Monday, April 26, 2010

Harry Kent paintings of Egon Schiele

Harry Kent, Egon Schiele, Harlequin, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 45 cm

Today i'm revisiting some of my Egon Schiele paintings from a couple of years back.

Schiele painted hands, was obsessed by hands. Those nobly tendrils he drew were not a stylistic affectation he acquired from Klimt - his fingers really were prehensile. Looking at period photos of Egon, a motif soon suggested itself for me - the languid eyelid (his confident seeing, his sensuous nature), the probing finger (grasping charcoal, poking where it shouldn't), his sullen lip (the James Dean of his age with perpetual adolescent  'attitude').

Harry Kent, Egon Schiele I, oil and chalk on paper, 40 x 50 cm

Schiele seemed to me to be a mix of genius and paedophile selling smut to fat Viennese businessmen for their porn collections.  I wanted to explore this dark side of the man, yet also celebrate the beauty he created.

Harry Kent, Egon Schiele II, oil on paper mounted on canvas, 30 x 40 cm

I then searched for an image that might suggest instability, inner conflict, neurosis, depravity even. And so worked freely with Selley's No More Gaps (a water-soluble gap filler) and acrylic paints.

Harry Kent, Egon Schiele III, gap-filler and acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 cm

UPDATE (15-4-11):   The work above now appears on the front cover of a Korean edition of the novel  The Case Worker  by renowned Hungarian author Konrád György (George Kondrad).

Read the background details HERE.

Harry Kent, Egon Schiele IV, gap-filler and acrylic on canvas, 40 x 50 cm

Harry Kent, Egon Schiele V, gap-filler and acrylic on paper, 35 x 50 cm


But Egon lived and worked in Vienna where he produced stunningly beautiful drawings. The influence of Klimt is quite visible, especially in Schiele's early work. As part of the Austrian Seccessionist movement he retained a Viennese decorative element absent from German Expressionism. And so i wanted to represent Schiele as part of the urbane art scene with a good hint of the decadent hypocritical Viennese Belle Epoque of 1910. And so i produced this Egon Schiele Blue Triptych (they were exhibited and sold as a set side-by-side).

 Not quite visible in the poor photos is the texture of the classical wallpapers, with their metallic burnish, that i used for geometric collaged elements. And try as i might i could not photograph them without reflections off the heavily varnished gloss surface (i wanted them to have the glow of an enamelled icon). So there are spurious 'lines' that are actually reflections off the textured gloss surface.

Harry Kent, Egon Schiele VI, oil on and collage on canvas, 30 x 40 cm

Harry Kent, Egon Schiele VII, oil and collage on canvas, 30 x 40 cm

Harry Kent, Egon Schiele VIII, oil and collage on canvas, 30 x 40 cm

Harry Kent, Egon Schiele in the Belle Époque, oil on canvas, 60 x 90 cm

and finally ... the beginning.

This was actually my first study, in which i tried to work out motifs. I had the idea of Egon as the Knave and therefore drew him as the Jack playing card. There is a fainter upside-down image of him(Egon was a bit upside down) in the bottom right. But the drooping lid, the sullen lip, the tendril fingers are all here from the outset.

Harry Kent, Egon Schiele, Knave, charcoal and acrylic on paper, 60 x 90 cm

Saturday, April 24, 2010

how to 'do' a gallery

Harry Kent's painting Regrets from here

In a recent comment, Obiterspeak (see right - Blogs I Follow) provided a very engaging description of her experience in art galleries  which made me think more about mine own, and wonder if there is a ‘right’ way to ‘do’ a gallery. And even more fundamentally, what a gallery is anyway that it makes me feel the way I do in there, and act in the peculiar way that I do. I mean, I don’t carry on like that in a supermarket, where there are also things on display to study, consider and relate to.

Peter Timms provides a description of the gallery viewer’s progress in What's Wrong with Contemporary Art? 
What's Wrong with Contemporary Art?“The next time you visit a gallery, sit yourself down in an inconspicuous place and, instead of the art, watch the visitors. Most people will spend no more than five seconds in front of each work.They will probably devote more time to reading the labels. Very often, they will simply saunter past without pausing, their heads cocked to one side. Thirty seconds for each work is an unusually long time, and more than a minute starts to look pretentious. All you can do in thirty seconds is to take in the visual hit: what the work looks like and whether or not it pleases or excites you. You can't begin to make even the most superficial assessment of it. If a work happens to prick your interest, that will rarely induce you to contemplate it longer, but instead will send you off to lean more about it from some other source. Maybe you’ll buy the exhibition catalogue and read the essay, or wait for the exhibition to be reviewed in the newspaper. Perhaps you’ll ask someone with more knowledge than you have to explain it to you. In other words, you will seek information from some source other than the work itself. We don't usually regard the viewing of a work of art as an act of discovery but rather as a prompt or cue for investigation elsewhere.

By their very nature most galleries do nothing to encourage intimate encounters with the art they show. They are interested in getting as many people as possible through the front door, not in fostering contemplation of the art. Even the most visitor-friendly tend to be cold and unwelcoming, designed to impress rather than reassure. If seating is provided, it will be of the sort that says: 'You may perch here for a moment or two, but don't make yourself comfortable'. Many contemporary art museums, such as the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne, seem designed as statements of naked power and intimidation. Not even the most seductive art can induce us to linger in such hostile environments” (p. 109).

What Timms doesn’t do is explain why those people went in there in the first place. What were they hoping for? Why do they keep coming back? Why have half a million Australians queued for hours to see the Impressionists?  "Some people are very quick, some people seem to take six hours. But everyone can go through at their own pace" I am not as pessimistic as Timms. I have less difficulty accepting the plurality of motives and needs people may have. And hence the plurality of ways of progressing through a gallery even though looked at through the lens of cultural anthropology, gallery visits are a mighty strange beast.

Upon our initial visit we may be walking zombies with eyes like saucers. After repeat visits we may rush straight to our favourites. Nowadays, whenever visiting the National Gallery in London, I stride resolutely straight through to Vincent’s Wheat fields with cypresses, September 1889. ( ) .Vincent painted 3 of these, each different. And an interesting pen drawing of the same which shows how deliberate his swirling forms were, how carefully he placed and accentuated ‘information-rich’ areas where lines change direction. This painting absolutely glows. The colours so finely tuned. The joy so abundant. It is fresh every time I see it. I am refreshed every time I see it. But yes, I walk briskly through the Pre-Raphaelites and past Stubbs. I’ve dwelt on them in the past, heard the exegesis of volunteer guides. I know my eyes and my feet can only take so much. And nowadays I’m after slow art  – a few pieces dwelt on, breathed in, memorised, like a familiar face.

For me galleries are places to explore, to poke about, sometimes to drift with Wordsworth lonely as cloud, other times to storm through ferociously hunting a quarry, and other times to be a calm methodical student with notebook in hand. Sometimes the mind out of focus, passively massaged. Other times sharp, analytical. Sometimes tolerant, accepting. Other times picky, critical, short-tempered and judgemental. Sometimes, like Obiterspeak, “driven only by what seems like an unintelligent desire to see or take in ... I just look or go where my appetite takes me. Sometimes though it seems as if ghosts pull me in different directions “. Though often enough nowadays, I spend time getting up close, looking at surface, examining brush-work. Or thinking about historical or stylistic context. Or an artist’s personal tale. Or decoding use of symbolism. Or delighting in aesthetic arousal. Or simply looking for the basement cafe. Which of these is the wrong way to be in a gallery? Which is the ‘correct’ way?

I believe all are the right way. How I wandered aimlessly round the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery as a teenager was as right for me back then as it was right for me last year as I purposefully sought out Marlene Duma’s work at the Pompidou. Because the mind we bring at any given time is the right mind. What Zen calls Everyday Mind. (  , ). There is nothing special we have to ‘be’ or to ‘do’. We are constantly ‘becoming’ and in choosing to keep company with the works in galleries, we will inexorably become one who notices more, reflects more, and feels more.

But sure, having knowledge enables greater complexities to be understood. Having more language enables more to be articulated. Having more developed sensibilities enables a richer experience. But these are all matters of degree. First and foremost, I appreciate that whacky things such as galleries ever came to into existence (however distorted the art market may be) and that, historically, the human struggle for equality and opportunity was the mid-wife to their birth. I love to see old widowers seeking the company of Borland’s Elle Macpherson 1, the homeless keeping warm in front Brett’s Alchemy 2, Japanese tourists puzzle before Nolan’s Ned 3, and well-behaved school groups making notes on the floor beneath Blue Poles 4. We all belong there. We all bring there what we each have. And maybe take away a little more than what we arrived with when it’s time to go.

It’s all good


work in progress

time to paint and stop talking about it ... so what do i do? ... sit here and talk about it ... that's how we subvert ourselves every plodding day

After 10mins of work, an undercoat of Prussian blue, putting in some bones (darks) ... multiple layers to go on top in the days to come working at the speed that turps evaporates ... though i kind of like it how it is ... i love unfinished work, suspect many good paintings were ruined by ‘colouring in’ for too long beyond the initial concept and first fresh brush strokes

like Turner's unfinished landscapes How contemporary they feel. No time to put in those clumsy little figures he had to insert in so many other finished landscapes just to lift their ranking from ‘mere’ landscape into ‘genre’ painting  . I experienced something similar too with Michelangelo’s unfinished Prigioni. I entered the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence and there, cock-sure, stood the extravert David, all-round footballer, party-animal, and regular guy. What you see is what you get. But deliciously hidden in the dark corridors downstairs are the Prigioni – The Prisoners – figures emerging from the native rock, struggling to be free, unwanted, shoved in a corner, out of the David’s lime-light . But how magnificent. Less is indeed more.

day 2 ... yesterday's initial excursion has dried off (not totally) and so i have started working into and over it. The first dabs were a nightmare. I was not in the zone. Paint had to be lifted off. Now the freshness was disturbed. Starting to create mud. More lifting off. Fresh paint on. Despair. Hope. More despair. Now just exhausted and the paint is really irritate with me for messing it about so much. It’s out there on the studio, sulking. I'm in here, fretting.

day 3 and i've revisited my Schiele paintings to get in the zone. Am I there, or am I just getting desperate. I suspect the image itself is wrong for what i want to say with it, and no amount of fiddling will fix that. Only radical surgery. only the very first brush stokes (image above) had any conviction, and the rest just clouded the issue. Live and learn. One of the things i may have learnt is that Alex Kanevsky-style mark-making on large polypropylene sheet is very difficult. Maybe that is the reason he so often worked in just 24 x 24 inch format. So i will now put this away for some months as a failed painting and revisit it after winter (penguins live on the beaches of the island where i live, remember, 42 degrees south)

Friday, April 23, 2010

Harry Kent wins Gallery of NSW prize

No, not for my painting! Settle down. For a haiku.

T'is for winning a 10 March competition run by the Gallery of NSW, announced on Twitter:
"For a chance to win this print by Keizaburo Matsuzaki tweet us a Japanese memory or inspiration."

The print is by Keizaburo Matsuzaki from Arakawa-ku, Tokyo, who made it while he was in the Gallery of NSW. It is a reproduction of Kitagawa Utamaro's print design of Takashima Ohisa. Matsuzaki was visiting the Gallery to demonstrate the art of complex woodblock prints to celebrate the Gallery’s current exhibition “Hymn to Beauty: the art of Utamaro” .

my winning entry, announced 16 March, was this haiku:

Matsuzaki came to visit
And left
Utamaro in our hearts.

So, much excitement today as my hand-printed prize from the Gallery of NSW,  , finally arrived.

It’s exquisite.

Thanks Molly Waugh and thanks Gallery of NSW.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

learning from Alex Kanevsky's mark-making

Harry Kent, Me Too, self-portrait, oil on PP panel, 42 x 60 cm

In my search for expressive mark-making, i have been most excited today avidly pouring over a wonderful collection of Alex Kanevsky's work at his Studio. And there are three interesting interviews where he speaks about his technique here at Vivianitehere at BroadstreetStudio and  here at rtspot.

There is also a threaded discussion  with contributors claiming to have seen him at work. They write of his palette in 2002 prominently featuring Alizarin crimson and Cerulean blue, with recourse to Ultramarine, and raw umber. Reputedly, Kanevsky recommends the use of Liquin, especially for over-glazing with a transparent color.

There is also mention of Kanevsky's model reporting that he took photographs of her. His use of photography is something he himself discusses in the above interviews. I found this interesting in light of my post  on the use of photography in portraiture.

But I didn't concern myself with any of this because my aim was no to clone Kanevsky's work, but to expand my own art practice through exploring novel materials and methods. So i went for my usual Prussian blue and titanium white, with a touch of Alizarin and also of Viridian.

The particular series of his works that i'm interested in i see were painted on Mylar. I recalled seeing some white sheets of plastic at a local hardware store that I had stood pondering over just the week before. So off I rushed to buy a 60x120 cm sheet.

The sheets were a brand of Bayer polypropylene (PP), not Mylar polyethylene (PET). Furthermore, they were not thin frosted sheets of Mylar, but highly glossy panels a couple of mm thick. After some non-starters, I discovered the best way of cut the panels (NOT a circular saw - anyone actually interested, just ask) and soon had two pieces, one 44 x 60 and the other 60 x 76. The smaller one was be used for my first experiment.

And so this morning I rushed out to the studio with the material I had been working on for my next composition, but now ready to make a radical departure from the wet-in-wet I have been working on for the last two weeks (see below).

I was at first worried the oil paint wouldn't stick to the gloss surface of this dirt-repellent material, but it instantly clung in thin or thick films, depending just on how I worked it with a painting knife. I soon discovered better tools than painting knives, for broader, more even application and greater control of thickness. For example, old credit cards.

I found to that mixing colours on the surface while spreading creates marbling effects that generally are not that pleasing. I suspect Alex Kanevsky pre-mixes his colours into homogeneous batches, at least for the background (faces appear painted in with great care).

A more satisfying, more complex and layered result is obtained by overlaying one colour over another. Indeed, i believe this of essence in his technique - very thing layers, scraped on flat, so thin that the previous layers shine through. It is the flat thin layering over a reflective gloss support that seems to be an important element of the technique.

And this where the PP sheet comes in. Its extreme gloss hard surface enables the thinnest of coats to be scraped across and left totally smooth. And very importantly to my taste, allows light to reflect back through from the pure white surface of the PP. Very much like the paper reflects light through a transparent watercolor to make it glow.

So here is my first alla prima excursion into PP sheet supports, and it has left me eager for more. Needless to say, it is a self-portrait on the theme of the angst of aging.
I tried the same way of applying paint using a similar motif on a piece of craftwood sheet primed with household undercoat-sealer.

The effect was significantly more muted. The acrylic undercoat and hard board soaked the oil out of the paint and soon left a matt finish.

The amount of light reflected through the paint from the white undersurface was reduced. The result was a painting that lacked the glow and lustre of the one painted on a ploypropylene support.

Harry Kent, Dark Night of the Soul, oil on board, 60 x 90 cm SOLD

and an image that emerged along the way:

detail from earlier version

If you are interested in PP sheet painting, some other samples of my work on PP sheet, though  quite a different style of painting using brushes instead of pallette knives, can be seen here

And here is where the palette knives (credit cards) on polyproylene sheet had taken me by mid June, two months later. (Seems my mark-making is just more restless and variagated than his calm and methodical layering).

If anyone else has experimented with Alex- style technique, i would love to hear of your results. Please share your expeience with all who are admirers of his style in the comment box below.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

self-portrait in Blue Rain

                             Blue Rain, oil on board, 60x90cm

A wind has blown the rain away and blown the sky away and all the leaves away, and the trees stand. I think, I too, have known autumn too long. (e.e.cummings)

In this experiment I wanted to see where the turps-spray-into oils techniques and i might go together, in the spirit of Barb Bolt's co-responsibility in art praxis (
I wanted to move beyond signifying cerepey skin. I wanted to move to deeper dermal layers, into flesh, as a metaphor for taking a deeper inward look. Yes, I wanted to suggest the ravages of gravity on aging flesh. But something more too. I wanted to say something about the emotions of aging.

I applied impasto over the cheek with a painting knife, unlike the previous painting where I dropped wet into wet, using diluted pigment to begin with. Then, pheeest with my trusty spray bottle filled with clear odorless turps in a well-ventilated area (OHA&S). Unlike watercolour, where a spray of water has instant and far-reaching effect, with oils everything works in slow-motion. Even when spraying into an already turpsified area. I knew this already. But a couple of pumps into in the impasto seemed to have little effect other than make the paint soften. And I was looking for bigger impact. So I took the spray nozzle much closer to paint already swollen with solvent. The mechanical blast of the jet of turps rinse-carved out a path, revealing the viridian undercoat i had applied over the cheeks. The loosened paint oozed down the image in a very satisfying slow mud-slide. I felt a twinge of nausea as I saw flesh dissolve before my eyes. Yes, I coming to where I want to be.

Next, attention to the mouth and chin. I didn't want this to slide off in the same way as the cheek (less is more) so I reverted to the technique I was now familiar with from the previous works - plenty of turps in a fine mist. And I mean plenty, so it that the clear turps is running down the surface, but gradually dragging some pigment with it. My task was to let it, to mop up the excess at the bottom, to judge when to spray some more and when to hold back. I was about to wipe the bottom of the chin clean for the third time when I saw that the blue vertical triangular run was actually quite satisfying as a composition with the curve of the cheek. And more to the point, in my quest for expressive mark-making, it was emotionally loaded as an image. It seemed to me to suggest both melting flesh and running drool from an inconsolably wailing face. It signified walking decay in flesh ravaged by gravity among the baby-boomers, and grief at the loss of youth. And a Lear-like howling in the storm. And so I painted in the storm clouds over-head, darkness closing in, pressing down.

The glasses I wanted plain bright white. Partially for compositional reasons. Contrast. Tonal highlight. Focal point. But mostly, as in the previous works, to intimate a blankness of psyche. We look into the eyes of another to read their level of understanding and their degree of empathy. Eyes are the barometer of the soul. More commonly understood, the eyes are the windows of the soul, and I wanted these windows frosted over. Yes, like the eyes on the dead go milky white. But mostly I wanted these lenses blank like the mind of those in the grip of a panic attack go blank. With a hint of the panic being private, hidden behind white sunglasses. As in the song-line, "mmm, sunglasses to hide behind, mmm, sunglasses to cry behind" The emptiness of eye-space foreshadows the departure of the soul, when the windows will indeed be become blank, the house un-inhabited. Intimations of mortality. These glasses signify private blind terror, private grief at departing.

self-portraiture - the art of self-disclosure.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

exposed on the cliffs of my art with Rilke

Herausgestellt Auf Den Klippen Des Herzens
by Rainer Maria Rilke

Herausgestellt auf den Klippen des Herzens.
Schauen Sie, wie kleiner Abstieg dort,
Blick: das letzte Dorf von Wörtern und, höher,
(aber, wie klein) noch ein letztes
Bauernhaus Gefühl. Können Sie es sehen?
Herausgestellt auf den Klippen des Herzens. Stoneground
unter Ihren Händen. Sogar hier, obwohl,
etwas blühen kann; auf einem leisen Klipperand
blüht ein unknowing Betrieb und singt, in die Luft.
Aber das, wer weiß? Amperestunde, fing er an zu wissen
und ist Ruhe jetzt, herausgestellt auf den Klippen des Herzens.
Während, mit ihrem vollen Bewußtsein,
viele sicher-füßige Gebirgstiere überschreiten
oder zurückbleiben. Und die großen geschützten Vogelfliegen, langsam
kreisend, um die reine Ablehnung der Spitze ein. - Aber
ohne einen Schutz, hier auf den Klippen des Herzens…

[Exposed on the cliffs of the heart]

Exposed on the cliffs of the heart. Look, how tiny down there,
look: the last village of words and, higher,
(but how tiny) still one last
farmhouse of feeling. Can you see it?
Exposed on the cliffs of the heart. Stoneground
under your hands. Even here, though,
something can bloom; on a still cliff-edge
blossoms an unknowing plant and sings, into the air.
But of this, who knows? Ah, he began to know
and is silent now, exposed on the cliffs of the heart.
While, filled with their knowing,
many sure-footed mountain animals leap ahead
or lag behind. And the great sheltering flocks fly, slowly
circling, wheeling about the unassailable summit. - But
without any shelter, here, on the cliffs of the heart...

Translation by Harry Kent

Monday, April 12, 2010

self-portrait with green skin

Self-portrait with green skin, oil on paper, 40 x 48 cm

A second experiment with watercolour technique but in oil painting. Liberal quantities of turps are sprayed into the paint in an attempt to create marks the reference crepey skin. I was seeing if I get an elephant skin look and control the process enough to suggest form. Attempted to develop highlights by 'floating' them in as opposed to painting them in.

The work is still very representational. It is a long way from art informel - its form is way too tight. I will make a third attempt at suggesting an aging face, but trying more for the horror of one's body aging, of being caught in that inexorable living dissolution, heading towards the final dissolution.

The next experiment will utilise more of a tachisme technique, heavier paint and even more turps moving under their own power within a formal composition. Loosening up and abstraction will begin in earnest Semester Two when i will use this current crop of portraits as the 'models' for further paintings, breaking up their image, leaving mirrors and photos behind for a while.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

painting aging skin

Self-portrait with crepey skin, oil on paper, 38 x 38 cm

The search for intimations of weathered, thinning skin and hair – intimations of mortality – continues. Previously I had tried the paint-knife with paint direct from the tube, mixed with bentonite clay granules to attempt a 'crinkle-skin texture'. It looked like cat vomit. Fair enough since it the bentonite was sourced from Kitty Litter.

This time round, mark-making utilising very thin paint. Thin paint = thin skin?

Borrowing from water-colour technique, I created turps-diluted washes of Prussian blue, strategically spraying in additional turps to create flow of pigment where I wanted it, rotating the primed craft paper support to produce the resulting drain/grain direction.

I wanted a crepe skin, a creased and cracking skin, beyond Oil of Olay. The pics show how it turned out.

ho hum, interesting, sort of (*shrug*) ... but a long way short of the horror of this mortal coil as it uncoils.

I have a gut feeling maybe blood and guts are called for, skin parted, flesh ruptured, internal organs made external.

Could that be a credible metaphor for the internal state of the artist (me) mediated to the external world (you, gentle reader) through the proto-language of his mark-making?

Back to the lab, Igor.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

is portraiture using photography bad painting ?

With the advent of this year’s Archibald Prize  the issue of photography in portraiture has reared its head, for example, in Christopher Allen's critical review in The Australian newspaper.

Which brings me to my blog comment today - re the use of photography in portrait painting. Well, not so much a comment as some musings.

Photography is not a replacement for drawing and painting. It never was, despite the once dire predictions of portrait painting's immanent demise with the arrival of the daguerreotype. Conversely, I believe there seems little point to replicating a photograph in oil paint. Though I don’t wish to be too catty about it. Maybe it is largely a matter of taste and artistic intention. Photo-realism and super-realism are simply not my cup of tea. Though I did notice last year at the BP Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery London, about a third of the entries were in that genre. Even more the year before.

Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old MastersI acknowledge at the outset that visual aids, especially mechanical ones, can leave all sorts of nuanced traces in the work, as illustrated so well by David Hockney (who had a career-long love-hate relationship with the camera in his own painting practice) in Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters. The premise of this lavishly illustrated publication is precisely that many great artists, reaching right back into the Renaissance, have used mechanical aids in their drawing and painting. He attempts to demonstrate that numerous famous portraits were indeed not simply painted from life by eye.

And I’m certainly not wishing to defend stilted, wooden, lifeless portraits, purporting to be naturalistic studies, that sit uncomfortably on a canvas, somehow out of plumb in a number of subtle and not so subtle ways because they were ineptly copied from a photo. The web is full of ‘studios’ that offer to turn your family snap into a piece of lounge room kitsch.

But questions keep popping into my head:

· Many insist that portrait should be painted from life. But how can a self-portrait ever be from life? A mirror reflection is a 2D image. Or aren’t self-portraits capable of being 'good' portraits? (better tell Rembrandt, Schiele and Kahlo)

· What about a portrait painted from another portrait? Not ‘Art'? (e.g., Bacon's version of the Velázquez Pope)?

· What about portraits painted from multiple photos whereby the artist creates a mental ‘summary’ that seems to be the ‘best fit’? Would it make any difference if he used video, with moving images instead of a static image? How is a video panning round the subject inferior to 'a sitting' where the sitter ‘strikes a static pose’?

· What is so sacred about the posing sitter? The literature on sitter performance, persona selection, self-image projection, transactional understandings of the sitter-painter diad, suggests more complex things are transpiring than a simple sketching of 3D form, e.g., Kozloff, M., ‘Portraiture and performance’ in  Face Value: American Portraits, Donna De Salvo, 1995.

· even the assumption that painting a portrait is primarily about painting a likeness is just that - an assumption. It seems like such an unassailable and self-evident truth, yet I believe it is a vestige of artistic objectives and commercial criteria that pre-date the camera. The first century of photography only served to underscore that requirement through competition. Even once well into 20th century expressionism, the assumption continued. It was not until post-modernism deconstructed the portrait, refusing to take the portrait at face value as a likeness of a sitter, but instead asking questions about how identity is contained in image, what identity is anyway, how shifting and slippery self and constructions of self and representations of self can be, that artists produced work that intended to either bounce off established beliefs about portrait through ironic treatment, or looked for other ways of representing self that a photographic likeness.

Mike Parr, for instance, is more concerned with mere snatches of multiple identities, with unconscious elements of identity, and with process used in developing images than he is in accuracy of a single likeness. He  explains, "I began to think that the self-portrait really was a record of traces in time ... that in a sense I was creating a kind of a dig. So here was this dig going on which was the true meaning of portraiture ... the self-portrait in the late 20th century has become a kind of fiction—a kind of absence rather than a presence and that the real presence is this collision of chance and intention and layers of process within that container."

What kind of work does this approach produce? "The video 100 Breaths is a multiple self-portrait and endurance test. Parr covers his face with 100 different drawings of himself. Using his mouth as a suction cup, he sucks them on one at time, then blows them off, gasping for air." (smh review).

· Can artists who have lost an eye ever paint a legitimate portrait since they have lost the stereoscopic vision deemed so essential to painting from life? What about artists who deliberately close one eye to assist their draughtsmanship?

· Or artists who use a Dark Mirror to highlight tonal values for portraiture? or use a camera obscura to assist draftsmanship? Or use perforated cartoons for figurative frescoes (Michaelangelo, Raphael)? or use tracings/transfers to assist getting the perspective of the face? Are all these practices somehow ‘impure’?

· What about artists who have a sitting, make sketches of the sitter, make notes re colour, commence the painting with the sitter present, but then take photos and complete the piece back in their studio – from memory, their sketches, notes and photos. Compromised portraits?

· What about artists who paint purely from memory, with no sitter present (eg, Maggi Hambling)?

· It seems behind such niggling about legitimate process in portrait painting is a broader question about prescriptive art practice. If we had all stuck to the rules of 19th century Paris Salons, where would painting be today? For behind such prescribed institutionalised scripts for artists lie questions about the nature of social influence (power); ruling elites (both within culture and in social structures); vested interest (whether defending personal prestige, or controlling the market); cultural tyranny inherent in fundamentalist and conservative values; career trajectories (fame and saleability); mass-media and myth-making (art-making as a constructed narrative); ethnocentrism and fear of the 'other' ... and ... alpha males.

The fact is painters, including great painters, have used photography in their art practice ever since that tool became available to them. Van Deren Coke, in The Painter and the Photograph: from Delacroix to Warhol,documents their use by placing the photo beside the painting in question for a range of artists including Munch, Henri Rousseau, Picasso, and Francis Bacon.

Similarly Aaron Scharf in Art and Photography documents the case of the use of photographs by the great painters. He even goes so far as to link the origins of Impressionism to Corot's use of halation-blurred photos in the 1840s (pp 89-92)!

Certain contemporary artists substantially or almost exclusively use photography for their portrait painting practice. Marlene Dumas, a case in point, works from newspaper clippings and old porno images. Catherine Kehoe uses old family snaps to interrogate memory and identity. Jenny Saville employs extreme close-ups and medical texts to assist her to render flesh in paint.
My personal interest is in expressive mark-making in portraiture. And I see photography as one (of many) useful and legitimate tools in painting expressive portraits. I thought Jenny Saville made some practical and convincing observations about the issue re her own practice:

“I use photographs a lot. I take lots of photographs of myself. There's a kind of snobbery against photographs when you do life painting. But I pillage information from anywhere. I really don't care where I get it from. I'll have photographs of my body, and sometimes I take photographs of bits of my friends' bodies, and I have lots of medical textbooks that I use as reference. ... I don't take a photograph of a whole composition, just fragments of the body. Since I work on such a large scale, I don't paint while I'm looking at the figure. Usually I have a model for about six hours, and do about 10 rolls of real close-ups. But I don't use the model when she's in front of me ... I find working from life really intimidating. I couldn't draw or paint on a size like that [indicating a medium sized sketchbook]. I find it so hard to do --unless I do a detail of an enlargement or something. There is no point in me doing a study like that. It's just more natural for me to use larger areas of flesh. I don't like working in a life-class ... I don't get anything from it.”

I find her pragmatic approach liberating. And may she be as idiosyncratic as she pleases in her technique. It’s revelations of practice like this that make me balk at blanket condemnation of photography as a tool in portrait painting. I also recall my elementary school teacher condemning the use of biros in place of pens as somehow less than ‘proper’ for writing.

But there is one more thought that buzzes round my head. I wonder why so many present day artists set such a high store on 'realism'. It is a if the sheer skill of creating photo-like images in paint was enough reward for the artist. The realist notion of portrait painting seems obsessed with reproducing a recognizable physical likeness, as if having achieved such a likeness was in itself the seal and guarantee of having painted a good portrait.

While the camera was used by great artists of the 19th century, they did not make themselves a prisoner to it. If a mechanical device can produce an accurate likeness with such ease, what was left for the painter to do? The same question, but of landscape painting rather than portraiture, is asked in this summary of Simon Schama's program on Turner in his Power of Art TV series:

Turner had anticipated the great 19th-century question posed by the invention of photography. If the camera could now make two-dimensional facsimiles of nature, of people, of places, what work did that leave for art? Turner's great nebulae of color gave one answer, but there was another to be had. Freed from the job of describing the mere look of the world, art could now go to the heart of the matter, the subjective vision of our mind's eye. Turner was the first true modern. Modern were his tempests of paint, modern his blown-up cloudy forms. Ultra-modern was his determination to tackle dangerous subjects ... For Turner, art was not a placebo. It needed to wreak havoc like the storm, to have the force of an avalanche or an inferno. Great painting, his painting, needed to risk disaster, the better to communicate it.

My personal answer is expressionism. I wish to represent inner states, (my own, the sitter's, both concurrently) not only surface appearance. A good photographic portrait may aspire to the same goal. So I have the further goal of representing those inner states not only through the composition of the work but by the very quality of mark-making i use to create the image. Hence my chosen project for my Masters degree. And this blog traces my journey of discovery and development.

Anyone any thoughts on any of this?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

using a Claude mirror for portraiture

Seeking for some mirror images of myself that might be more interesting to paint from than just a conventional stare into a conventional mirror, I thought I'd explore the once ubiquitous Claude Mirror as used by landscape artists some centuries ago. Indeed, John Glover, the great Tasmanian colonial painter, often carried a ‘Claude Glass’ to assist in his `aesthetic response’ when landscape painting in 'Tassie'. ( John Glover and the Colonial Picturesque , Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery,  p. 11) .

You can see some nice images of Claude Glasses (Dark Mirrors)  here  that have been collected together by Thomas Greenslade, Jr. of Kenyon College from the Smithsonian.

Alex McKay and Suzanne Matheson have done some fascinating work with the Claude Mirror and you can see the fruits of their investigations here. Their project is not purely concerned with the mirror itself, but more broadly with with contemporary art in a way that engages with and critiques its historical predecessors, especially perception and representation of landscape in painting. I was particularly captivated by their description of the device:

"The Claude mirror, a landscape-viewing device, is a pre-photographic optical instrument that was widely used in the 18th and 19th centuries. Its popularity is closely linked to the rise of the Picturesque Movement. It was named after its ability to transform a landscape view into something reminiscent of a painting by 17th-century French artist Claude Lorraine. These small, black, convex mirrors, usually sized for the hand, were extensively used by artists and tourists to contemplate, reconfigure and record landscape. They were wielded on picturesque tours of Britain, the Continent and North America. In areas such as the Wye Valley or the Lake District, tourists would halt at proscribed Viewing Stations (maps and mirrors available at opticians, stationers, art suppliers and, later in the period, tourist stops), turn their backs to the scene, hold up a Claude mirror, and look at the framed and transformed view. The distorted perspective, altered colour saturation and compressed tonal values of the reflection resulted in a loss of detail (especially in the shadows), but an overall unification of form and line. The Claude mirror essentially edited a natural scene, making its scale and diversity manageable, throwing its picturesque qualities into relief and - crucially - making it much easier to draw and record.

The seeming absurdity of refracting and reflecting nature in this fashion is balanced by the beauty and seductiveness of the mirror’s optical effects. It is an 18th century ‘virtual reality ‘ device, having all of the charm and magic of the camera obscura, but none of the clumsiness. History has remembered the contradictions of the device, but lost the experience of its power and utility. The popularity of the Claude mirror over 200 years ago is acknowledged by historians, but the very characteristics that once made it so popular have been misrepresented or misunderstood."

My revisiting of the device however is for portraiture, not landscape. Used close up to my face, would it's distortions loosen any perceptual shackles? I managed to find a convex mirror that would serve me as a Claude Glass. I’m hoping the looming gargoyles, combined with expressive mark-making, will produce energetic, strong images that yet have something truthful to say. The beauty of self-portraiture is that one can be as brutal as one likes. There was a reason John Singer Sargent once said, "Every time I paint a portrait I lose a friend."

Unfortunately I have yet not been able to get my hands on Arnaud Maillet's The Claude Glass: Use and Meaning of the Black Mirror in Western Art as yet.

Anyway, the first Claudified images are in ... and some food for thought:

"One of the key attractions at the oceanside boardwalk or the midway at the county fair used to be the fun house mirrors. An ordinary person could walk up to the mirror and see themselves reflected with an uncharacteristically wide middle, short or stretched legs, or a giraffe neck. The mirrors were always good for a laugh ...

Sometimes, though our self-image is just as distorted. We look in the bathroom mirror and see something different from the image the outside world sees. The old gender-based joke shows a man sucking in his paunch and envisioning his 18-year-old football player self and the woman stands beside him, scowling at the perceived elephantine size of her butt. It's internal, but the distortion in the mirror is no less real in the eye of the subject.

Here's the rub: we act in accordance with the view we see, not the actual view, but our own fun house version of it".  (Julie Poland).

The portraits i ended up painting using these photo images can be seen here.

Sylvia Plath, Satre, and trouble with mirrors

Sylvia Plath

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
What ever you see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful---
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

“There is a white hole in the wall, a mirror. It is a trap. I know I am going to let myself be caught in it. I have. The grey things appears in the mirror. I go over and look at it, I can no longer get away. It is the reflection of my face.” Jean-Paul Satre, 1938.

Well, Jean-Paul, I'm left wondering if the advent of the common mirror, readily available, easily affordable, infesting all our domestic corners and public spaces, was a necessary pre-condition for the birth of existentialist philosophies.
Or the birth of Western individualism.
More to the point, was the bathroom mirror a necessary pre-requisite for the self-portraiture of Angst ?
A pre-requisite not because an already angst-ridden artist could now sketch from his crystal mirror image, but because the birth of the industrial-manufactured mirror became a determining factor in the very birth of the modern pervading sense of Angst. The material culture's artefact 'mirror' so conditioned the cultural milieu that society could now comprehend, connect with, and value the cultural artefact 'portrait', expressive of the state of Angst.
Enter the two Freuds.

mirrors and self-portraiture

The advent of the mirror has historically been central to the development of self-portraiture - perhaps even to the very emergence of our modern sense of self and cult of individualism.

Face: The New Photographic Portrait"While the modern mirror dates from the mid-sixteenth century, when the Venetians of Murano compressed a layer of mercury between a sheet of glass and a sheet of metal, allowing for perfect, distortion-free reflections, few people had access to one. The new mirrors slowly replaced the much inferior bronze, pewter, silver and gold varieties, but remained almost exclusively in the hands of royalty and the nobility. Ordinary people had no way of keeping track of the slow ravages of time on their own faces. “How could one see one's double chin in the bottom of a copper pot?” asks historian Veronique Nahoum, concluding that, the mirror stage is not only an important one for the baby of six months, but an important stage in history' [author's italics]. The anthropologist David Le Breton concurs, stressing that no mirror would decorate the walls [of ordinary homes] before the end of the nineteenth or the beginning of the twentieth century.' This lack of self-awareness, in the visual sense at least, helps to explain the hysteria that accompanied the early years of photography. No less a visionary than Honord de Balzac refused to be photographed - in the belief that it would strip away a microscopic layer of his being. Balzac was not alone in intellectual circles for believing the medium to have suspect properties; Herman Melville was another who flatly refused to be photographed. (p.16)

For photoliterate peoples like ourselves, the image we see in the mirror is fugitive: you 'know' it isn't there when you aren't looking. But for a people who live without mirrors, the image is fixed - the proof being that every time you sneak a glance, you're there. How could it be anything other than magic, and terrifying at that? After all, if a shadow is 'attached' to the body, why not the image? The anthropologist Edmund Carpenter, having witnessed a twentieth-century variant of the experience in his work with natives of New Guinea, has been able to shed light on this phenomenon. Presented with mirrors for the first time in their lives, their natural habitat of muddy rivers and wells having offered no natural reflections, his subjects reacted with extreme consternation (they later behaved the same way when presented with their photographs). Carpenter reasoned: The notion that man possesses, in addition to a physical self, a symbolic self is widespread, perhaps universal.... A mirror corroborates this. It does more: it reveals the symbolic self outside the physical self. The symbolic self is suddenly explicit, public, vulnerable. Man's initial response to this is probably always traumatic." (pp. 17-18)
Ewing, W. A. 2006, Face: The New Photographic Portrait, Thames & Hudson

"The self-portrait supposes in theory the use of a mirror; glass mirrors became available in Europe in the 15th century. The first mirrors used were convex, introducing deformations that the artist sometimes preserved. A painting by Parmigianinoin 1524 Self-portrait in a mirror, demonstrates the phenomenon.

Mirrors permit surprising compositions like the Triple self-portrait by Johannes Gumpp (1646), or more recently that of Salvador Dalíshown from the back painting his wife, Gala(1972-73). This use of the mirror often results in right-handed painters representing themselves as left-handed (and vice versa). Usually the face painted is therefore a mirror image of that the rest of the world saw, unless two mirrors were used. Most of Rembrandt's self-portraits before 1660 show only one hand - the painting hand is left unpainted. He appears to have bought a larger mirror in about 1652, after which his self-portraits become larger. In 1658 a large mirror in a wood frame broke whilst being transported to his house; nonetheless, in this year he completed his Frick self-portrait, his largest.

The size of single-sheet mirrors was restricted until technical advances made in France in 1688 by Bernard Perrot. They also remained very fragile, and large ones were much more expensive pro-rata than small ones - the breakages were recut into small pieces. About 80 cms, or two and a half feet, seems to have been the maximum size until then - roughly the size of the palace mirror in Las Meninas (the convex mirror in the Arnolfini Portraitis considered by historians impractically large, one of Van Eyck's many cunning distortions of scale). Largely for this reason, most early self-portraits show painters at no more than half-length."

see too :
Haley, Stephen John. 2005. Mirror as metasign : contemporary culture as mirror world,
a free .pdf copy here .   Fascinating reading.

expressive mark-making in portraiture

Harry Kent, Growing Old, oil on canvas, 24 x 30 cm

this self-portrait was painted last November upon enrolling in a part-time MCA titled
“Exploration of expressive mark-making in portraiture”

the purpose of painting this work at such an early stage was equip myself with a physical talisman, a touchstone with which to assay what follows, a point of reference to move out and away from as the studio experiments lead into ever murkier swamps

ah, those swamps ...
old prophets may come from the desert
but new creatures emerge from the swamps

and talk about The Creature From The Black Lagoon !

In his essay, 'Ogni pittore dipinge se, Leonardo da Vinci and automimesis', Frank Zöllner  explains that in art historical writing the proverb ‘Every painter paints himself’ refers to an artist who creates himself involuntarily in his work. At the same time, Ted Jacobs in  Drawing with an Open Mind  conceptualises drawing as the relic of movement, proposing that “linearity does not originate with the sense of sight, but in fact arises out of the sense of touch”.

Combining the concepts of these two theorists, I wish to explore the notion that ‘every painter’, most particularly myself, ‘paints himself’ because a painter’s marks are a trace or relic of idiosyncratic movement. Such movement with its rhythms, speed, pressure, dexterity with tools and with media handling is hypothetically particular to each artist’s combined physiology and acquired skill. Some artists deliberately seek to insert their presence into their work in rhetorical flourishes. But arguably all artists incidentally, even unconsciously, disclose something of themselves and their emotional state during the process of painting.

It is this second understanding I seek to explore through the painterly processes involved in portraiture via a variety of gestural mark-making. I wish to build an expressive visual language in portraiture that offers a set of signifiers and marks, readable as referencing a sitter while simultaneously tacitly revealing my emotional response to the subject and, more broadly, my existential state as an artist and human being. The focus will not be on producing representational likenesses (‘portraits’) as such, but be squarely on the process of expressive painting itself.

And behind this methodology of practice-led research lie deeper issues of human perceptual processes and philosophical issues about the nature of truth, illusion, mental and cultural constructs, and reality itself. Gombrich (Art and Illusion), after establishing that knowledge of paintings, not nature, enable artists to paint picturesque landscape, then cites Constable's belief that only experimentation can lead an artist out of the confines of learned ways of seeing and mark-making, "can show the artist a way out of the prison of style toward greater truth". Constable treated his practice-led mark-making research as a natural science, not an art form, because he saw it as an investigation into reality.

The imperative for experimental mark-making is all the more urgent ever since Vincent showed us that the nature of marks can be used for expressive purposes, not only to represent appearances in nature, but to map and flag emotional states of the artist. This break with naturalistic representation of landscape in painting, (which Gomrich showed was as illusionary anyway as any trompe l'oeil), freed painting to move into expressionism with all the colour riot of Fauvism.

As an aside, i observe so many people gravitate towards naturalistic representational portraits that are not content with capturing a likeness but which insistent on near photo realism, despite so many decades of the modern art movement having established that a portrait is a painting, not a person. What mental, emotional and aesthetic satisfaction do we find in a literal trans-migration of a photo image into a painted image other than an impressive demonstration of the craft of paint and tools handling? With our lives festooned with cameras, even in phones, and idealised digital images of the human form where ever we turn, why would we wish to see even more of them in paint?

which is why i look for other qualities in a painting, qualities a photograph cannot provide.  ... and so, looks like a year of exploratory and experimental self-portraits coming up

first stop – mirrors, since mirrors were the first stop of portrait artists in years gone by

I mean, think about it, the self-portrait can never be a life-drawing. Photo or mirror, a self-portrait is always a copy from some 2D surface.

Errr, except if I feel my face with my hand (palpate) and paint an impression from that. Or paint what I remember myself as once having looked like in years gone by. Or paint what it feels like on the ‘inside’ to be me rather than naturalistically what I look like on the outside. Or ... Or ...

See – already – swamps, swamps, swamps.

Update:      two months later this quest had led me here, here, and here.

why this blog?


Why does anyone start a blog?

Well, actually, I've started a Masters of Contemporary Arts degree course at the Academy of Arts at Inveresk - latitude 42 degrees south, just north of the penguins. The Academy has its own internal blog but few seem to participate. And so I thought, hey, why not go public with the effort I put in?!

Soooo, I'll be posting some of my experiments in mark-making and image-creation here, for you, gentle reader, to peruse as little or as much as you please. I absolutely invite your comments.

Along the way I may muse a-while, this being first and foremost a deliberation about the visual arts, and an exposé of the challenges, and maybe small successes, I find along the way in my art practice.

I acknowledege I am no great talent, and I accept I have left this persuit far too late in life. But I do not wish to leave this life without all that might have been best in me at least getting a glimpse of the light of day before it gets eternal night.

Drawing and painting are, I believe, an analog of life itself.

And so I push my shallow barque out into the stream.