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Q: Can you tell us about the different series of work you have created and what they embody?

Barbara’s studio with work in progress

Barbara’s studio with work in progress

A:  The Black Paintings series of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings grew directly from an earlier series, Domestic Threats.  While both use cultural objects as surrogates for human beings acting in mysterious, highly-charged narratives, in the Black Paintings I replaced all background details of my actual setup (furniture, rugs, etc.) with lush black pastel.  In this work the ‘actors’ are front and center.

While traveling in Bolivia two years ago, I visited a mask exhibition at the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz.  The masks were presented against black walls, spot-lit, and looked eerily like 3D versions of my Black Paintings.  I immediately knew I had stumbled upon a gift.  So  far I have completed nine pastel paintings in the Bolivianos series.  One is awaiting finishing touches, one is in progress now, and I am planning the next one.

All of my pastel paintings are an example of a style called “contemporary conceptual realism” in which things are not quite as innocent as they seem.  In this sense each painting is a kind of Trojan horse.  There is plenty of backstory to my images, although I usually prefer not to over-explain them.  Some mystery must always remain in art.

The world I depict is that of the imagination and this realm owes little debt to the natural world.  I recently gave an art talk where I was reminded how fascinating it is to learn how others respond to my work.  As New York art critic Gerrit Henry once remarked, “What we bring to a Rachko… we get back, bountifully.” 

Comments are welcome!

 

Pearls from artists* # 354

"Epiphany," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“Epiphany,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

My earlier work had taught me that artistic activity is a form of reasoning, in which perceiving and thinking are indivisibly intertwined.  A person who paints, writes, composes, dances, I felt compelled to say, thinks with his senses.  This union of perception and thought turned out to be not merely a specialty of the arts.  A review of what is known about perception, and especially about sight, made me realize that the remarkable mechanisms by which the senses understand the environment are all but identical with the operations described by the psychology of thinking.  Inversely, there was much evidence that truly productive thinking in whatever area of cognition takes place in the realm of imagery.  This similarity of what the mind does in the arts and what it does elsewhere suggested taking a new look at the long-standing complaint about the isolation and neglect of the arts in society and education.  Perhaps the real problem was more fundamental:  a split between sense and thought, which caused various deficiency diseases in modern man.      

Rudolph Arnheim in Visual Thinking 

Comments are welcome!

Q: Where did you grow up and what were some early milestones or experiences that contributed to you becoming an artist later in life?

“The Sleeping Gypsy,” Henri Rousseau, oil on canvas, 1897

“The Sleeping Gypsy,” Henri Rousseau, oil on canvas, 1897

A:  I grew up in a blue collar family in Clifton, New Jersey, a suburb about fifteen miles west of Manhattan. My father was a television repairman for RCA. My mother stayed home to raise my sister and me (at the time I had only one sister, Denise; my sister Michele was born much later).  My parents were both first-generation Americans and no one in my extended family had gone to college yet. I was a smart kid who showed some artistic talent in kindergarten and earlier.  I remember copying the Sunday comics, which in those days appeared in all the newspapers, and drawing small still lifes I arranged for myself. I have always been able to draw anything, as long as I can see it. 

Denise, a cousin, and I enrolled in Saturday morning “art classes” at the studio of a painter named Frances Hulmes in Rutherford, NJ.  I was about 6 years old. I continued the classes for 8 years and became a fairly adept oil painter. Since we lived so close to New York City, my mother often took us to museums, particularly to the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Natural History.  Like so many young girls, I fell in love with Rousseau’s “The Sleeping Gypsy” and was astonished by Picasso’s “Guernica” when it was on long-term loan to MoMA. I have fond memories of studying the dioramas at the Museum of Natural History (they are still my favorite part of the museum). As far as I know, there were no artists in my family so, unfortunately, I had no role models.  At the age of 14 my father decided that art was not a serious pursuit – declaring, it is “a hobby, not a profession” – and abruptly stopped paying for my Saturday morning lessons. With no financial or moral support to pursue art, I turned my attention to other interests, letting my artistic abilities go dormant.

Comments are welcome!

 

Q: Would you talk about your use of Mexican and Guatemalan folk art as a convenient way to study formal properties such as color, shape, pattern, composition, etc. in your pastel paintings?

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

A:  For me an interesting visual property of these objects is that they readily present themselves as a vehicle for exploring formal artistic properties, like color, pattern, shape, etc. especially compared to my earlier subject matter:  hyper-realistic portraits and still-lifes.  Intent as I was on creating verisimilitude in the earlier work, there was little room for experimentation.  

Many Mexican and Guatemalan folk art objects are wildly painted and being a lover of color, their brilliant colors and patterns are  what initially attracted me.  As a painter I am free to use their actual appearance as my starting point.  I photograph them out-of-focus and through colored gels in order to change their appearance and make them strange, enacting my own particular version of “rendering the familiar strange.”  Admittedly these objects are not so familiar to begin with. 

When I make a pastel painting I look at my reference photograph and I also look at the objects, positioning them within eye-shot of my easel.  There is no need whatsoever to be faithful to their actual appearance so my imagination takes over.  As I experiment with thousands of soft pastels, with shape, with pattern, with composition, and all the rest, I have one goal in mind – to create the best pastel-on-sandpaper painting I am capable of making. 

Comments are welcome!         

Pearls from artists* # 139

"Broken," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“Broken,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Leaving a show of Pat Steir’s work called Winter Paintings at Cheim & Read Gallery, I thought back some years to when the Walker Art Center’s then curator Richard Flood was walking us through the Center’s collection and we came upon an abstract expressionist painting by Joan Mitchell that was so striking I asked him why it had taken so long for her to be recognized.  He answered with a wry expression:  “It’s the problem of beauty!”

A few days earlier our friends Kol and Dash came to lunch at our home, and Dash said at this time most visual art is conceptual.  “It’s a way of thinking,” she said.

Story/Time:  The Life of an Idea/Bill T. Jones

Comments are welcome! 

Pearls from artists* # 108

At work on a pastel painting

At work on a pastel painting

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Artists generally need privacy in order to create, and as I’ve noted, what constitutes adequate privacy varies by person and time.  Solitude quickly becomes isolation when it oversteps one’s desires.  But most artists need to feel that they and their work won’t be examined prematurely and, certainly, won’t be ambushed unfinished by ridiculing eyes.  You might go out and invite various people to critique a piece in progress, even knowing they’re unlikely to view it with sympathy, exactly because you feel there’s necessary information in their opinion.  But, if you’ve invited them, however unpleasant the response, your experience is likely preferable to what you would feel if they impulsively offered up the same critiques unsolicited.

Someone making art needs privacy in part because the process of creation makes many people feel vulnerable, sometimes exquisitely so, particularly since the work frequently emerges in a jumble of  mixed-up small parts that you can only assemble gradually, or in a wet lumpy mound that requires patient sculpting.  When people feel prematurely revealed or exposed, they often experience great discomfort and find themselves babbling apologetically, seeking to reassure by laying out the distance they have yet to travel.  It is in part this babble-as-smoke-screen to cover exposure resulting, distracting, unhappy self-consciousness that privacy seeks to shelter.

But even more significantly, privacy grants us permission to turn our attention inward without interruption.  As I described earlier, in order to concentrate, think, and fantasize, we need to feel we’re in a safe enough space that we can lower our vigilance, stop monitoring our environment, and allow ourselves to refocus on the happenings within our own minds.  There are times interruptions feel merciful, but many more when they disrupt our effort to flesh out an inchoate notion.

Janna Malamud Smith in an absorbing errand:  How Artists and Craftsmen Make Their Way to Mastery 

Comments are welcome!  

Pearls from artists* # 96

 

Diane Arbus Revelations

Diane Arbus Revelations

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

My final day at the magic shop [in Disneyland, where he worked as a teenager], I stood behind the counter where I had pitched Svengali decks and the Incredible Shrinking Die, and I felt an emotional contradiction: nostalgia for the present. Somehow, even though I had stopped working only minutes earlier, my future fondness for the store was clear, and I experienced a sadness like that of looking at a photo of an old, favorite pooch. It was dusk by the time I left the shop, and I was redirected by a security guard who explained that a photographer was taking a picture and would I please use the side exit.

I did, and saw a small, thin woman with hacked brown hair aim her large-format camera directly at the dramatically lit castle, where white swans floated in the moat underneath the functioning drawbridge. Almost forty years later, when I was in my early fifties, I purchased that photo as a collectible, and it still hangs in my house. The photographer, it turned out, was Diane Arbus. I try to square the photo’s breathtaking romantic image with the rest of her extreme subject matter, and I assume she saw this facsimile of a castle as though it were a kitsch roadside statue of Paul Bunyan. Or perhaps she saw it as I did: beautiful.

Quoted by A.D. Coleman in Photocritical, May 28, 2014, from Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin

Comments are welcome! 

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