Blog Archives

Pearls from artists* # 306

New York, NY

New York, NY

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

It is the responsibility of artists to pay attention to the world, pleasant or otherwise, and to help us live respectfully in it.

Artists do this by keeping their curiosity and moral sense alive, and by sharing with us their gift for metaphor.  Often this means finding similarities between observable fact and inner experience – between birds in a vacant lot, say, and an intuition worthy of Genesis.

More than anything else, beauty is what distinguishes art.  Beauty is never less than mystery, but it has within it a promise.

In this way, art encourages us to gratitude and engagement, and is of both personal and civic consequence.       

Robert Adams in Art Can Help

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 302

"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.

Regardless of personal convictions or professional concerns, an artist’s power comes down to two things:  her sensitivity to the radical mystery of existence, and the artistry and craft with which she can channel that mystery into an object or performance.  Neither existential awe nor a given metaphysical outlook need to serve as an explicit motivation.  Simply, the emergence of artistic vision – and the need to express the vision without distorting or conceptualizing it – is contingent upon the underlying wonderment at being itself, a wonderment without which there would be no art.  

J.F. Martel in Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice:  A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action 

Comments are welcome!

Q: Please speak about how the three pastel paintings series that you have created interrelate.

"The Orator," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“The Orator,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

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 last spring, I visited a mask exhibition at the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz.  The masks were presented against black walls, were 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 three pastel paintings in the Bolivianos series.  Two more are in progress now.

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.  Each painting is a Trojan horse.  There is plenty of backstory to my images, although I usually prefer not to over-explain them.  Much is to be said for mystery in art.  

The world I depict is that of the imagination and this realm owes little debt to the natural world.  Recently, at an art talk 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!

 

Q: In the “Black Paintings” you create a deep intellectual interaction and communicate a wide variety of states of mind. I admit that certain “Black Paintings” unsettle me a bit. I see in this series an effective mix between anguish and happiness. Rather than simply describing something, these paintings pose a question and force us to contemplation. Can you talk about this aspect of your work?

"The Storyteller," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“The Storyteller,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

A:  I’m sure you and other viewers will see all kinds of states of mind, like anguish, happiness, and everything in between.  I think that’s wonderful because it means my work is communicating a message to you.  Sometimes people have told me that my images are unsettling and that’s fine, too.  I would never presume to tell anyone what to think about my work.  As one reviewer put it, “What you bring to my work you get back in spades!”  

Some of this is intentional, but some is not.  My day-to-day experiences – what I’m thinking about, what I’m feeling, what I’m reading, the music I’m listening to, etc. –  get embedded into the work. I don’t understand exactly how that happens, but I am glad it happens. This work does come from a deep place, much deeper than I am able to explain even to myself. After nearly three decades as an artist, the intricacies of my creative process are still a mystery. Personally, I am very fond of mysteries and don’t need to understand it all.  

Comments are welcome!

Q: I have been always fascinated with the re-contexualizing power of Art and with the way some objects or even some concepts often gain a second life when they are “transduced” on a canvas or in a block of marble. So I would like to ask you if in your opinion, personal experience is an absolutely indespensable part of a creative process. Do you think that a creative process could be disconnected from direct experience?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Certainly personal experience is an indispensable and inseparable part of the creative process. For me art and life are one and I suspect that is true for most artists. When I look at each of my pastel paintings I can remember what was going on in my life at the time I made it. Each is a sort of veiled autobiography waiting to be decoded and in a way, each is also a time-capsule of the larger zeitgeist. It’s still a mystery how exactly this happens but all lived experience – what’s going on in the world, books I’m reading and thinking about, movies I’ve seen that have stayed with me, places I’ve visited, etc. – overtly and/or not so obviously, finds its way into the work. 

Life experience also explains why the work I do now is different from my work even five years ago.  In many ways I am not the same person.     

The inseparableness of art and life is one reason that travel is so important to my creative process.   Artists always seek new influences that will enrich and change our work.  To be an artist, indeed to be alive, is to never stop learning and growing.      

Comments are welcome!    

Q: Does your work look different to you on days when you are sad, happy, etc.?

Recent work

Recent work

A: I’m more critical on days when I am sad so that the faults, imperfections, and things I wish I had done better stand out.  Fortunately, all of my work is framed behind plexiglas so I can’t easily go back in to touch up newly-perceived faults.  It reminds me of the expression, “Always strive to improve, whenever possible.  It is ALWAYS possible!”  However, I’ve learned that re-working a painting is a bad idea.  You are no longer deeply involved in making it and the zeitgeist has changed.  The things you were concerned with are gone: some are forgotten, others are less urgent.  For most artists the work is autobiography.  Everything is personal.  When I look at a completed pastel painting, I usually remember exactly what was happening in my life as I worked on it.  Each piece is a snapshot – maybe even a time capsule, if anyone could decode it – that reflects and records a particular moment.  When I finally pronounce a piece finished and sign it, that’s it, THE END.  It’s as good as I can make it at that point in time.  I’ve incorporated everything I was thinking about, what I was reading, how I was feeling, what I valued, art exhibitions I visited, programs  that I heard on the radio or watched on television, music that I listened to, what was going on in New york, in the country, in the world, and so on.   It is still  a mystery how this heady mix finds its way into the work.  During the time that I spend on it, each particular painting teaches me everything it has to teach.  A painting requires months of looking, reacting, correcting, searching, thinking, re-thinking, revising.  Each choice is made for a reason and as an aggregate these decisions dictate what the final piece looks like.  On days when I’m sad I tend to forget that.   On happier days I remember that the framed pastel paintings that you see have an inevitability to them.  If all art is the result of one’s having gone through an experience to the end, as I believe it is, then the paintings could not, and should not, look any differently.

Comments are welcome.

Q: What would you be if you were not an artist?

Self-portrait on a Hudson  River barge

Self-portrait on a Hudson River barge

A: I honestly have no idea, but whatever it might be, there is a good chance that I’d be bored! In my younger days boredom was a strong motivator. I left the active duty Navy out of boredom. I couldn’t bear not being intellectually challenged (most of my jobs consisted of paper-pushing), not using my flying skills (at 27 I was a licensed commercial pilot and Boeing 727 flight engineer), and not developing my artistic talent. In what surely must be a first, by spending a lot of time and money training me for jobs I hated, the Navy turned me into a hard-working artist! And once I left the Navy there was no plan B. There was no time to waste. It was “full speed ahead.”

Art is a calling. You do not need to be told this if you are among those who are called. It’s all about “the work,” that all-consuming focus of an artist’s life. If a particular activity doesn’t make you a better artist, you avoid it. You work hard to nourish and protect your gifts. As artists we invent our own tasks, learn whatever we need in order to progress, and complete projects in our own time. It is life lived at its freest.

My art-making has led me to fascinating places: Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, France, England, Italy, Bali, Java and more; and to in-depth studies of intriguing subjects: drawing, color, composition, art and art history, the art business, film and film history, photography, mythology, literature, music, jazz history, and archaeology, particularly that of ancient Mesoamerica (the Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, Maya, etc.). And this rich mixture continually grows! For anyone wanting to spend their time on earth learning and meeting new challenges, there is no better life than that of an artist.

I SO agree with this exchange that I read years ago between between Trisha Brown and Mikhail Baryshnikov in the New York Times. I wrote it on a piece of paper and taped it to my studio wall:

Trisha: How do you think we keep going? Are we obsessed?

Mikhail: We do it because there’s nothing better. I’m serious. Because there is nothing more exciting than that. Life is so boring, that’s why we are driven to the mystery of creation.

Comments are welcome.