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Pearls from artists* # 428

View from Isla del Sol in Bolivia

View from Isla del Sol in Bolivia

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

In its spectacle and ritual the Carnival procession in Oururo bears an intriguing resemblance to the description given by Inca Garcilaso de la Vega of the great Inca festival of Inti Raymi, dedicated to the Sun.  Even if Oururo’s festival did not develop directly from that of the Inca, the 16th-century text offers a perspective from the Andean tradition:

“The curacas (high dignitaries) came to their ceremony in their finest array, with garments and head-dresses richly ornamented with gold and silver.

Others, who claimed to descend from a lion, appeared, like Hercules himself, wearing the skin of this animal, including its head.

Others, still, came dressed as one imagines angels with the great wings of the bird called condor, which they considered to be their original ancestor.  This bird is black and white in color, so large that the span of its wing can attain 14 or 15 feet, and so strong that many a Spaniard met death in contest with it.

Others wore masks that gave them the most horrible faces imaginable, and these were he Yuncas (people from the tropics), who came to the feast with the heads and gestures of madmen or idiots.  To complete the picture, they carried appropriate instruments such as out-of-tune flutes and drums, with which they accompanied the antics.

Other curacas in the region came as well decorated or made up to symbolize their armorial bearings.  Each nation presented its weapons:  bows and arrows, lances, darts, slings, maces and hatchets, both short and long, depending upon whether they used them with one hand or two.

They also carried paintings, representing feats they had accomplished in the service of the Sun and of the Inca, and a whole retinue of musicians played on the timpani and trumpets they had brought with them.  In other words, it may be said that each nation came to the feast with everything that could serve to enhance its renown and distinction, and if possible, its precedence over the others.”    

El Carnaval de Oruro by Manuel Vargas in Mascaras de los Andes Bolivianos, Editorial Quipus and Banco Mercantil

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Q: What kind of art do you create?

At work

At work

A:  I live in the West Village in New York City and have been a working artist for thirty-four years. I create original pastel paintings that use my large collection of Mexican and Guatemalan folk art – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mache figures, and toys – as subject matter. Blending with my fingers, I spend months painstakingly applying dozens of layers of soft pastel onto acid-free sandpaper. My self-invented technique achieves extraordinarily rich, vibrant color and results in paintings that uniquely combine reality, fantasy, and autobiography. Please see https://barbararachko.art/en/

For the last three years I have been working on a series called, “Bolivianos,” based on an exhibition of Carnival masks seen in La Paz. Art critics and others have said that these are my strongest pastel paintings so far. As I write I am working on the fifteenth piece in the series.  

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Pearls from artists* # 423

"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.

I’ve mentioned that Kenneth Clark, the British art historian, said you could take the four best paintings of any artist in history and destroy the rest and the artist’s reputation would still be intact.  This is because in any artist’s life there are moments when everything goes right.  The artist is so in tune with his or her inner vision that there is no restriction.  The divine is being expressed.  Each mark becomes like a note of music in a divine order.

That experience, that prayer of expression, transcends its material and becomes spiritual.  The experience is overwhelming, the joys it communicates explosive.

When on another occasion we can’t find that spiritual level of experience, and so can’t repeat it, the frustration can be cruel and the separation painful.  Here lies the myth of the suffering artist.  It isn’t the art making when it goes well that has any suffering in it.  That is the union with the beloved.  It’s the loss that causes the suffering.  And the problem isn’t something we can necessarily control.  We are instruments, conduits for that expression.  It comes through us by grace.

The idea that we “make” art is perhaps a bit misleading.  The final product is at its best the result of a collaboration with spirit.  We may be separated from a flow within our spirit for weeks.  We continue to paint because there is no knowing at what precise moment it will return.  And when it does we need our faculties alert and our skills honed.  Then the poetry is everywhere.    

Ian Roberts in Creative Authenticity:  16 Principles to Clarify and Deepen Your Artistic Vision

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Pearls from artists* # 407

"Survivors," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26" image, 28 1/2" x 35" framed

“Survivors,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″ image, 28 1/2″ x 35″ framed

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

In the images [the paintings of the Chauvet cave in southern  France] this prehistoric people have bequeathed to us, we get a glimpse of something like a shared humanity, but we also gaze into a stranger part of ourselves, something reaching to the depths.  Since we do not know the context in which the paintings were made, we cannot in good faith chalk them up to some clear pragmatic end.  We are seeing art in its naked state, deprived of any discernible appropriation.  This can trouble our secular sensibilities since it confronts us not just with the mysteries of nature, but more strikingly still with the riddle of the presence of such things as us in the otherwise coherent physical world.  Given the fact that the molecular chemistry that makes life possible is the same throughout the cosmos, would finding works of art on Mars or a remote planet be any more uncanny than finding them here on Earth?      

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

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Q: I especially enjoy your “Black Paintings” series. You mention being influenced by the story of how Miles Davis developed cool jazz, making this work uniquely American all around. How did you use jazz history in this series?

"Between," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“Between,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

A:  In 2007 I finished the Domestic Threats series and was blocked, certain that a strong body of work was behind me. But what would come next?  

The idea for the Black Paintings began when I attended a jazz history course at Lincoln Center and learned how Miles Davis developed cool jazz from bebop. In bebop the notes were played hard and fast as musicians showcased their musical virtuosity. Cool jazz was a much more relaxed style with fewer notes being played. In other words, the music was pared down to its essentials. Similarly, the Black Paintings evolved from dense, intricate compositions into paintings that depicted only the essential elements. As the series evolved, what was left out became more important, resulting in more demands being placed on the viewer.

Eventually, after much reflection, I had an epiphany and my painful creative block ended.  “Between,” with drastically simplified imagery, was the first in a new series called Black Paintings.  I like to think this series includes work that is richer and more profound than the previous Domestic Threats.

Comments are welcome!

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* # 325

"Myth Meets Dream," soft pastel on sandpaper, 47" x 38"

“Myth Meets Dream,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 47″ x 38″

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

Homo sapiens is the animal that means something, or that desperately wants to mean something.  Undoubtedly our thirst for meaning has a lot to do with our petrifying awareness of death, itself a side effect of the imagination, and one that makes our unique position as much of a curse as it is a gift.

As the prime fruit of the imagination, art is the incontrovertible sign of humanity’s presence on earth.  But what constitutes the human itself?  The prehistoric paintings at Chauvet confront us with a dimension of ourselves that, though familiar in ways, remains in many respects unknown and may ultimately be unknowable.  Human consciousness has access to a powerful otherworld, the place of dreams and myth, poetry and lunacy.  [This is]… the “imaginal,” the name Henry Corbin gave to the intermediate realm, central to the inscrutable mind of God.  As a concrete manifestation of this imaginal realm in the public sphere, art calls us back to the source as a matter of course.      

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

Comments are welcome!

Q: Do you consider your finished pastel works to be drawings or paintings?

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

“The Sovereign,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″ image, 70″ x 50″ framed

A:  Among artists who work in pastel, these two words, ‘drawings’ and ‘paintings,’ have very specific meanings, somewhat unrelated to the usual distinctions made by art historians and others.  For a pastel artist, a ‘drawing’ refers to a work in which the paper or other substrate is allowed to show through.  In a pastel ‘painting’ you do not see the substrate at all, i.e. pastel is used much more heavily in a painting than in a drawing.  Since I have always spent months creating each piece, covering the entire sandpaper ground with up to 30 layers of pigment, I have considered my work to be pastel painting.

Comments are welcome!

      

Q: As an artist what would you say is your particular ‘superpower’?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  I have been told that it is my unique way of composing images or, in other words, how I deliberately move the viewer’s eye around the picture.  More exactly, it’s the way I combine flat shapes, patterns, angles, forms, modeling, decoration, details, lights, and darks in surprising ways when I make pastel paintings or pick up a camera.   

But I think there’s a secondary, more subtle element:  my understanding of and sensitivity to using color for psychological effect.  The way I use color in pastel paintings is intuitive.  This is something I haven’t reflected on very much yet, but will examine in a future post.

Comments are welcome!    

 

Q: Have any artists influenced you technically?

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

A:  I’d have to say no one, because my technique of using soft pastel on sandpaper is largely self-invented and it continues to slowly evolve.  I apply up to thirty layers of pigment, blending it with my fingers, and creating new colors directly on the sandpaper.  It is a rather meticulous process that suits my personality.

My unique way of applying and mixing pastel is a richly complex science of color.  This intricate technique is one of the reasons that my pastel paintings cannot be forged by anyone.

Every great artist throughout history has invented their own techniques and created a world that is uniquely theirs, with its own iconography, its own laws, and its own specific concerns.  Artists who are most worthy of the name create their own tasks and make and break their own rules.  

Comments are welcome!

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