Sometime this week, we were finishing up year 8 art class, a large group of students spread across a large classroom, a third finishing up clay and the rest restarting a project that preceded the clay project, but was abandoned for some reason. Students were coming up one by one showing me their finished work. "Oh, good. Just put it back over by the wall," I would say to the clay students. "Do I need to keep covering it with plastic?" some would ask. And then students started bringing the other, previously abandoned project up. "I'm finished. What do I do?"
It was a project related to what the younger students were doing, a lot of cutting and pasting of construction paper. Inspiration for these projects was a pile of construction paper (I've never seen construction paper in China, so I figure it was from some "international order" made by the last art teacher.) For this project students had to draw each other from a three-quarter view and then use construction paper to define the edges within the drawing. The drawings were great. I just told them to use color transitions to show the lines they had drawn and some of them really went crazy. Bizarre collages and fragmented cubistic constructions.
Then this girl whose named Marissa came up with her drawing of Julia, her classmate, carefully covered with brightly colored paper. "That's great," I said. And then a sudden "Ha!" came out of my mouth as involuntarily as always. "I have to show you this," I said excitedly. "It's Vermeer...15th century...or 16th, or 17th." I Googled "Vermeer, girl" but then stopped it before any results come up. You can't google anything with "girl" in it nowadays. Especially with an 11 year old standing right there. So I went to wikipaintings.org. I mean, if a nude pops up there, at least its tasteful. "This is crazy," I muttered as I scrolled through a list of artist's names. Marissa pointed to Vermeer in the list. "Right," I said and clicked on it, There was the painting. I clicked on the painting and heard a gasp and then "Hey Julia, come here, come here." I quizzed Marissa about the possibility of her having seen this before. "Do you think maybe you did and it was in your subconscious?" "No, definitely not," she reassured me.
Now, I know there wasn't a lot of resemblance, but it sure was satisfying making a fuss over nothing and watching those two girls walk away seeing their work in a new light.
It's cold and rainy. Wind gusts that are unusual. I roasted coffee and then went down for a quart of milk. On my way back I ran into our neighbor, a retired guy. He was waiting by the elevator. I saw the "in repair" sign lit up and heard him say, "It's being repaired. "
I told him I had come down not 10 minutes before. Probably not being repaired. He said there were some sounds and I placed my ear against the doors. Nothing. I repeated my thoughts and then saw his boxes of milk. Two, the individual milk cartons in a box. The kind that don't need refrigeration. You poke straws in the top. I picked them up and said that it would be a while before the elevator was working. He protested trying to take the heavy one from me. I gave him the light one. It's the only way we would get anywhere. And I knew we'd get food out of it. His wife is always bringing us dishes. And it's always good food. Sausages or smoked meats. We chatted coming up. I walked slowly fearing it was too much for him. I pretended like it was too much for me so that he wouldn't feel pressured to keep up.
We parted at his door. I came in and forgot about it all. Then a knock came, and I knew that our food had arrived. PIckled turnip duck soup. One of my favorites.
I couldn't figure out how to look at the California paintings. For a long time. I wasn't sure if I liked them. There was something irritating about them. I still haven't seen them stretched flat, but will next weekend. We took 3 down to frame yesterday.
Am in the process of taking everything out of the gallery. It feels good. Hung this painting up today to see how it looked on a gallery wall. Makes me want to finish the series which has really dragged on. Maybe I'll take some of those unfinished works with me to work and work on them while students are working on their projects. Might feel good to work with students.
This painting has changed about 4 times--3 times drastically.
Today is when I pulled the canvases out and unrolled them to find what seemed like a mess to me. It had merit I suppose, but it just kept reminding me of grafittti.
Next week it will change again. I hope not too much.
I keep waiting for something to occur to me. I also keep waiting for things to disappear, like that snake in the bottom right corner.
Maybe I'll make it disappear tonight.
The Diebenkorn Exhibition at the de Young Museum in San Francisco (finished) was intense. I knew of Diebenkorn's work from researching color while at LSU. I would now have to put Diebenkorn at the top of my list of "favorite painters". The show impressed me much more than the de Kooning retrospective that impressed me back in 1996. Maybe it's the landscape element that's there, the sunlight or simply the color.
On the way in a man was handing out small pieces of paper with Diebenkorn's "Note to Myself" so that visitors wouldn't feel compelled to take a photo of the wall where the list was printed. The list makes me feel that there is a universal set of rules that we have embedded in our hearts. I found that with the exception of No. 9, ideas very similar to these helped me to figure my abstract series.
We were walking through the Chicago Art Institute Museum. I turned to Peng Li and said, "Don't you feel like you know all of these dieties?" I meant like on a personal basis, and she understood this. She laughed.
I was referring to the Tibetan and Nepalese statues, the ones in tantric embrace and the scary ones that didn't seem scary anymore--not like they did when I first encountered them a long time ago. Now they were almost comical. The really scary ones with swords drawn, tongues hanging out and brows bent inward were now making frightful noises but in that cartoony way that the demon who wasn't really a demon tries to do when he wants to be his scary best. And maybe it works, but probably it doesn't because bad things happen even when he's around, but he's trying really hard to keep us, or the temple, or the lamas or the world safe.
And then I asked Peng Li, "Where's Dumu? She should be around somewhere." It hadn't occurred to me to look for her until then, and as soon as I did, I saw her in miniature form seated or standing, I've forgotten, but she was unmistakable in her striped pants. Being very quiet in a case as if she was truly confined. And then we saw the big wooden Nepalese statue, not quite life size, but maybe, standing just inside the entrance. She had been standing there all along, snickering probably.
On the last full day there in San Francicso we were at home, a Monday, David and Tiffany had taken off from their jobs. Last day tasks were out of the way and we were left with nothing to do. I was able to finally get started on David and Tiffany’s portraits. I taped my three remaining surface canvases off to 16 x 20 inches so that the finisehed paintings could be cheaply framed with premade stretchers and frames (the price of custom framing in the states is ensuring that all artwork is 8x10, 12x14, 18x24, etc.). And I got to work.
I bumped into Chuck, our neighbor, a semi-retired ex-hippy that morning and told him to come over in the afternoon for a portrait, but by the time I had finished David and Tiff, we were ready for a nap and then there was dinner to think about. At sundown I ran into Chuck out back and showed him the two finished portraits. I said that I would be ready to paint his the next morning if he got to me before I packed up all my paint. He was out there at 10 AM wearing a tight fitting maroon stocking hat to cover his bare head. It was the first time I had seen him in a hat and figured it was preparation for sitting in the cool morning air. “Are you ready for a pianting.” “Sure,” he replied.
That last painted wrapped it all up.
For the past few years I’ve been desirous. Desirous for flesh.
During the summer before entering university I attended a summer figure drawing workshop at my university. It was weeklong and each day we drew a model, clothed in a leotard. The whole idea of life class was foreign to me. Growing up in the conservative south, I had never heard of artists standing around drawing someone in the nude. No, it would have been a “naked person”. It was during my sophomore year that a new professor decided that the school should have life classes. It was 1988. A dry county. Bible belt.
And even those new classes were only optional evening classes. It wasn’t mandatory for students to look at the human body.
I transferred the following year during winter break and walked into life class at Louisiana State University. It was amazing. Amazing. Ike was our primary model, a bearded guy from New Orleans. Then there were others. And it was every semester one class after the other until it all climaxed with a figure painting class. And then when I graduated the thing that every artist should do throughout his life ended.
China is not the place to come to if you want to draw nudes. It’s not that there aren’t models, there are. But they’re expensive. You might pay 80 American dollars for 3 hours. You could split the cost with a small group, but groups of people who want to draw models are hard to come by. I’ve heard that in Shanghai expat teachers have gotten together to hold life classes, but that’s Shanghai, a place different altogether from inland China. And then there are the types of models you find. They’re either un-model-like or VERY model like, as in skinny/sexy model like, usually posers for photography clubs who put them next to a steam in an out of sight rural area. Think simulatneous shutters. Think sideline photographers with big lenses all pointed at the same thing, all getting the same thing. And all middle aged men.
But these models aren’t art models. They don’t know the poses, the stances, how to sit on a stool, how to hold a staff, how to look graceful or dignified. And even if they can do that, they aren’t requested to because local artists don’t know to have them do this. I remember going to a graduate students’ studio to draw alongside students and there was a model in a coat and bluejeans sitting straight forward legs just plopped there. How do you draw that? So I drew the students who were drawing. It’s just a different mentality.
So one of the first things I did when I went home was start looking for my old figure drawings. I didn’t find the ones I was looking for. I think they’re there up in the rafters in the garage, but the wasps kept me at bay. The stack I did find was enough. Drawings of Ike, gesture drawings, those quick 3 minute drawings of a model who is just turning, adjusting an arm or a leg, changing a stance. The fluidity, the subtlety, the nuance, the rythem, the beauty. And then the memeories of those LSU studios with large protruding windows and high ceilings came back, the sounds of 15 charcoal sticks scratching across the paper surface in an otherwise silent room and the mystery of what the person next to you is doing on their paper while you get caught up in your own concentrated zone. That creativity that one feels in a life class is like no other and for what it’s worth I was able to relive it a bit in those old drawings and paintings that I dug out.
Maybe I should start a life class coop. Hmmm.
Nobody’s ever asked me what my favorite painting is, and I’ve never thought of the question before about 1 minute ago. I had several students ask me who my favorite artist is and at the time I answered Cezanne. A few weeks ago my nephew asked me my favorite color, and I said it was blue. My brother and I had a conversation about the color blue that stemmed from an observation that the sky is never really blue but shifts from blue to greey to weird amber colors. David said he listened to an NPR story about how the the color blue is never mentioned in the Greek classics. The theory is that the sky was not though of as a color but as a void, a space. I asked him if that was why children color in the clouds but not the sky until they’re taught to do it the right way. It’s all interesting. And as far as my favorite painting is concerned, I decided, now about 4 minutes ago, that it’s this unfinished work by Cezanne.
In 2007 when I started painting in Cheongdo-gun, a county in South Korea, I would get stuck. Or the weather would be bad. So I would get on the train and ride north about half an hour to Daegu City where there was a large bookstore with a Starbucks. I’d pick up a Cezanne book, one of those Tachen publications and thumb through it. This was how I got back on track. After a few hours in the coffee shop and a look through that book, I knew exactly what I should be doing. Often my best paintings were painted the next day. In that book there was an unfinished painting of a village with a tower in the middle of it. I always admired that work, but I never knew how important it was until one day recently when I discovered the same book and that painting, and suddenly I knew, just as I had often happened that year in Korea, what I should be doing. And the next day I went out to paint, and paintings came about effortlessly, painlessly.
And I know it’s that painting in particular because at various time over the past few years I’ve tried to get help from Cezanne- to get inspired, to find direction, insite, understanding. But never with any luck. I thought maybe I had gone to Cezanne too many times. Maybe I’d gotten all I could from his work. And then I saw this painting again, and I realized where all of that inspiration was really coming from. And I’m not really sure what it is about this image. It could be that it reveals a process that shows me what I should be doing with line and blocky shapes—how I should fill them in. And it’s a drawn line. I assume it’s charcoal though it could be something else. But the grey edges of shapes really look like charcoal that’s been pulled into the color. And then there’s the abstract quality that really dominates in this work that hasn’t had time to become an complete image. The abstract quality is so strong that the painting can be turned upside down and still look perfect. Perfectly balanced, left right, up down, in out. Perfectly still. Perfectly unfinished, letting the viewer finish it, complete what isn’t complete.
I was thinking this morning that subject matter doesn’t get me excited. I’m not enthralled with mountains or trees or small rivers. And when I do occaissionally find myself overwhelmed or in awe of a scene, I find that scene unpaintable. Not because it’s so inspiring but because the scene is so grand that it overwhelms my imagination. It preoccupies, or hijacks, my feelings. I don’t know what to turn it into because my mind becomes void of any thoughts. What I like is subject matter that tells me that I can use it to create something interesting on the canvas. The more quiet, the more still, the more modest a scene is, the better. When lose track of this direction the painting puts me back on the track. It tells me that my job is not to create an image of the subject, that the object is really of little importance. Finally, presents a little blueprint, a demonstration of how simple it all can be.