Sunday, May 26, 2024

Beyond The Canvas

When we hear the word painter our first thought might be artist or house painter.

There is painting with a specific purpose like murals which are created to tell a story. There is also trompe l’oeil, verisimilitude such as to deceive the viewer into thinking that a flat surface, i.e. 2-dimensional, is actually 3-dimensional. William Harnett’s 1879 painting ‘The Artist's Letter Rack” is just one example of the long tradition.

What sparked this Missive is a story of a trompe l’oeil mural that has gone viral. Etienne Constable of Seaside, California received a letter from the city requiring him to build a 6-foot fence in order to hide the boat in his yard. He did as he was told and then “poking the bear” hired his friend and neighbor, Hanif Panni, to paint a replica of that boat on the fence!

He did not get the flack you might have expected but rather a lot of publicity and the city of Seaside took it well. Here he is being high-fived by the Police Chief and acting City Manager.

Among a number of recent murals in the city of Quebec is this huge work completed in 1999 by a team of French and Quebec artists. It recounts the story of Québec City, weaving in visual allusions to its unique architecture and fortifications, and its larger-than-life personalities. Look closely at the building's windows and you'll see some 15 historic figures and nearly a dozen of Québec's leading writers and artists. It's a breathtaking feat of storytelling, and its trompe l’oeil vista of an additional street makes it a bit disorienting as well.

A friend and artist, Angela Caban, uses painting to create faux architecture. For instance, if you have a banal guest bathroom that you want to enliven with floral fantasy Angela can give you a complete garden in which to place your sink and toilet!

If you don’t want a garden in the bathroom you might consider the upgrade that Angela did to a client’s bedroom. Here you can see three of Angela’s steps towards creating a grand architectural illusion.

Tate Britain has used the term illusionism to describe a painting that creates the illusion of a real object or scene. It seems an apt term for the work of painters with skill who can transform our world.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Another Culture II

This current Missive is a follow-up on one I wrote 3 months ago ...

On the same theme. As you may realize I am trying to to work out my thoughts on the subject by writing them down.

This latest is my response to our visit to the Field Museum in Chicago, also known as the Field Museum of Natural History. It is a massive building with a continuous cacophony of cavernous spaces with no sound-absorbing materials and hoards of school kids running free and shouting to each other with teachers or chaperones who do not seem to care to teach their students respect for other visitors … sorry, I am showing my age.

The museum is best known for its dinosaur exhibits and SUE, the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus-Rex ever discovered, but it has also been known for its Native American Collection. Even though I knew that exhibits deemed sensitive had been covered to conform to the new NAGPRA rulings, I was not prepared to be confronted by hallway after hallway of cases taped over with brown paper with occasional apologetic labels. (3 images in this order Covered Wall, Mystery Box, and label )

I must admit to being upset since I was taught and grew up understanding that museums were where we learned about other cultures through art and artifacts. To my relief, there were a couple of galleries of Northwest Coast art with amazing masks and monumental carved log poles still on view to be awed and inspired by.

I have now had a couple of weeks to mull this over in the light of a book that I can highly recommend if you are interested in the vibrant Native America of the Southwest. It is “Talking to the Ground”, a non-fiction work by Douglas Preston who is known for his novels and thrillers. Preston lives in Santa Fe and this book documents his 1992 journey on horseback with the woman he would marry and her 9-year-old daughter across some of the lands of the Navajo (Diné) Reservation. They covered only a fraction of the total 25,000 square miles of the reservation which is the largest territory belonging to one of the Indian Nations.

Monument Valley

They had Native guides and interacted with many Navajo along the way who told them the stories of their land and conveyed their way of understanding the creation story which relates to it. One of the Indians tells Preston that he cannot just come out for a month and ask some questions and then think he understands the Indian culture. He learns that he has to keep coming back, not asking questions but absorbing the culture by listening. My wife reminded me that we were taught this on our trips to the Hopi Reservation years ago: don’t ask questions just listen. Very wise advice if you think about it.

Utah Strip of the Navajo Nation

Preston and his family felt small and overwhelmed by the land, buttes, and valleys. The Navajo did not have this problem. A Medicine Man, John Begay, explained it this way. “You have your bible we have the land. The land is our book.” The stories of the creation are explained by the specific mountains and valleys. In sum, Preston’s journey with his family took him to a greater depth of understanding of a different culture.


Although my wife and I have never undertaken so ambitious a journey we have traveled in the Southwest for over 25 years and for 15 it has been our home. The art and artifacts of Native peoples are what first drew us in. There is much we still do not understand about this part of the world but we have slowly come to an increased appreciation and understanding of Native cultures not only by travel but by collecting and living with Native works.

The issue of closing exhibits while consulting with the 574 Federally recognized tribes when there is no one recognized representative for most of them, from my Anglo point of view, seems an exercise in frustration on all sides. But life is just made up of continuous compromises and I am sure that somewhere in the middle both sides shall meet and we Anglos will learn more along the way.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Midwest Tour

We went to the graduations of two granddaughters, which were a week apart one in Grand Rapids, Michigan and the other in Columbus, Ohio. Rather than go home in between we visited Chicago which is what I wrote about the Art Institute last week.

Aside from the Art Institute, we saw two excellent plays. The Steppenwolf Theater Company has a tradition of developing dramas on family themes and this latest, “Purpose”, by Brandon Jacobs-Jenskins, deals with two generations of a successful black family. It was extremely well written, acted, and directed but I found it depressing. The next night we saw the comedy “Judgement Day“ at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on the Navy Pier with Jason Alexander. It was hilarious and surely bound for Broadway.

I also went to see the Money Museum at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. You have to go through a metal detector at the entrance. I teased the guard asking whether we could take some of the exhibits with us. His response was “If we could, I wouldn’t be here!”

A different Guard at the Federal Reserve

This small museum presents the history of money in this country, the Federal Budget and what a million dollars physically looks like.

Free souvenir from the from the Federal Reserve

In Grand Rapids, our art experience was at the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park. Lots of works, some with names one knows well but not always the best examples. Mr. Meijer clearly liked to buy a lot but quality was not his first thought. We did, however, enjoy a George Rickey and Louise Nevelson.

After our stop in Chicago, we were on to Columbus where the Art Museum is small and has a limited collection of older art. Each room was installed according to themes of social commentary, with labels that tried to squeeze out some current societal meaning from each work. I thought that seemed gratuitous but there were still some really good works of art. Here are just three paintings that grabbed me. The François Boucher's “Earth: Vertumnus and Pomona” (1749), Edward Hopper's “Morning Sun” (1952), and Paul Cadmus's “Herring Massacre”. (1940)

Columbus also boasts of a 32-room bookstore with 500,000 volumes. Amusing but nowhere to sit and hard to stand looking at a book for more than 30 seconds. Some rooms are so tiny that only one person could squeeze into a room at a time, but see the line to get in!

The Residence Inn in Columbus (don’t stay there) is in a converted bank. Unfortunately, the hotel is badly kept up but it was amusing that the breakfast buffet was in the bank’s vault.

The graduation ceremonies that were the reason for our trip were very different. At Grand Valley State was what you would expect with each student getting their name called as they walked across the stage to be given their diploma. At Ohio State it was quite another story; 12,000 graduates in a stadium with a capacity of 102,000. While they did call up by name those with Master’ Doctorates’ and Honorees, the 9,000 undergraduates just filed in line down from the bleachers to the stadium field to be handed diplomas from the black boxes on red and white covered tables. Our granddaughter told us that at their rehearsal they were told that if they were in the wrong place in line they would get someone else’s diploma! The first image is of the procession including the thousands of students and the second photo on the right shows the tables with the boxes of diplomas.

Happily at neither graduation were there any serious demonstrations.


Sunday, May 5, 2024

Some Of My Favorites At The AIC

I haven’t been back to the AIC aka The Art Institute of Chicago since I exhibited at an art fair on Chicago’s Navy pier many years ago. In the museum, I started to speak with a stranger who turned out to be a professor of music from Minnesota. He said, “It is not like the Metropolitan Museum but it is nice to have it here”. Well, there are blockbusters in the collection that certainly rival and surpass works at the Met.

Not sure why but as we came up the grand staircase on the wall was a Frank Lloyd Wright stained glass triptych (1912) from the Conley Playhouse in Riverside Illinois. I found it arresting, maybe because it was somewhat incongruous but still worked as abstract art in the classically built 1879 AIC.

Of course, the Museum is famous for its major Impressionist Collection and they have the great Caillebotte of the “Paris Street on a Rainy Day” (1877) and “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” by George Seurat (1884).

Edouard Manet’s “Boy with Pitcher”, painted between 1862 and 1872 makes me thirsty. If you look closely you can see the water spilling out of the pitcher and into the boy's mouth. He has the technique down pat! In fact, x-rays showed that it had been cut from a larger canvas that Manet was not happy with. I am kind of glad he did!

A painting I have always loved ever since I saw the illustration in a primer on art history and needless to say the original is 10 times more exciting is Giovanni di Paolo’s Saint John the Baptist Entering the Wilderness (1455-1460). It has such an ethereal feeling as if you were floating with him.

In another panel from the series, “The Head of Saint John the Baptist Brought before Herod”. one might say of John the Baptist that god allowed him to be vanquished. Do note that the head (middle-right) is in a domed dish and the dome is lifted off and served up to Herod. (bottom center).

I love dragons and there are two in the collection that are particularly magical. The first being a striking interpretation of Saint George and the Dragon, 1434/35, is by the Spanish artist Bernal Martorelli. The young handsome Saint George on his white steed slaying the fanciful dragon who is ready to swallow his destined sword. Thereby saving the richly clothed Princess standing near by from being sacrificed to the dragon.

A similar subject but not nearly as lively is a wood sculpture of “St. Michael and the Devil” carved between 1475 and 1500 by an unknown Spanish artist. The Archangel Michael seems to be dancing on Satan’s back, dagger in hand ready to strike.

Just one more and quite a different kind of sculpture, a bronze of Bireno and Olympia (1640/50) by Ferdinand Tacca. Olympia is being abandoned by her husband Bireno and swoons back onto her bed. The sensuousness of the subject is heightened by the brown-gold patina. (Image of Tacca)

We spent about 5 hours in the museum and these are just a few of the major works of art in the collection that I responded to.