Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Art: An observation - by Richard Nelson

Art and plants thrive in fertile soil. For some, art is only there for the picking. They plant and harvest endlessly, with little thought of replenishing or rotating the crop.

But there are those artists and patrons who replenish, and in so doing, harvest a crop rich in both tradition and insight. Their soil encourages new growth and a mutation of endless varieties of new visual and tactile experiences.

And then there are those who plant a new variety of seed which germinates to become esoteric concepts. Their soil bears abundant fruit, rich in verbal, philosophical, social and political pronouncements for a chosen few. This crop is not a feast for the eye or touch of a hand, for such qualities are no longer recognized by these authors or their supporters.

Visual/tactile art is not literature, music or dance. What makes it unique is its ability to communicate visual ideas. When the visual/tactile experience no longer serves as the primary means of communicating, it may be an art form, but one whose definition serves another master.

© 2009 Richard Nelson

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Art history reflections: Kit Gentry

Fire Breather by Kit Gentry

Here is Kit Gentry’s response to the final art history homework assignment, in an email conversation with Dick.


I've been considering the homework assignment, regarding a closing statement. I was tapping away at it this afternoon, and ended up with the following few paragraphs, which I'll share with you early, since there are some unresolved questions here, and maybe you'll have something to add that can help me formulate a better presentation before the next class.

I think it's clear that I would tend to be classified most closely with the painters of the Baroque, and it's no surprise that most of my favorite painters are from that era. Like them, I frequently use dramatic lighting or similar "romantic" circumstances of light and atmosphere, I do not idealize my depictions of life, and I'm embracing a non-linear style of rendering that allows for lost edges and similar phenomena related to the behavior of light.

However, none of this proceeds from a personality that's susceptible to flights of emotionalism. Quite to the contrary, I have a highly rational personality and an appreciation for order and self-discipline. Some friends of mine regard me as the most rational person they've ever known. So we have a bit of a dichotomy here. If the Renaissance or Greek Classic periods are the ones most closely associated with a rational or cerebral approach to painting, then it seems that my work ought to be more linear and less romantic in quality. How, then, can my work be "Baroque" or "Romantic?"

And there's another problem that I have with this. We've learned that the rational, thought-oriented artists of history produced works in which humanity was idealized, while Baroque painting permitted the introduction of worldly flaws and natural appearances, even in religious characters. That's clear enough.

But, in my own experience, I've found that rationality and emotionality have led me toward exactly the opposite sets of respective conclusions in regard to real life.

It's always been my emotional side that has led me to assume that people are mostly good and worthy of idealization. But my rational side, guided by experience, has shown me that people are inherently fallible and that life is unavoidably tragic. I've had to apply rational thought to correct certain naive or childish perceptions regarding life and humanity - it requires a certain rational effort to abandon certain forms of wishful thinking and to accept certain forms of objective reality.

I've also had to use very deliberate, rational observation in order to perceive the subtleties of light and shadow that allow me to paint in a much more open, non-linear method. Although the results are more "romantic," the observational process is very rational and objective, allowing me to jump over some difficult hurdles of preconception. In earlier, less rational moments of my career, my painting style was much more linear and tight, because I wasn't really thinking as clearly about what I was seeing - I wasn't observing it as consciously as I do now.

So, all in all, rationality has allowed me to defeat a variety of faulty preconceptions - and the artistic results have been more romantic, dramatic and colorful, not less.

But these connections between rational thought and style of work seem oddly reversed in the history of art, leaving me uncertain about my place in the scheme of things.

If all of the "romantic" works were as indulgent as Fragonard's stuff from the Rococo period, I wouldn't be as confused. But much of the emotional work, like that from the Baroque, actually seems to have a more realistic perception of the content of real life than work from the more intellectual periods such as the Renaissance. In the Renaissance, we instead get idealization - a sort of Utopian view of humanity. But this seems strangely inconsistent with actual human nature. It seems to me that people do the most idealizing when they are the least governed by rationality and wisdom.

By the way, I'm circulating a petition to have the works of Fragonard expunged from the historical record. Just let me know if you'd like to sign it. I can't imagine that you would like that "Swing" painting any more than I do...

Dick Nelson replied:

I'm not surprised that you would be the one for whom such an assignment hits a responsive chord. You are not alone with such a dilemma. As for "something to add..." I must excuse myself, for as much as I would want to wade in, that's not to this time. Delayed closure? Maybe. More when next we meet on the playing field. I can say this. Whether your issue is ever fully resolved is not as important to me as what I see in your work and in this statement. You possess those qualities which, for me, separate a painter from an artist. We have a number of calendar illustrators on this isle, but you cannot be counted in their number. Your work reveals far more than the skin of the onion.

Kit responded:

I've been giving further thought to the ideas that I was discussing in my first note, and it seems to me that I gravitate toward the Baroque material because that stuff is actually very well balanced between head and heart. It would be ridiculous to say that the work of Caravaggio or Vermeer or Velazquez was anti-intellectual in quality - obviously, all of those works are filled with signs of intensely rational planning and decision-making, and they exhibit monstrous leaps forward in visual understanding. It would be equally preposterous to say that they're anti-emotional, since they're self-evidently loaded with emotionally stirring and dramatic qualities. They seem to achieve a nearly perfect balance between thought and feeling, and that may explain why they have such a widespread and timeless appeal.

If anything, my work tries to achieve such a balance, and this is why I was talking about trying to select the best of everything from various types of work.

I may have told you this story before, but when I taught a drawing class at the Hui a few years ago, I noticed a page of text attached to a bulletin board in the classroom. It was supposed to be some wise essay about art, and the opening sentence read as follows: "Art is an endeavor of the soul, not of the intellect."

On the first evening of class, I displayed this essay and read the opening statement, and then I told the students, "If any of you believe this statement, then I won't be able to teach you anything in this class." The whole idea of denigrating the role of the intellect in art, as if it were some sort of hostile faction that needed to be defeated, seemed like the dumbest idea I'd ever heard.

On the other hand, my work is clearly not a celebration of the mundane, since I like to see dramatic environments and circumstances in my pictures, and that's all in the interest of drama, which is ultimately emotional and not very quantifiable. But whenever intellect and emotion get out of balance with one another, either in one's art or in one's self, the result seems very thin and insubstantial.

By the way, I was very flattered with your complimentary words concerning the substantive qualities that you perceive in my work, and I thank you very much for that. I wonder if you've seen the latest addition to my website, a new section that brings together my own writing, photography and artwork to present an artist's statement. If you really want to peel away at the skin of the onion, this would be the place to do it:

I'll be curious to see how you respond to this presentation. I'm almost reluctant to share it with anyone, because it's a very experimental thing and I'm not sure how it will come across. Artists' statements can be so full of rubbish, you know. I hope that mine is not, but maybe it is and I just can't see it because it's mine. You have the experience and wisdom to know for sure.

Kit Gentry

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Art history reflections: Karen Bennett

My work is visual communication,
and I would rather show than tell.
I combine words and images to convey ideas.

This piece is the start of a visual summary of some of the main themes of this class.
To complete it I would like to include some representative works.

My natural tendency is toward the side of reason,
but this is a reminder that we all embody both aspects,
and sometimes I will need to use the tools of passion
to communicate most effectively.

Karen Bennett

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Art history reflections: Barbara

From Last day of class

I have always loved exploring museums in San Francisco and on my travels viewing works of art. I am a member of the San Francisco Museum Society, Hillsborough Auxiliary. We are quite active and never miss a new event always guided by a knowledgeable docent. Still I felt something was missing---I just wasn't "getting it". This class has opened my eyes in so many ways. It is enlightening to know the different periods and exciting to recognize a few correctly. Now I know to ask myself what the artist is trying say, but I'm still not confident enough to decide if he was successful. I am inspired to keep studying and learning and hope I can understand and appreciate the art that I view. Thank you Dick!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Art history reflections: Connie Adams

"Entering Tidal Waters" 15" x 22" transparent watercolor 2009

Dear Dick,

There were some lovely surprises for me in your class. One was that I don't hate Baroque art after all. I enjoy most of Carravagio's and I absolutely love Vermeer! I found out that the Rococo period is one that I am not very fond of - with their allegories and "fussiness" and their "horror de vacuume" (sp). I always mixed these two up! Thank you settling that in my mind once and for all.

I think I know why I paint what I paint. You have dubbed me a romantic and I guess I am interested in the "feelings" of the subject matter or the "feeling" it engenders. However, I am also VERY interested in the way watercolor behaves. So I finally saw some more modern twist to my work that is different than a straight romantic, where the paint is just as important or sometimes more important than the subject matter. Most times in painting I get enamored by the way a certain wash "happened" - those happy accidents. (I hear that word, "happy accidents" so much that now I hate to use it. But are they REALLY accidents?) Anyway the pigment behaves in such a way with a generous amount of water and it does what it does and I control it only slightly. If I still enjoy this mark when it is dry, the painting gets built around it. Other washes and glazes are applied - sometimes with minimum control and they further drive the painting. I am getting farther away from real accuracy in my "illusions", but I know in my heart I am not a non-representational painter. I like to find the abstract patterns in nature - most often botany - but lately it has been water and rocks. I used to be very "true" to these patterns, but now when the paint takes over, I let it. There is still an image remaining. In this way, I am trying to get better at a vocabulary of edges in watercolor sometimes at the expense of a recognizable image.

In this way I lose the "wow" factor of the romantic or realism painting and I have a little of the "puzzlement" of the modern and post-modern era. The question might be asked of my paintings - "what is it?" And the answer might well be "paint" However, often enough the image prevails. Perhaps that makes my paintings less successful or less contemporary - the fact that the image prevails. That might be my weakness that I tread in two or three eras. However, I know that you said that many of the greatest painters couldn't be pigeonholed into only one "ism" so now I don't worry about that as much. Besides, I am being very much true to myself in that I see patterns in realism and choose to keep them in context with each other.

I used this class to think about my paintings. I used this class to see a bit more clearly what I am doing for this upcoming exhibit. Thank you. It helped to think of my art in this way. I know I will be changing again and I will be writing something different in years to come. However, I have a clearer historical framework thanks to this class. It is not that I think I am a great painter - I know I am not - but it doesn't matter. The process is the same whether you rise to stardom or you struggle your whole life - if you really examine your work and yourself. And it helps to have an understanding of the historical framework where you find yourself. Again thank you so much for this wonderful class.

Above is an image of a painting for my next exhibit which will be titled "Water's Edge" referring to both paint and image.

Mahalo Nui Loa for such an informative and inspiring class.


Friday, May 1, 2009

Art history reflections: Curtis Cost

First Light in the Morning Air

My first take is that my work roughly falls into the classic realm. My paintings are predominantly linear, though I avoid universal lighting. I tend to paint in either the late or early colors of the day. I mostly use recessional compositions, but occasionally plane. My process is similar to the surrealist where one thing leads to another, but it does not convey a surreality.

Iao Valley

I strip away unnecessary elements and to that extent, my work is idealized. Essentially, my work is nature dominated and largely about preserving the essence of a place and time.

Upcountry Maui

While I love the through-the-canvas illusion, I always want to leave some of the painting subtly looking like paint. It allows the viewer to go back and forth between here and there, paint and pastureland, context and content, chaos and order, two dimensional and three dimensional. I like to play with the evocative aspects of representational landscape as it connects to my experience, which is somewhat of a storybook world, and still retain some semblance of art for art's sake.



Thursday, April 30, 2009

Last class

We had the last session of art history today. Curtis took a couple photos with his iPhone. Dick had asked us each to sum up what we'd gotten out of the class. I'll be posting several summaries, but thought it would be nice to start with this one from MJ, which I think speaks for most of us.
What I got out of my summer vacation art history class which was in the middle of the winter. . .

Frankly, I would not pass an art history test and I did not take a single note. In the first class, I started to take notes, harking back to my days of being a good student, then I realized that I just wanted to listen. I didn't want to study notes. Instead, I wanted to pay attention to you and learn from you. I will not use this information to become an artist or to visit European museums. I just wanted to learn.

And I did. I know very little about art, how to judge it, how to spot "real" art, how to appreciate how it has evolved. I would never have given Picasso's bicycle seat and handle bars a second glance. Now, however, I understand that the religious art that I have always so hated has a very interesting evolution. Art evolves just as man's consciousness evolves.

I learned. I broadened my mind and my understanding of art. I enjoyed the artists in the class. I had a fun time.

I want my mind to be as sharp as yours when I'm 80. And, as a student of people and a writer of their peccadillos, I watched and learned how you use humor and positive, good will to make everyone in the class feel special and loved. They all cling to your words and your insights, not just because you are knowledgeable and have a lot of answers, but because you are a fun and positive person to be around. You have a spirit that is even more delightful than your class.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Comments on William Turner's Fighting Temeraire

The Fighting "Temeraire" tugged to her last berth to be broken up
1838; Oil on canvas, 91 x 122 cm; National Gallery, London

Dick asked us to prepare comments on this painting for our April 9th class (see assignment). Here's what are Bonnie, Joelle, and I had to say.
(Wanda's comments added April 28.)

I see the cycle of life eternally moving slowly forward. Death is proudly giving way to new life. The Temeraire, ghostly white, appears already dead without its sails and armaments. Although the old ornate wooden ship holds herself proud as she is towed to her destruction, the setting sun creates a final metaphor for the end of her era and her life.

A new day will be dawning with iron, steam-driven ships taking over the seas. Life spews from the smokestack of the vividly colored tug. The tug is full of energy and has the strength to pull the large, highly honored old warship to her last resting place. Iron steam-driven ships now rule the seas. The cycle of life continues with each new dawn.

Looking at this painting one literally is peeling the onion: the more you look at it, the more layers you discover. What appears at first as a single event becomes a symbol for a whole era of changing times. Not only Turner tells us the story but how he feels about it…Rather than an exact rendering of the event Turner makes a suggestion of reality; everything is touched by light almost like by his own emotions and feelings: in this case a sense of loss and nostalgia for the grand past of the British naval power.

The sun setting and the ghost-like coloring of the boat are metaphors for the passing of the old warship while the small and steam-powered dirty tugboat evokes the beginning of the industrial revolution… (Maybe also the people’s revolution and the end of royalty as it used to be).

The whole painting appears to me to be made of opposites and contrasts:
  • light / dark
  • sun / moon
  • warm / cold
  • soft, blended, detailed, meticulously painted / rough, emotion-filled brush strokes
  • clean / dirty
  • wind powered / coal-steamed powered
  • life / death
  • geometric / organic
  • grand / common.
Comment on the word “Téméraire”: (French for temerarious…)
In French has a sense of courageous, fearless

In English fool-hardy, rash, impetuous

This painting conveys the significance of reality through appearances of reality. The sun is setting on the day, and on the era of sailing ships. The still atmosphere shows the advantage the new steam ships have, and the haze hints at some of their impacts. The pale sailing ship is being towed to a salvage yard by a steam ship, and already looks like a ghost. The steam ship is a crude brown form, while the sailboat is rendered in loving detail. I think Turner is saddened, and painted this poignant scene to mark the occasion.

The space is at least as important as the objects. The sky is alive and in places appears more substantial than the boats. The sky and the sea are horizontal planes extending from the foreground into the vanishing point of the setting sun [where sea sun and sky become one], and the composition is circular, allowing the viewer to soar out there and return again. Everything is inter-related and and unified; colour, space, object and composition. There is also a mysterious ethereal quality to it with the pale ships and the whisper of a moon.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The father of modern art

In another synchronistic event, I learned of a current exhibit on Paul Cezanne and his influence on other artists in the same week that Dick talked about him in art history class (week 7). The Philadelphia Museum of Art has a major show going on through May 31, "Cezanne and Beyond." Apparently, he was very influential on both his contemporaries and later artists. The New York Times art review says both Picasso and Matisse have been credited with saying "Cézanne is the father of us all." The reviewer has some quibbles, but says "it’s a deeply satisfying show, with enough spectacular moments to justify the ticket lines and plenty of quieter revelations that will resonate particularly for working artists."

Dick declared Cezanne "the father of modern art" and credited him with "an entirely different way of seeing." He said Cezanne was "trying to recognize a reality beyond what we perceive. He wanted to give solidity and form to what had been dissolved by the Impressionists. He didn't want to have a disintegrated canvas, he was trying to integrate it." He highlighted some of Cezanne's work towards the end of his lecture on April 16, which you can see on Slideshare here. The first part of the lecture covered Realism and Impressionism, and is on Slideshare here.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Week 6 assignment

The Fighting "Temeraire" tugged to her last berth to be broken up
1838; Oil on canvas, 91 x 122 cm; National Gallery, London

For class on April 9, Dick has asked us to prepare some comments on the work above:
Please take five or ten minutes to view the attached image of Turner's painting and pen a couple of comments regarding how his painting reflects his interpretation of the event. Having some quiet time to contemplate this work without outside interference is important here. With your permission, we would like you to read your comments at the appropriate time in the lecture.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Warm-up assignment, take 2

And now, a second viewpoint comparing these two works. This one was written by artist JoelleC. (See the first here.)

Although the theme of both paintings revolves around music, Harnett’s [on the left] is a detailed, almost photographic rendering of all the elements depicted, creating an illusion of reality. It appears as a careful set-up which gives clues to the viewer into a world of nostalgic and romantic nature.

On the other hand, Picasso’s* painting, by using a series of geometrical shapes and patterns, doesn’t merely imitate the world as seen, but creates an impression connecting us to the essence of music and its rhythm. The use of words creates the festive event context in which the music is played. In spite of the theme, the painting has become an independent object where colors, composition and textures invite the viewer to perceive the world from different points of views. The ambiguity of the visual message can be the starting point for the viewer’s own creative process.

What is interesting to me is that, although the painting on the left appears to be more realistic, it could be totally an illusion... where the one on the right might actually be a bigger picture of a real event.

* There was some debate among the group whether this piece was created by Picasso or Braque, as they were working closely together in a similar style. Joelle thinks it looks more like Picasso's work of that time. --Karen

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Lost edges

In our fourth class, Dick pointed out "lost edges", where the artist invites the viewer to participate by filling in missing information, such as the Mona Lisa's hairline on the right side of the painting, where the area is shadowed, leaving the dividing line indistinct. Coincidentally, he got one of his "Twice-weekly letters" from Robert Genn the same day, making the same point (though using the terms "selective focus", "hard edges", and "soft edges") with work by a contemporary artist and by Titian, who we'd also discussed that day. See Robert Genn's commentary, and the works he refers to. Dick's comment, when he forwarded Genn's letter, was
To all who paid attention in class today, you may find this quite a coincidence.
The slides illustrating Dick's lecture are here, and the day's quiz is here.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The art history game

We got an introduction to the classification of periods in art history by playing a game. We worked in pairs with a game board, where a chronology of representative works was arranged around a square. Dick showed works of art on a screen, and each pair had to agree on what period the work was from, then the whole class gave their guesses and we discussed it. After classifying about twenty works, we had a pretty strong "spatial" sense of "where" in time the various periods fall relative to each other, and what some of the general identifying characteristics are.

The chronology starts in the bottom right corner, and moves clockwise. I've followed Dick's labeling in blocking the periods out in the lists below.
  1. Nature dominated
    Greek geometric
    Greek archaic

  2. Man dominated
    Greek classic
    Greek Hellenistic

  3. God dominated
    Early Christian / Byzantine
    Late Gothic
    Early Renaissance

  4. Man dominated
    High Renaissance

  5. Science dominated
    De Stijl

  6. Science & technology dominated
    Abstract expressionism
    Pop art / Op art
What is the central concern of the art of this time? What world view is represented in this work? How does the artist understand his fate and role in the world: Man as a victim of nature? Man as a servant of God? Man imposing his will over nature? Is the art concerned with faithfully representing reality, or the significance of reality? These are some of the important questions to consider in deciding which period a work is from.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Warm-up assignment

Prior to the first meeting of the art history group, Dick asked us to write a brief comparison of the two works above. Here is how Curtis Cost responded:
Two definitions of art...

On the left, as described in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, art defined as a skill set developed over the course of 10,000 hours.

On the right, Analytic Cubism. Art as described in Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word, defined intellectually, explained by theory, prompting N.Y. Times Art Critic Hilton Kramer to write "These days, without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting."
What was your response? Please share!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Art history presentations

Dick's presentations from the last two meetings of the art history group are available now on You can view the first one above. Notice that you can also expand it to full screen. The others are also available to view or download (for a limited time). They are PDFs, so you don't need PowerPoint to view them.