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Pearls from artists* # 529

Barbara’s Studio

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

All sorts of novelists, composers, choreographers, poets, and painters find themselves engaged in the challenges of authority and freedom that are the lifeblood of the arts. Art is a way of life – and not only or even essentially for geniuses. An artistic community – to whatever degree it may be joined by social, economic, or other concerns – is fundamentally united by the imperatives of a vocation as they are shaped in a particular time. Genius doesn’t emerge ex nihilo. And it doesn’t have a unique relationship with authority and freedom. Whatever truth there is to Walter Benjamin’s comment, apropos of Proust’s novel, that certain masterpieces begin or end a genre, it’s usually true that every masterpiece reaffirms the fundamental character of a form. For every epochal achievement that we may see as an assertion of unexpected degrees of freedom (Beethoven’s final quartets or Shakespeare’s last plays), there are others that reaffirm the pressure of tradition (an example is Raphael’s neoclassical designs for tapestries representing scenes from the lives of Saint Peter and Saint Paul). For every creative spirit, the great as well as the merely good, there is a sense in which the wager is the same.

Jed Perl in Authority and Freedom: A Defense of the Arts

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Q: What makes you feel most alive?

Morning in Udaipur, India

A: Making art makes me feel alive, using all my gifts, my brain, my heart, and my hands to create something that never existed before and that can never be duplicated; knowing I’m the only person, ever, who could or would make this particular thing, as I strive to push my pastel techniques further each time out. Whether it’s a painting or a photograph, I enjoy making something from nothing… art that is well-crafted and has never been seen before.  

Travel is the other activity that excites me. I thrive on adventure and I especially love new vistas.  When I am in a country I have never visited before, with every step and around every bend there is something new to see. I am an explorer at heart!

Comments are welcome!

Q: What art project(s) are you working on currently? What is your inspiration or motivation for this? (Question from artamour)  

Source material for “The Champ”
Source material for “The Champ” (my first “Bolivianos” pastel painting) and “Avenger”

A: While traveling in Bolivia in 2017, 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, the series I was working on at the time.  I immediately knew I had stumbled upon a gift.  To date I have completed seventeen pastel paintings in the Bolivianos series.  One awaits finishing touches, another is in progress, and I am planning the next two, one large and one small pastel painting.

The following text is from my “Bolivianos” artist’s statement.

My long-standing fascination with traditional masks took a leap forward in the spring of 2017 when I visited the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz, Bolivia.  One particular exhibition on view, with more than fifty festival masks, was completely spell-binding.

The masks were old and had been crafted in Oruro, a former tin-mining center about 140 miles south of La Paz on the cold Altiplano (elevation 12,000’).  Depicting important figures from Bolivian folklore traditions, the masks were created for use in Carnival celebrations that happen each year in late February or early March. 

Carnival in Oruro revolves around three great dances.  The dance of “The Incas” records the conquest and death of Atahualpa, the Inca emperor when the Spanish arrived in 1532.  “The Morenada” dance was once assumed to represent black slaves who worked in the mines, but the truth is more complicated (and uncertain) since only mitayo Indians were permitted to do this work.  The dance of “The Diablada” depicts Saint Michael fighting against Lucifer and the seven deadly sins.  The latter were originally disguised in seven different masks derived from medieval Christian symbols and mostly devoid of pre-Columbian elements (except for totemic animals that became attached to Christianity after the Conquest).  Typically, in these dances the cock represents Pride, the dog Envy, the pig Greed, the female devil Lust, etc.

The exhibition in La Paz was stunning and dramatic.  Each mask was meticulously installed against a dark black wall and strategically spotlighted so that it became alive.  The whole effect was uncanny.  The masks looked like 3D versions of my “Black Paintings,” a pastel paintings series I have been creating for ten years.  This experience was a gift… I could hardly believe my good fortune!

Knowing I was looking at the birth of a new series – I said as much to my companions as I  remained behind while they explored other parts of the museum – I spent considerable time composing photographs.  Consequently, I have enough reference material to create new pastel paintings in the studio for several years. The series, entitled “Bolivianos,” is arguably my strongest and most striking work to date.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 436

View from the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

View from the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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

Cassirer’s partial definition of art as symbolic language has dominated art studios in our [20th] century.  A new history of culture anchored upon the work of art as a symbolic expression thus came into being.  By these means art has been made to connect with the rest of history.

But the price has been high, for while studies of meaning received all our attention, another definition of art, as a system of formal relationships, thereby suffered neglect.  This other definition matters more than meaning.  In the same sense speech matters more than writing, because speech preceded writing, and because writing is but a special case of speech.

The other definition of art as form remains unfashionable, although every thinking person will accept it as a truism that no meaning can be conveyed without form.  Every meaning requires a support, or a vehicle, or a holder.  These are the bearers of meaning, and without them no meaning would cross from me to you, or from you to me, or indeed from any part of nature to any other part. 

… The structural forms can be sensed independent of meaning.  We know from linguistics in particular that the structural elements undergo more or less regular evolutions in time without relation to meaning, as when certain phonetic shifts in the history of cognate languages can be explained only by a hypothesis of regular change. Thus phoneme a occurring in an early stage of language, becomes phoneme b at a later stage, independently of meaning, and only under the rules governing the phonetic structure of the language.  The regularity of these changes is such that the phonetic changes can be used to measure durations between recorded but undated examples of speech.

Similar regularities probably govern the formal infrastructure of every art.  Whenever symbolic clusters appear, however, we see interferences that may disrupt the regular evolution of the formal system.  An interference from visual images is present in almost all art.  Even architecture, which is commonly thought to lack figural intention, is guided from one utterance to the next by the images of the admired buildings of the past, both far and near in time.

George Kubler in The Shape of Time:  Remarks on the History of Things

Comments are welcome!  

Q: I understand your comments to mean that being at the studio challenges you to be your best. How (why) do you think that works? (Question from Nancy Nikkal)

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

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

A: I am always trying to push my pastel techniques further, seeking to figure out new ways to render my subject matter, expanding my technical vocabulary. It would be monotonous to keep working the same old way.  Wasn’t it John Baldessari who said, “No more boring art?”  He was talking about art that’s boring to look at.  Well, as someone who CREATES art I don’t want to be bored during the making so I keep challenging myself.  I love learning, in general, and I especially love learning new things about soft pastel.

Very often I start a project because I have no idea how to depict some particular subject using pastel.  For example, one of the reasons I undertook “Avenger” was to challenge myself to render all of that hair!  Eventually I managed to figure it out and I learned a few new techniques in the process.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 400

In the studio with friends

In the studio with friends

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

A student in the audience raised her hand and asked me:

“Why should I live?”

… In the very act of asking that question, you are seeking reasons for your convictions, and so you are committed to reason as the means to discover and justify what is important to you.  And there are so many reasons to live!

As a sentient being, you have the potential to flourish.  You can refine your faculty of reason itself by learning and debating.  You can seek explanations of the natural world through science, and insight into the human condition through the arts and humanities.  You can make the most of your capacity for pleasure and satisfaction, which allowed your ancestors to thrive and thereby allowed you to exist.  You can appreciate the beauty and the richness of the natural and cultural world.  As the heir to billions of years of life perpetuating itself, you can perpetuate life in turn.  You have been endowed with a sense of sympathy – the ability to like , love, respect, help, and show kindness – and you can enjoy the gift of mutual benevolence with friends, family, and colleagues.

And because reason tells you that none of this is particular to you, you have the responsibility to provide to others what you expect for yourself.  You can foster the welfare of other sentient beings by enhancing life, health, knowledge, freedom, abundance, safety, beauty, and peace.  History shows that when we sympathize with others and apply our ingenuity to improving the human condition, we can make progress in doing so, and you can help to continue that progress.

Stephen Pinker in Enlightenment Now:  The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress 

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 399

The Great Hall at the Met

The Great Hall at the Met

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

Science is concerned with the general, the abstract, and the knowable.  In contrast, art deals with the particular, the unknowable, the singular.  This applies not just to the content of artistic works but also to the way this content is received.  Even in the case of a film or concert attended by large numbers of people, the artistic experience remains fundamentally a solitary one.  Each one of us lives the work alone.  Whatever sense of togetherness accompanies the experience comes precisely from the fact that, faced with the singularity of the aesthetic moment, each percipient feels his aloneness before the radical mystery that enfolds us all.  Wherever an act of creation is shared with others, then, there is individuation – not just for the author of the work but for the audience too.  The singularity of art awakens us to our own singularity, and through it to the singularity in the Other.  I have argued that artifice unifies by imposing an univocal image that replicates itself identically in each spectator.  True art tears the spectator out of the mass of sameness, calling forth from the numberless crowd a new people and a new communion.      

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

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Pearls from artists* # 389

Henri Roche pastels: nine trays (four at the top, five on the bottom).

Henri Roche pastels: nine trays (four at the top, five on the bottom).

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

Color vision must be universal.  The human eye and brain work the same way for nearly all people as a property of their being human – determining that we all see blue.  But the color lexicon, meaning not merely the particular words but also the specific chromatic space they are said to mark, clearly has been shaped by the particularities of culture.  Since the spectrum of visible colors is a seamless continuum, where one color is thought to stop and another begun is arbitrary.  The lexical discrimination of particular segments is conventional rather than natural.  Physiology determines what we see; culture determines how we name, describe, and understand it.  The sensation of color is physical; the perception of color is cultural.

David Scott Kastan in On Color

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Pearls from artists* # 385

Potosí, Bolivia

Potosí, 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.

Sunday of Carnival, the parade begins.  For a whole day of celebration in music and dance, people can express their hope and fears, revive their myths and escape to a reality far from everyday life.

Thousands of spectators arrive from different parts if Bolivia and other countries.  Filling the streets, they straddle benches, window ledges, balconies, cats and eve hang from walls or roofs to witness the entrance of the Carnival.  Thus is the magnificent parade when Carnival makes its official entry into Oruro.  The comparsas (dance troupes) dance to music for20 blocks, nearly eight lies, to the Church of the Virgin of Socavón (Virgin of the Mine). Each tries to out do the next in the brilliance of their costumes, the energy of their dancing and the power of their music.  All their efforts are dedicated to the Virgin whose shrine is found on the hill called Pie de Gallo.

If there are thousands of spectators, there are also thousands of dancers from the city and other parts of the country.  Among the most remarkable are the Diablos and Morenos which count for eight of the 40 or 50 participating groups.  Keeping in mind that the smallest troupes have between 30 and 50 embers and the largest between 200 and 300, it is possible to calculate the number of dancers and imagine the spectacle.

Each dance recalls a particular aspect of life in the Andes.  Lifted from different periods and places, the dances offer a rich interpretation of historical events, creating an imaginative mythology for Oruro.

… Carnival blends indigenous beliefs and rituals with those introduced by the Spaniards.  Both systems of belief have undergone transformations, each making allowance for the other, either through necessity or familiarity.  The Christianity  fought from Europe becomes loaded with new meanings while the myths and customs of the Andes accommodate their language and creativity to the reality of their conquered world.  The process can be seen as a struggle culminating in a ‘mestizaje’ or new cultural mix.

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

Comments are welcome!

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