect as mystery, going about their life in the shared, private and sometimes anonymous spaces we all inhabit. It is what I like most about them, that sense of silence, connection, distance, intimacy, and reflection. They are very beautiful in person. Dan's colors are fresh and surprising, and his application of paint is thoughtful. If you are in LA, I would recommend making the effort to go to the Fisher Museum before the end of the week as well worth your while.
Dan McCleary Panel Discussion oil on canvas 2011 (that is twenty-one year old me in the middle of the table, wearing a gold pendent. The other models are, from left to right: Javier, Robert, me, Emmanuel, Wilbur, and Ajax)
Vincent Van Gogh Still Life with Blue Enamel Coffeepot, Earthenware and Fruit oil on canvas 1888
"What are the poetics and the politics of the object? How do objects mediate relations between subjects, and how do subjects mediate the relation between objects? How are things and thingness used to think about the self?"
--Bill Brown 'Sense of Things'