Sunday, December 24, 2006

Pure Painting

There is no sense of good or bad. There is only activity, color and devotion.
It is an awe-inspiring thing to see forty six-year olds fill up forty blank papers with personal, meaningful creations...

I just finished conducting some holiday art workshops for children in Los Angeles. It is amazing to work alongside of little humans who create anything at a whim. They become so happy, and somtimes you can sense them nearly bursting with pride at what they have done.

My own daughter Lorelei is two, and paints joyously. At times, she also gets very serious as she mixes the puddles of color...

Here is an image of her beginning a new painting on this Chrismas Eve.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

From out of the Chaos

My favorite approach to figure painting is to leap into the process without hesitation. No preliminary drawings or daydreaming allowed! For this painting, the background was created beforehand by placing random marks and washes until a density of yellow hazy atmosphere is obtained. The canvas languished in my studio for nearly a year until the day I created this image. Somehow, the time was right, the surface was a wine that had come of age. I brought it to my model session with no doubt that it would be the chaos from which some kind of poetry would grow. The vertical thrust of the canvas suggested a standing pose, but the real inspiration was the dynamic pose of the model, who is a dancer.

Seeing how this painting appeared in it's earliest stage is exciting to me even now.

A few jagged lines suggest her movement without becoming too fixed or "perfect". I love working this way because it is accompanied by a real burst of energy, bravura and passion. As I squint to discern the visual pattern of light and shadow, I scrub in a luminous crimson wash to represent the darkness that seems to envelop her. The black wash on our left begins to define her light shape. At this stage, she resembles a spirit, an abstraction, but I do not stop here. My heart pounds. I always felt both liberated (and a bit guilty) when I began paintings this way. Shouldn't I be more concerned about clarity? Shouldn't my drawing skills be more controlled? Then I began finding X-rays of underpaintings by Titian and Velasquez where they began this way in the late Renaissance and Baroque periods. In an age of mathematical grids and royal patronage, they still let their brushes flow.

The next step is to focus. I begin with the face, which is built up with planes of structure which are gently softened together at their points of contact. Look how many edge variations I am employing. A few precious edges are left hard and sharp, but most dissolve and bleed into the areas surrounding them. I am careful to paint her features as they actually appear from across the room, not as detailed distractions. The overall quality of the skull, that is the bone structure, is most important here. The eye sockets appear deep and there is no defined eye, no actual glint of light. Just an indication of lid. The shadow under the nose falls across the lower face. The lips emerge from the forms of the muzzle, they are not pasted on the surface. The hairline comes and goes,allowing the strength of the nose and the light on the upper cheek to come forward. Less is more. Now I move down to the ribs and breasts.

Paying attention to the light source, each individual plane of the breasts is stated with a descriptive stroke of paint. The form appears to receed as cool green grey is added. See how the general shadow on the flesh is a warm sienna. Areas where bone comes close to the surface appear cooler. Also, the form appears to receed as cool green grey is added. The "lights" of her flesh are a very cool bit of blue added to white. I blend very slowly, trying to maintain the clarity of each decision. You can almost count the brushstrokes.

On to the arms. Every stroke is actually a drawing decision. This way of painting is not "filling in the space between the lines". There are no lines! It feels more like sculpting. See how the random colors of the background peek through or are subdued as I go along. I love the hair...

Total figure painting time thus far: Three hours.

Creating her fallen gown demands that a suggestion of the covered legs beneath be indicated. Alternating slashes of warm and cool violet are arranged as simply as possible, with only a single slash of light at the top. Again, notice the yellow wash of the background, allowed to show through to provide a unity, as well as a compliment to the violet. The rest of the cloth falls into soft middle values and finally into a muted shadow. I add a blast of cobalt blue near the bottom to enhance the temperature shift. The gown and the process of refining the fusion with the airy space around the form takes an additional hour of painting. The hands become a three hour delicate game of hide and seek, alternating between structure and mere indication. The hint of knuckle, the thrust of the gesture are more tasteful than tiny details. I decide to leave the vague background as it began: a chaotic wash, from which she boldly emerges. Here is the finished painting:

[The Source by John Paul Thornton]

Thursday, November 23, 2006


One of the most meaningful sights I have seen with my eyes, has been my father holding my daughter tenderly in his arms. My father is a gentle, complex man who has recently been battling cancer. My daughter is a radiant child full of affection and vigour.

While art history is packed with paintings depicting mothers and their children, the image of a man holding a small infant remains rare. To experience this interaction, to have it signify for me not only a vital part of my own life, but a rich reference to the life of any man who has held a delicate child, gives full power to the human figure as a symbol of spiritual signifigance and a subject without equal in my painting.

To attempt to conceptualize this image, or to abstract it into something that reflects less than it's direct impact upon my heart would be deceitful and self consciously apologetic.

I am proud that my painting has been featured as the Fall 2006 cover of "Rattle- Poetry for the 21st Century" published by The Frieda C. Fox Family Foundation.

The image used is actually a detail of a full-sized portrait, which is shown in the book as well along with additional original paintings. I was very pleased to receive an advance copy of the book, and I must say that the printing is gorgeous and the poetry in the book's pages (written by poets from around the country) is thoughtful and intimate. I am very proud of the end results and grateful to all who thought of me as a contributing artist.

Information on how to order this book can be found by clicking on this link.

Here is the featured portion of the full painting called "Grandpa's Cure".

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Flesh and Luminosity

Earlier this year I did a portrait demonstration for an audience of about fifty people at the Fine Artists Factory in Pasadena, California.

I photographed each stage and wanted to share them with those of you who love the way oilpaint can communicate flesh, depth and light. For artists, this kind of painting experience is akin to savoring a meal, enjoying taste after taste. It is also like meditating on music, focusing on the way each note relates to the overall impact upon a listener's nervous system. Done in the privacy of a studio, painting can feel relaxing or even painstakingly controlled. But performed in front of a crowd as an instructional process while speaking, a certain directness must rule. Add to that the strict time limit of two hours, and the experience becomes heart pounding.

I had Toni, one of the top figure models in Los Angeles pose for me. Afer laying in a transparent wash of alizarin crimson, yellow ochre and a touch of ivory black, I began a loose drawing with a brush focusing on large proportions and structure. Because I will be painting with big shapes and masses of color, the drawing does not need to be refined. In fact, a precise drawing would create a different kind of painting experience for me, forcing me to tiptoe around the portrait. About ten minutes was spent on the drawing here, with me describing every observation.

For my palette I am using only four tubes of paint: Alizarin Crimson, Yellow Ochre, Ivory Black and Titanium White Classico Oil Paint.I am using a big #12 Brush.

I begin with what I consider the most difficult passage in the portrait: the eye-socket in shadow. Dealing with these darks and middle valued areas will help me create the large masses that carry much of the image. I save the lights for last, leaving the canvas blank in these aresa until I am ready for them. The beginning stages of laying in my big shapes is always a rush for me. The painting always appears strange to my eye, but in my mind I can visualize the final outcome even from these early few strokes of paint. As I squint, each area on Toni's face is carefully observed, related to an adjacent value and translated by me as a plane. Each plane is then translated as a brushstroke.

It's been about fifteen minutes of painting, and the audience (and I) all breathe a sigh of relief... The hardest passages are done. I can continue with confidence that the overall structure is working, and that the delicate reflective light is being communicated. Notice how the features are not detailed in any way at this stage.

Now I boldly lay in the darks of the hair, and paint the way the hair relates to the darkness of the background. As I do this, the audience gives a collective "Ahhh!"
The darkness causes the reflective light on the face to take on it's luminous character. The face is primarilly middle value!

Time for a ten minute break. The model stretches and I prepare for the next sitting. Total painting time so far: thirty minutes.

More airy background and a burst of alizarin crimson to enliven the glow of the light hitting the far side of the face. I do not sense a cut out hard-edged contour back there...

I am a Venetian painter at heart when I paint this way. Washes, unrefined passages, free color effects and varied edges are my choices.

I develop the chest and neck area...
The "greens" in the flesh are actually yellow ochre, black and white.
The "blues" in the background are actually just mixtures of black and white.

Time to move throughout the rest of the painting...and then return to the face to give her complexity and definition. The background, the hair, the arm, dress and expressive hand all develop quickly and simply. The blending of edges is very important. As you can see, I use precious few hard edges in my work. Finally everything begins to "fuse" as the unified image I intended.

Near the end, I address the drawing one final time. (Every stroke is "drawing"), but now it's time to pull out a smaller brush and be precise where needed. I carefully reshape the chin ...

I create the hand with masses and shapes. Then, with a few dashes of line, fingers are suggested. I let the thumb merge into the chest to keep the area from getting too liney. I have fun with the diminishing pinky. The dress and the anatomy of the arm come with refinement from a small brush.

Only now do I prepare for the adding of the lights.

This thin strip along the far side of the face is my true focal point, the area of clarity. A combination of crisp strokes floating in a soft haze of light will create depth, suggest the features and remain consistent with the rest of the painting. My goal here is to not impress the viewer with how much work I have done, but rather, how much work I refrained from doing to create her expression and sense of life.

[In the Light by John Paul Thornton]

After describing every stroke and subtle smear, I finish with a final highlight on her eyelid. My patient audience cheers. I wipe the sweat from my own brow. It's been two hours from the initial laying down of my wash. I sign the painting. Time for a beer.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Spirit of Children

["Where To Now?" By David Andres Kietzman]

Visitors entering the gallery at Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park, Los Angeles, were met with a space lit with candles and decorated with vases of marigolds. Groups slowly moved from piece to piece, or lingered to absorb the unapologetically heavy content.
An art show about remembering the souls of dead children? Most gallery directors would never approach such a theme for purely commercial reasons. Others might try but would instead produce a show laden with treacle, diverting the viewer from responses deeper and more constructive than tears and grief.

Kathy Mas-Gallegos is the well-known Director of Avenue 50 studio. She has approached this difficult theme with dignity, poetry and dry-eyed honesty, currating an exhibition that relates to the Mexican celebration of Dias De Los Muertos while providing social reflection and urgency. Ten artists were asked to produce work that commemorates, celebrates or mourns children and youth who have died an untimely death due to preventable disease, gang violence, abuse, and/or war. Ultimately this is an emotionally wrenching show.

The full name of the exhibition is "Miccailhuitontli - Spirit of the Children."

Say "Mick-Hail-Wheat-Tont-Lee", and you are pronouncing a word that dates from Aztec times. As Director of Avenue 50 Studio, Kathy Mas-Gallegos posted this descriptive statement about the theme of the show and it's origins:

"“Miccailhuitontli -— Spirit of the Children, a Mejica traditional celebration of DiŒa de los Angelitos.
According to the system of beliefs in deities particularly of the Mejica Aztecs, gods ruled parts of the earth, heavens and underground. Along with this, there were times during the year at which they honored these gods or the people they served. Miccailhuitontli represents a period of time in which deceased children were held in reverence. Miccailhuitontli was presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, lady of the dead.

Eventually under the rule of the Spanish, Mejica tradition gave way to what we now know as the ceremonies of the days of the dead. In Mexico today, as perhaps in other parts of the world, there is a day to mourn and honor deceased children, as there is a day to mourn and honor deceased adults.
As the tradition goes in Mexico, paths are strewn with marigold petals leading to the house of the deceased child so that the soul can find its way back to its home and mingle once again, through spirit, with friends and loved ones.

As malevolent conditions in our world intensify, affecting the spirit and consciousness of our children - our future - is being destroyed. We honor these fallen children by bringing to the forefront those conditions that have wrought havoc in their young lives: war, gang violence, hatred, abuse, and preventable disease. We honor these fallen children in the hope that someone, or two or three, will hear and understand that only through determined action will crimes against children significantly decrease."

I was invited to contribute works, along with Edith and Rob Abeyta, Roberto L. Delgado, Kathi Flood, Clement Hanami, David Andreˆs Kietzman, Betsy Lohrer Hall, Ricardo Munoz, and Mark Vallen.

Betsy Lohrer Hall Dominates a main wall with what appears at first to be the installation of a shower of leaves, or many hanging branches of a weeping willow. Her "Lost and Missing Tree" is actually hundreds of squares of paper. Upon each the artist has hand-written the individual names, ages and causes of death of Iraqi children whose lives were taken during the last few years during warfare. Adding beauty and further heartbreak, the backs of each scrap are printed with designs borrowed from artworks looted from the Baghdad National Museum. The work speaks elloquently about the idea of loss...loss of a generation and of a culture. There is an inescapable connection that Hall had made with each of the names. The papers they are hand-written on are like little post-it notes...They are little reminders we make to ourselves about items we need desperately to remember.

Mark Vallen presents "Child Of War", an intimate work which hinges greatly upon precision and delicacy. As a realist painter, he unerringly depicts a single face of a young boy bearing an expression of fatigue, betrayal and spiritual damage. Vallen's "Child of War" could belong to dozens of cultures, but the artist's timely statement reminds viewers about the specifically incomprehensible civilian death toll mounting in the Iraqi War. Mark Vallen's choice to create a painting in his polished traditional style (reflecting an admiration of Renaissance masters) provides the viewer no escape from the dedication and proficiency of the artist's hand or intent. Indeed, to linger so sensitively over the subtle value changes of the boy's nostril, cheek and lips implies a deliberateness that casual sketchiness cannot compete with. Thus, the boy is given the same respect that might have been lavished upon the portrait of a young royal Duke at the hands of fourteenth century German painter Albrect Durer. Questions of worthiness and status are cast aside.

Kathi Flood has offered a work honoring the soul of a young local boy who was swept away by storm waters. Through text, we learn that his rescue was hindered by the lack of effective equiptment by authorities. It was only through his loss that proper poles and extention devices came into use. The playful appearance of the installation disolves as viewers are coaxed to recall their own memories of rescues caught on home video which top breathless news reports each winter.

["Portrait of a missing child" By John Paul Thornton]

As for my own offering,I included five portraits of missing children, along with the disposable "Have You Seen Me?" mailers that inspired them. I too find that my somewhat obsessive continuation of this body of work, (I have created nearly four hundred painted portraits of America's missing children) reflects a kind of compulsive devotion which links the ten artists in the show together. Thank you to the many viewers I met at the opening night who were moved by my work. Thank you also to Kathy Mas-Gallegos, the Director of Highland Park's Avenue 50 Studio for this show about art and courage.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Messages From Another Time

The spine of the old book was tattered, thick and covered with bold words:

“NOB U Delima Likovnih Umetnika Jugoslavije”

I had to climb a ladder to retrieve it from the top shelf of the art section in a favorite used book store I frequent every time I’m in Hollywood. Some people go to health spas, or meditation retreats, or brothels. I go to used book shops. They are like temples to me.

Over the years I have obsessively developed a juicy art book collection containing an especially gorgeous array of rare folios on painting and drawing. I believe I have a keen sense about a book even from the look of it’s spine, and I still get a primitive thrill from the simple act of discovering such a book, especially when it is stuck high above my head on a shelf nine feet from the floor. There is a sense of locating a missing friend, or finding a piece of humanity’s great puzzle. This is my compulsion.

When the book was finally in my hands, I took in the feel of the worn canvas cover, the heavy water damage and even the aura of the book itself. ( Yes, books have auras.) Then I read the title on the spine again:

“NOB U Delima Likovnik Umetnika Jugoslavije.”

I opened the first pages, and found them all to be printed in what seemed to be...Yugoslavian. The publishing date was 1958. Like someone savoring the slow opening of a wrapped present, I thumbed past the text to the plates. What met me was image after image of human suffering, and strength in the face of dispair. I stood in the bookshop aisle for ten minutes, returning to the beginning page and assessing the prints with admiration and care. Paintings and sculptures of wounded soldiers, old women in kerchiefs, torn landscapes and huddled children filled the pages, affecting me with so many intense emotions. I had not expected this. The intimacy and often hurried appearance of the drawings gave testament to the fact that many of the works featured within the yellowed paged were dated 1942 through 1945. Obviously these were images created during the second world war.

Ah, I see you have found the book,” said the grizzled shopkeeper. He had been watching me carefully. “It takes a special someone to appreciate that one, and I have seen hundreds of people just flip through it’s pages and then jam it back in the shelf. But not you. You cannot put down.” He came around the counter and put on a pair of glasses that had been hanging from a tarnished chain around his fleshy neck.

I told him that I thought the book was incredible, and asked if he could give me some background about it.

“I think it translates as 'Yugoslavian painters and sculptors reflecting on the struggle of world war two'. It‘s a difficult book. Such images of sadness...and it‘s all still happening today, you know. You can still see these images on CNN. Sixty years have passed, and we are still learning this, over and over. Different countries, different people, same lesson. ”

For a third time, I flipped through the pages, while the two of us commented or drew a heavy breath at the sight of each of the two hundred and seventy paintings, sculptures and sketches from almost a hundred artists. Many of them dated from the height of the war years and seemed to have been drawn from actual observed scenes. Mesmorized, I bought the book.

I think of these artists as time travelers, sending their messages to our twenty-first century as a way of warning us, or at least linking us, to their own time of darkness and hope. The old book could be our own, and the words on the spine could be printed in countless languages.

I have included images taken from this remarkable find. I was distressed to think that these artist’s expressions were all but lost to the world, and that if the book had been neglected by me or had been ultimately discarded, the recording of their visions and feelings would be lost as well. When I purchased the book, it was for the memory of these artists, and to the communities and families that they depicted. They are us. They are the images of our own soldiers and mothers, children and grandparents.

These images may move you in their bleakness, or inspire you by their authenticity. They were made by forgotten Yugoslavian artists who would not close their eyes at what they saw. They did not ignore what they felt. They talk to us now, from across time.

Take a moment to read about The Country and People of Yugoslavia.
All Images in this post are from "NOB U Delima Likovnih Umetnika Jugoslavije" Published in Belgrade, 1958

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Tommy Hollenstein- Dancing with Color

Tommy Hollenstein’s paintings are alive with color. Vibrant reds and rich blues collide with streaks of yellow like veins of energy. Colors like sunsets or lush abstract landscapes radiate seductively. Some canvases are elegantly stark, while others are dense with layers and rhythm. It’s the rhythm that is captivating. Evoking movement is the painter’s greatest challenge, for the picture is in reality motionless before us. It is the skill and passion of the artist that can cause the surface to appear to dance. Once the viewer is captivated by the dance on the canvas, they are lured closer to inspect the strokes on the surface. With Tommy’s art they will find no brushstrokes at all. There is something else: Patterns laced within patterns and spirals of swirling tire tread-marks. Tommy Hollenstein paints with his wheelchair.

Our culture easily embraces the victim, but Tommy has nothing to offer in the victim-hood department. Instead, he concentrates on his powerful strength and gifts. Without a pause he will tell you that his art is about “Joy and passion.”

Charismatic and handsome, he does not hesitate to talk about the day when at age twenty five, he broke his spinal column in a bike accident that changed his life forever. On March 10th, 1985 when he flew off his bike and hit the ground, he remembered hearing a “pop” like the striking of a metal rod. Then, he remembered floating up into the clouds.

“I was dead”, he says. “I could look down and see my own body laying there motionless. I remember thinking that I was not yet ready to die. I asked God to give me another chance.” When Tommy returned to his body, he knew immediately that he had broken his neck. His buddy called an ambulance, and the seriousness of his injury was confirmed. When he arrived at the hospital a priest gave him his last rights, but Tommy’s gratitude for life surpassed his sense of loss, and he did not die. After six difficult months in rehab, he was able to get movement in his arms and learned how to function as a paraplegic. Tommy would spend his remaining life in a wheelchair.

Of course, being the amazing person that he was, after being discharged he immediately set about living his life to the fullest. Without the use of his legs, he still enjoyed boating and water-skiing. His interest in this dynamic sport led him to even create a special device that Quadraplegics now use to water-ski. This kind of love for other people ensured that he would always be active and social. To be sure, Tommy was not alone in the world. His ongoing journey was enhanced greatly over the ensuing years by physical therapists, family and friends… and also by a dog named Weaver. Weaver was trained specifically to aid Tommy and grew to become his trusted companion. It was through this special relationship that Tommy was led to realize his powerful voice as an artist.

Tommy speaks with emotion as he relates the idea that opened this door. “I knew that my dog wouldn’t always be in good health forever. I wanted to do something to remember Weaver by. Why not record his paw-prints?” He laid a flat surface on the ground in his garage and coaxed Weaver to dip his paws in colored house paint. Then, Tommy rolled through some paint as well.He moved across the flat surfacein his wheelchair as Weaver walked faithfully beside him, leaving paw prints and tire marks on the paper. They tried this together a few times, and during the process Tommy realized that now...he was painting.

“ I tried experimenting with different colors, and patterns. I found that I had really fine control over the sensitivity of my marks,” he states. Indeed, the built-in computer in his wonderful Invacare motorized wheelchair allows him to maneuver with varying speed, direction and pressure as he paints. He was hooked.
A number of dedicated paraplegic and quadriplegic artists around the world have learned to paint with brushes delicately held by their teeth, or with their toes. Their work is incredible in that it is a testament to unstoppable courage , but it also reflects the common drive that so many artists have within them. Learning or relearning a manual dexterous skill is simply part of the path for the dedicated artist, who will not let their creativity be hindered in any way. There are inspiring stories of the French Impressionist painter Renoir asking assistants to tie paint brushes onto his crippled hands with rope when he could no longer hold them. Old photos attest to that. This was how Renoir, also confined to a wheelchair, created his last shimmering paintings. Since the process of relearning skills was a regular part of Tommy’s lifestyle, he put no barriers up when the time came to develop his new way of approaching art-making.

“I feel free when I am painting in my wheelchair,” Tommy says. “I feel No restrictions.” Is it possible that by not relying on his limbs or hands, might his mind and his heart be more readily involved in the creation process? Watching Tommy “glide” over a canvas gives the impression that he is “flying” above his art. He leaves his tracks in paint, announcing without irony or self-pity that he is actually dancing.

Tommy Hollenstein’s first dog Weaver has passed on. His new dog Hiley now attends his crowded art exhibitions with him. Growing acknowledgment by the media helps get his paintings out in the public consciousness. His charity art projects with children help him spread the message of strength. “Do what you love. Have gratitude for life,” he says. God dealt Tommy a card that would challenge any of us. He responded to that card with art and courage.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Missiles to Nazareth, Rockets to Beirut

A random search of the internet brought me to the websites of two living fine-artists. One is Lebanese, and the other is Israeli. They are approximately the same age and have the same joy in their painting. Take the next few minutes to visit each site now. Let all the news images of Middle Eastern assault and repercussion momentarily disappear. After you have visited each artist’s website, please come back to the Art And Courage Blog to continue your visit.

The Art of Judith Yellin Ginat

The Art of Joseph T. Matar

Now that you have viewed the work of these two artists, let's think about something new: runny-noses, naptimes and dirty-diapers...

This week I was at a large public American shopping mall. An indoor jungle-gym was created so parents could take a break while watching their kiddies play. It was filled to bursting.
As groups of school children and toddlers crawled and ran about, they did what most children and toddlers do: They bumped each other, pulled at each other and pushed their way through the kiddy-throngs. My own twenty-month old daughter was part of the frenzied mayhem, and I found myself along with all the parents having to intervene and remind our children that they needed to play nicely. I noticed that if a child crossed the line and began hitting another, parents reacted firmly. Boundaries were set and expectations of proper play were spelled out. (There is a satisfaction of doing this skillfully in a public venue around other parents. Everyone seems to support the group and an elevated level of parenting occurs). I was impressed with the moms and dads that day. We were all creating new little people who were hopefully going to grow up to respect their fellow human beings.

Around the perimeter of this play-land were dozens of seats, where exhausted parents lounged and oversaw the wild activity. Jewish families, Christian families, Muslim families were all represented. Asian families, African American families, Anglo and Latin American families all threw their kids in the ring to play together. They were learning to take turns, respect the space of each other, look out for their smaller peers, and say nice things.

The flair-up in the Middle East sprang to my mind as I watched this scene. When I got the paper that morning, the photo on the front page showed a Lebanese woman screaming, with her hands grasping and straining in the air. A twisted Jeep blown to bits by the Israeli army burned behind her. She represented every woman who has been the participant in the history of violence in that region. On television that morning, the BBC showed Israeli victims of terrorist bomb attacks. They represented every innocent soul taken out by fundamental hatred. I have heard both culture’s reactions and justification about the current conflict, while a few representatives of both cultures have stated that there is no element of life that they share with the other.

Of course the civillians of both cultures know that they do share common ground. The most obvious is that they both die from each other’s military and para-military actions. Hundreds of thousands of websites will satisfy your hunger for knowledge about the centuries old conflicts that have fed today’s current events. The national histories, the religious roots, the body-counts, the moral debate, the clear-eyed oaths and the weeping funerary prayers from every perspective have already been written. My own perspective is so hopelessly minute, and so far removed from the heat of the events unfolding that it simply does not matter.

What matters is what I teach my daughter. What I teach her about the playground skill of getting along with others is my primary weapon of peace. Her understanding that god is too big to fit into one single book, or one type of building, or one border-demarcation is my first domino of redemption for humanity. That was why we parents at the mall playground were so intent on guiding their children. We all feel the tingle in our stomachs. We all know that a handful of red ants can overtake whole nests of peaceful garden ants. We all are aware that the most hopeful aspect of humanity that exists today is that most of us have no problem co-existing. Even with our inherited misconceptions and prejudices, most of us see what is unfolding in the world with total amazement.

No matter whose side you are on, there can be no victory, only survivors.

Remember the life-affirming personal expression of the two artists you viewed in the links above. As their websites show, sometimes the most courageous act mature artists can make is to not allow victim-hood and rage to diminish their colors.

I gotta go. My daughter wants to play.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Kollwitz- The Champion of Mothers

"I would like to exert influence in these times when human beings are so perplexed and in need of help-"

These words were written by a mother whose son was taken from her during a ravaging war. This fact alone did not differ her mourning and grief from that of hundreds of thousands of other mothers across the cycles of human history. She was also an educated, articulate teacher holding prestigious honors. This could have been said of thousands of people, but rarely about a woman living in a male dominated Germany in 1922. All of These honors were to be suddenly stripped from her, (or deliberately shedded by her), as the fascist machine called Nazism gutted Berlin along with all Deutschland of it's cultural decency.

This particular woman was an artist, and this made all the difference in her journey. It ensured that she would not be barren after her losses. It ensured that her existence would not be erased by the cruel boots of evil. This one aspect above all ensured that there now exists a record of her pain, her strength and her amazing life...

The woman's name was Kathe Kollwitz.
She was an artist who would not crumble. She would not sell her very soul to the devil or embrace a false ideal in exchange for promises of safety. For this, Kathe (pronounced KAY-teh) is a champion hero and a model that all humans should hold in their heart. She is the embodiment of art and courage. Kathe's art is like a time-released message to us, sent from a past century to our own.

When I first saw a work of art by Kollwitz, it was a defining moment for me. I was eighteen, in art school, and had bought a book on "expressive drawing". My first exposure to Kollwitz was her lithograph, A Woman with dead child. It resonates with the greatest strength and the most authentic sensitivity I can imagine. The design appears as if a rock has been tossed into a pond, and the ripples radiate outward from the center. While kathe was a master of human anatomy, she does not waste our time, or her own, by rendering every body part simply for show. She selects the most vital elements. It is anatomy in action and anatomy with meaning. She gives us unflinching clarity and soft mystery, while she conjures horror and intimacy. Line merges with stain and death marries life. She created the image by looking at herself, posing in front of a mirror with her own eight year old son, Peter. It was to become a prophetic image, as years later, her son would be killed in the first days of World War One.

Her images trigger emotion in me, and more importantly, I believe the emotion that came from her. I believe her anger, her compassion, her pain, and her ability to understand that her experience did not belong to her alone, but was (and would sadly be)shared by so many mothers across time and space.

Kathe Schmidt was born on July 8th, 1867 in a city named Konigsberg in Prussia. She was raised by a strong and caring family. She studied painting at an early age, and was soon enamored with the expressive techniques of etching and printing. Ink drawing was her real passion. Linework and graphic black and white presentation gave voice to her style of realism. Having visited Paris and Venice and seen much of the current style of colorful Impressionism, Kathe's choice to remain so dark was a reflection of artist max Klinger's writings: "Some themes should be drawn rather than painted. Some themes would be ineffective and even inartistic if rendered by means of painting." He taught that the darker aspects of life were reflected better in graphics. She embraced this belief, and immersed herself in drawing.

In 1891 she married a young Doctor named Karl Kollwitz who happily set up a studio space for his bride and then set up his own office across the hall. It was this situation that gave Kathe intimate views of illness, poverty, malnourishment and especially the plight of poor children in her community. Politics and history began to play heavily on her mind, and her primary successes as an artist came from a series called The weavers. It was one of the first bodies of art created in which a struggle for a better life by working class people was depicted sympathetically. When displayed at the Great Berlin Art Exhibit in 1898, a distinguished jury awarded the Weaver's cycle with a gold medal. Kaiser Wilhelm II feared The Weavers'social content, and referred to Kathe's work as "gutter art." He personally blocked the award from being given. This Veto was only the beginning of the censorship and discussion that would ultimately surround her creations.

Success and opportunity in her career was matched by happiness in her life as a wife and mother of two sons until the onset of The Great War when her youngest son Peter was killed in 1914. He had become filled by pro-military rhetoric and volunteered to become a soldier. Kathe the mother never recovered but Kathe the artist was empowered by this personal tragedy. She became the voice of a cause that could not have been more passionate. Her previous cycles of strikes and etchings of peasant rebellions were ultimately mere rehearsals for her own stand against war, or more specifically; those who destroy youth in order to employ them as soldiers. One of her favorite axioms was "Seed for the planting must not be ground up." The seed she spoke of represented the promising generations of children who are sytematically erased by the ever seductive war machine.

Her work became unflinchingly social as she created art to rally viewers against hunger, political corruption, abuse, and apathy. With her bold graphic style, she pleaded for compassion and action. "Peace" after the end of the war meant only humiliation and despair for the powerless citizens of the defeated Germany, and the treaty of Versailles left the Nation unable to fully reform. It took the evil Adolph Hitler to fan the embers of bitterness and despair into high reaching flames of ravenous Nationalism.

Hitler was a frustrated artist himself, who had received poor response from his architectural drawings as a student in Vienna. Along with his frightening plans to create a new Germanic empire, he believed that German art had been corrupted by contemporary ideas and anti-military social messages. When he obtained full power, newly blacklisted artists across the country were pressured to stop painting and Forbidden to exhibit. Kollwitz herself was forced to resign her position as an art instructor, and her works were removed from public museums. She was "courted" by the Third reich, who wished to have her return to the fold and retain her place of honor as one of Germany's greatest artists, if only she would renounce her previous work and produced art along party lines. While thousands of other citizens in all walks of life submitted to this kind of fascism and desperately sold out, Kollwitz would not.

Her work became illegal. Her shows were shut down. On one occasion she was threatened with being sent to a concentration camp for not cooperating with the Nazi police. When the newly constructed "House of German Art" exhibited eight hundred examples of art that Hitler approved of, she was not invited. Nor was she included in Hitler's infamous Degenerate Art Exhibition, where examples of art deemed unclean and unfit for viewing were mockingly put on display in a kind of "house of horrors" freak show. Worse perhaps than being ridiculed, Kathe was ignored by the State.

She remained in Berlin as many of her artist peers were purged from society. most fled or were imprisoned. She worked in private, and sent her drawings to New York, where she developed an enthusiastic following. With the outbreak of World War Two however, her ties to the U.S. were severed.

As Nazi propaganda boomed that Germany was winning the war, soon the truth was obvious. Allied planes launched unflinching retaliatory attacks against German civilian centers. Her own home was bombed during the intense air raids by allied planes, and her Grandson was among the dead as the country fell. She died on April 22nd 1945, just a few days before the total surrender of the Nazis, not knowing peace or the outcome of the War. Her final great artwork was the monument to all parents of dead soldiers. The Mourning Parents depicts two kneeling figures gripped in physical and internal torment. Different from the typical Christian pieta, there is no body to mourn. Instead, there is only a void...An empty space. It is a self-portrait of the artist and her faithful husband created for a cemetery in Belgium. A replica now stands in the preserved ruins of the Saint Alban church, beside the Rhine river in Cologne.

Cologne is also the home of the intimate and comprehensive Kathe Kollwitz Museum. Located above the bustling Neumarkt, visitors take an elevator to arrive at a world-class sanctuary of her art. The Cologne museum was specially built to retain the mood and scope of this amazing woman's commitment to the preservation of life. For all of the darkness and visions of death that emerge from her graphic work, it is her strength that is victorious. Unlike many glum symbolist, surrealist and expressive artists after her, Kollwitz created art which is firmly planted in the knowledge that humanity can live in a civilized realm of dignity and love. It is this love that keeps her images from becoming merely horrific. It is the dignity that helps her work transcend the mere political. To think of her work as being linked to a long-gone European crisis is a great mistake. Sadly, infact, her work appears to be timeless.

Our own time is ripe for the message of her universal artwork. The fervor of a handfull of men (always men...) is once again fanning flames into wars that defy reason. Every day, one can watch the news and observe children torn apart by car-bombs in the name of retribution, or air strikes in the name of liberation.
It is the numbingly cliched constant story of our advanced epoch. I am keenly aware of the cycles of history, and wonder how many Americans could hold to their heartfelt beliefs as firmly as old Kathe did if ever faced with the choice. Perhaps many of us. Perhaps a few. How would we respond to Fascism?

In any case, how governments treat their artists seems to be the canary in the coalmine of civilization. When the arts are free, people are free. When arts funding is up, culture flows. When art expression is valued, fear disappears. When these fruitful rules are not in play, the opposite will be true.

Kathe devoted her life to creating a kind of warning mechanism. Her images seem to be taken from out of today's world news instead of belonging to faded chapters from yesterday. We should allow ourselves to question the direction that a half-a-dozen or so world rulers are steering the Earth. Without a doubt, If we follow the old course, we will come to view her art as simply proof that "others had tread this way before".

Others before us lost their babies.
Others before us stood in long bread lines.
Previous neighborhoods have been obliterated.
Similar anthems were once shouted.

Kathe hoped for a change in this cycle. As she died in the last days of the second world war, she could have only hoped that the people and cultures of the Earth would somehow survive. She probably wished that her art would speak to others in a future century, to remind them that we all share the same salt in our tears, the same habits of heart and the same ability to have courage when we are led astray from the path of wisdom and peace.

Experience her work. Treat it as a gift. She created it for us.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Smooth Art Of The Bush Years

When Napoleon Bonaparte conquered France, he was not ignorant about the power of art to reflect his regime's ideals. He was also quite aware of art's ability to affect public opinion. He wisely chose Jacques-Louis David to head up the French Art world and gave him reign over the content, style and moral role that painting would play in the growingly oppressive Napoleonic empire. Jacques-Louis David was a great painter, and he devised a technique of working that would best serve the propaganda machine and methodology of the self-crowned Emperor.

Bonaparte realized that individual voices of dissent could grow and threaten his rule. It would become vital to neutralize these voices. David was employed to develop an approach to art-education and philosophy that would do just that. His most obvious tool was to eliminate the individual voice which comes from brushstrokes in a painting. When French artists created an artwork, therefore; it was imperative that they "erase" their individual voice. The school of David preached that smooth, flat surfaces were what all painters should strive to achieve and emulate. The school of David produced some gorgeously cool masterpieces which occupy a unique place in art history and the technical strength and allegorical impact of Napoleonic painting is beyond question. The works of these Napoleonic painters appear as polished, smooth, hard-edged and nearly photographic in their overall distribution of detail.

Folks, it took three generations of painters to free art from the strict cannons of smooth Napoleonic neo-classiscism. A fourth and fifth generation fought and died to bring the personal and expressive brushstroke to it's full articulation, purity and ultimately abstract power. Today, painting is seeing a resurgence. Realism, Impressionism, decorative applications, expressive solutions, International appropriation and even pop-culture cartoon stylistics are all choices available to the creative artist at the beginning of our twenty-first century. They are all valid, they are all widely practiced, and even marketable. How far we have come from the days when a single finger of art drove the entire body!

When The National portrait Gallery in Washinton D.C. announced last year that they would be hosting the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition in 2006, artists of all backgrounds across America joyously submitted a portrait that reflected their relationship with their sitter. The event would be amazing. Perhaps it would be a survey of the multi-lingual artscape that our country has finally become. A return to portraiture as a revered contemporary subject could spell walls and walls of paintings dripping with expressive humanity. The task of creation and rush to submit to the event was embarked upon by well-over four thousand artists. The competition would be great, as only fifty or so paintings would be chosen by a distinguished jury for exhibition in time to coincide with the National Portrait Gallery's grand reopening on July 4th.

Now that the paintings have been chosen and the winner of the twenty-five thousand dollar first prize has been announced, it is of historical and artistic interest to see what has in effect, become the official art of the George W. Bush era.

When I clicked on the website of the National Portrait Gallery to
view the paintings shortlisted for the grand prize, I was met with a group of beautiful paintings that all had specific things in common: They appeared to be polished, smooth, hard-edged and nearly photographic in their overall distribution of detail...

"Sacre Bleu!" Shouts the ghost of the long-dead Napoleon Bonaparte. "Vive Le Emperor!"

A recent article in The Washington Post discussed the exhibition in terms of it's obsessive embrace of a single harsh painting style. Painting comes in many forms, and it seems odd that such a severe photo-dependent product be so highly showcased to the exclusion of so many other choices and possibilities. I know of a hundred or so portrait artists whose work was not chosen for the exhibition. Many of them were working in various expressive or "painterly" styles of realism. Most of them employed unblended brushstrokes in their creative process.

Let's face it, judging art is a lot like judging a bar-b-que ribs cook-off. One judge might like hickory smoke flavoring, while another goes for sweet Missouri style sauce. Some like meat falling off the bone, while other judges might go for firmer mouthfulls. In the end, personal taste must prevail, and be respected. It is still remarkable to me that such a large jury panel was so enamored with this Napoleonic aesthetic, when so many styles were submitted. What does this say about the image of the American human in our time? What does this say about the expectations Washington D.C. Curators have about contemporary painters?

It is also interesting to note that across the pond, The London National Portrait Gallery has opened their annual Open exhibition, which also features a select group of paintings based upon the same Napoleonic severity. Additionally, the lack of color in the London exhibition is interesting. Historically color use in art is equated with periods of freedom, vibrancy, passion and liveliness of a culture. What does this lack of color say about our times? Or the artist's perception of their role?

Certainly, to have such prestigious portrait exhibitions is a triumph in the wake of the modernist jihad that tried to erase the language of realism from the face of the earth in the last century. These are exciting events for lovers of art and creators of painting. Still, I like to ask the larger questions at hand.

Do we realist-artists ever question our own philosophies? Were we born to simply "paint as real as we can" ? Are our individual voices -our brushstrokes- distractions to be smoothed over? In the future, historians will look back to our time and perhaps see an amusing parallel to another epoch. They will marvel at the way cycles of politics echo cycles of art. They will note who marched in step with these cycles...and they will note who embraced the brushstroke. Let's beat these historians to the punch. Let's ask these questions now.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Smile America! You Love Art!

"Nobody cares about art. No one really cares."

My friend Peter spoke these words aloud, and they hung there in the air with the weight of a comfortable reclining chair. He stared out his studio window, waiting for me to repeat his mantra. Before I could speak, he churned out another sorrowful statement, punctuated with a heavy sigh. "It just seems that nobody is interested in art anymore."

Of course, only an artist would ever say these words. In times of despair, they have come from my lips as well. But no longer. Why? Because they are so far from truth that it is almost hysterical. Maybe smack in the middle of the last decade a comment like that would have garnered a conquering chorus of grumbling hallelujahs, but not in today's America. Today's American citizen is absolutely in love with art.

With this in mind I broke the disparaging mood in the room by asking my defeated artist friend, "What was the number one movie in the land last week, and the number one best-selling book last year? I'll tell you: the frickin' Da Vinci Code. The story takes place in the Louvre Museum and is all about looking at art. And did you hear? Yesterday the highest amount ever paid for a painting was set in auction: 135 million dollars for a Gustav Klimt painting, beating out Picasso's chincey 106 million dollar price from two years ago! The Klimt is going to the Neues Museum in Manhattan, where hundreds of thousands of people will make their way to see it! And believe me, admission ain't gonna be free! They will all gladly shell out big bucks to get in, and then they will slap down the plastic at the souvenir counter to buy Klimt posters, Klimt refridgerator magnets, and Klimt oven mits"

My painter friend just stared.

"And another thing," I resumed, climbing up to stand on a table, "The number one shows on television today are about people... real people...involved in the art of singing and ballroom dancing! America loves this art thing! America is done with car-chase shows and folks eating tarantula intestines and caterpillar smoothies on a dare. They actually want to see somebody get better at their craft, even if it means risking getting humiliated. They want to see somebody just like them take a stand and become a singing star or a tango hero! Whatd'ya mean nobody cares about art!?"

I stood panting with sweat beads dripping from my forehead. My chest heaved passionately as I awaited a response.

"Mere circuses and cakes," Peter retorted, dismissing me with a wave of his paint-covered hand. "You call junk-culture art? You call inflated commerce an indication of our nation's taste? Our nation has taste all right, but it's in its mouth, and that's about it."

"Ah jeez!" I countered. "Step down from the ivory tower, your majesty. This junk-culture as you call it serves as a kind of, you know, gateway-drug. It's like an appetizer before you can swallow the main course. It's like stretching before you run a marathon. The world has to develop a taste for art before they are ready to feast on it."

Peter ignored me. " What about our government? Why is the American government willing to spend billions on the military to fight our current economic-religious war in the middle East while diminishing all arts funding at home? Our schools rarely embrace the arts, and less and less government funds are put towards this universal language of peace and expression. I mean my God, even someone as wicked as Hitler supported the arts. During World War Two even he considered the arts vital. If the "ultimate evil guy" supported the arts, why can't our "good guys" in Washington do the same, but with grace and wisdom?"

"Now you've done it!" I taunted. "Whenever people bring up Hitler in an argument, you know that they are becoming cranky. Good Lord, are you saying that Hitler was a moral keeper of culture? Please be open to good news! Just tone down your pessimism and release your demands that the whole garden bloom at once." I grew sage-like as my heart glowed with hope. I continued with my hand gently and firmly on his shoulder. "Allow a few flowers to blossom before the others. Allow a beginning to take shape. Think of it as a start. Our culture is letting art into daily life like never before. Be positive. Be open to the possibilities. people do care."

My friend looked quietly down at the floor. After a few moments he spoke. "I guess you may be right. Maybe people are thinking about art more. Maybe they will develop a real thirst for it. Maybe this is the beginning, when our culture begins to grow. Maybe art will join every aspect of life, enriching it and leading to a future of harmony, poetry and beauty."
He paused. "I...still don't have to consider McDonald's new breakfast croissandwich as Haute cuisine though, do I?"

I smiled. We hugged.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Bouguereau And Abortion

“It’s like abortion. You are either for or against it. The same can be said about this controversial artist.”

With these shocking words, Scott Schaefer, the paintings curator of the J.Paul Getty Museum summarized a circus-like two-hour lecture called “The Great Bouguereau Debate” held on Tuesday June 6th. A near-rabid crowd of a few hundred art-lovers and art-makers crammed into the luxurious Harold M. Williams Auditorium at the citadel-like Getty Center in Los Angeles to gnash their teeth or throw roses at the evil arch-villain of academia, William Adolph Bouguereau.

Say “Boo-grrrr-OH”

No other name in art-history has set off such emotion. The debate over the virtues of this dead painter goes far beyond whether one likes his work or not. Stating your opinion about his sensual nymphs or sweetly posed prepubescent peasants is like loudly stating your political-alignment. Are you from a red state or a blue state? It’s like proclaiming your bedroom preferences over a megaphone: Do you go for missionary style or experimentation? You must lean one way or another: Are you a sickly vegetarian or a blood-thirsty meat-eater? Intelligence level can also be deduced by your love of this controversial artist: Are you a misguided farmer or a hip Cosmopolitan? Choose!

From the evening’s onset, the Great Debate promised to be juicy. While riding the tram up to the gleaming Getty museum, the supporters of Bouguereau whispered passionately about how repugnant Bouguereau-haters were, and Bouguereau-detractors loudly dismissed those who would dare to support such saccharine drivel.

Upon entering the bustling auditorium, we were confronted immediately by a seventy foot high projected image of one of Bouguereau’s salon paintings depicting two charming young girls with a basket of fruit. Guests either “ooohed and ahhhed” or emitted a cackle and sneered at the sight of it before finding a seat. A guest was overheard saying “It’s like a hostile wedding. Should we sit on the bride’s side or the groom’s side?” Keeping my eye open, I saw many well-known realist painters in the crowd; preening, posing, hob-nobing and furiously praising the painter amongst themselves. Around them sat the enemies of the French Academician, with their lips upturned in disdainful smirks.

The occasion for this debate was sparked by the Getty’s recent display of a Bouguereau masterpiece: The Virgin and the Angels. The huge painting, dating from late ninteenth century France, belongs to the Forest Lawn mortuary in Glendale California. It has been in their collection for decades, and until recently it was rather thoughtlessly hung twelve feet high and glumly displayed in a dimly lit "museum” at the mortuary. Covered with murky soot and old yellow varnish, the one room museum was a pilgrimage for all realist painters in the know. Every time I sat breathing in the smog on the crowded freeway below, I could always glance up towards the hill at the building which housed this amazing canvas, and I took solace in knowing that “At least there is a beautiful artwork up there…”

Recently the Mortuary agreed to allow the Getty to display the Bouguereau in their world class gallery in exchange free cleaning and restoring. I visited the sparklingly clean painting recently, and wow! It is gorgeous. It glows and invites the viewer to explore every detail. In the finely realized composition life size angels hover intimately around the sleeping virgin Mary, who sits with a handsome snoozing baby Jesus in her lap. The angels play delicately on musical instruments, treating the mother and child with heavenly melodies. Very cool…

Or is it? The debate was to answer the burning question: Is this all just sappy, corny kitsch? In art history, after all, many teachers declare that despite his flawless technique William Adolph Bouguereau was (and is) nothing less than the world’s worst painter.

The lights dimmed and curator Scott Schaefer began by introducing the panelists for the night: historian Gerald Ackerman, artist Peter Zokosky, and Patrice Marandel, chief curator of European art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The venerable Gerald Ackerman quietly began, telling us all how good the painter was by showing close up details of his paintings, his figure’s expressions and sentimentality made more poignant by the reminder that Bouguereau had lost a four-year-old child to Cholera, and his wife to fever. In other words, he knew deep emotion, and was not simply play-acting when he painted a mourning figure draped over the lap of a Virgin of mercy. Ackerman is a lover of all things smooth and classical, so no earth-shattering revelations sprang from his lips, (the exception being when he pointed out that, in The Virgin and the Angels, One ethereal being's violin bridge and bow form a perfect cross, hinting at the sleeping baby’s impending sacrifice and glorious death by crucifixion).

Artist Peter Zokosky was next, presenting as a pro-Bouguereau speaker. He was humorous and brief, primarily stating the points people make against the painter: Too Sentimental, Too Skilled, Too Popular, among other charges. In each case, he brushed the allegations away. “We demand skill from our barbers. Why not from our painters?” he asked the crowd, who applauded wildly. He was followed by the evening’s definite anti-Bouguereau panelist, Patrice Marandel, chief curator of European art, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. After a few disarming jokes, the mood in the auditorium was about to get heavy.

As if playing the role of Lord Darth Vader, Monseiur Marandel launched into a brutal attack against All things Bouguereau: His droll design, his lack of emotion, his lack of risk-taking, his sweet subject-matter, his slick technique, his inflated sales, his “unsophisticated” American patrons, and the questionable motives of his supporters were all topics. Marandel went so far as to imply that the artist’s sexual morals were in question by highlighting the number of naked young children found lounging around in his canvases. Dirt! Scandal! The crowd reeled from the assault, and reached a point of convulsion when Marandel aligned Bouguereau with “another painter you all know, one who panders to the approval of an uneducated public:” up on the wall sprang an eighty foot high slide of a Thomas Kinkade Cottage painting, windows all aglow with comforting light.

“I have just brought Thomas Kinkade to the J. Paul Getty!” crowed the crazed curator, with his arms raised in mock triumph. The crowd collectively screamed and averted their eyes.

Things got serious though when the microphones were opened to the audience. The first question for Marandel was direct: “Where is the Bouguereau that belongs to the Los Angeles County museum of art?” LACMA owns a small but beautiful example of the painter’s work called A Girl Reading. It is exquisite. No better example of late nineteenth century salon art exists within the museum’s collection, and as of late, it has been conspicuously…absent. Marandel stammered a bit. “Well, it doesn’t really go with the rest of the museum. I’ve tried it on this wall,Iv’e tried it on that wall. I finally put it in the American wing, since most of the buyers of his work were Americans. I tried hanging it above a horrible American piece of furniture, and it was o.k.” When pressed further, he admitted that he didn’t really like the painting, so it was now stuck in the museum’s basement. For this flippant comment, he was jeered by members of the now disillusioned crowd. I even “booed”. How one man in such a responsible position could deny art history that way was eerily disconcerting. I always suspected that the little painting was banished due to an individual’s personal taste.

Jeffrey Morseburg from Morseburg Gallery was sitting below me a row or two away. His head was turning bright red. Once he was able to flag down a microphone, he asked why frothy French painters like Boucher and Fragonard were allowed in the Museum, while a frothy Bouguereau was not. The Los Angeles County Curator shot back that Mr.Morseburg was wrong: “Bouguereau is not at all frothy, but rather dry.”

Make no mistake, the grand quibble over this painter was pointing to a greater elephant in the room. As Mr. Ackerman pointed out, “Bouguereau was a product of his own unique time, and it would be absurd to judge him by today’s standards. He and his work belonged authentically to a certain time and place which is now removed from our comprehension.” With so many twenty three year old academic art students currently worshipping Bouguereau and trying to emulate his style and surface finish, I wonder if they heard a single word when confronted by the question “Why would twenty first century realist painters not collectively paint for our fixed time and place as well?”

Everyone was confronted that evening with issues of academic fear and prejudice. In the end, Bouguereau challenges us as painters because we must ask: “Is the motive of artists to impress each other with technique? Is technique (or lack of technique) going to empower or silence me?” And the most blood-curdling question of all: Should I be a caboose, trailing after a faraway locomotive? Or should I dare to be a steam-engine, leading the way?” I hope that, as the audience went out to discuss the lecture at coffee shops around Los Angeles afterwards, the kool-aid drinkers of all persuasions dared to ask these most personal questions of themselves. In the end, Bouguereau was a hell of a painter. Bouguereau is dead. It is now our time to paint.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Art In The Last Hindu Kingdom

[The eyes of Lord Buddah peer out from the Swayambunath Monkey-temple, high above Kathmandu, Nepal]

Nepal called to me in dreams from the core of my soul. I don't know when I first thought of Nepal as a destination I had to see. Was it mentioned in some half-remembered travel program? A book on Hindu sculpture I chanced upon? A photo journalist essay featuring blurred photos of muddy Kathmandu streets? Somehow Nepal crept into my dreams and planted itself. I knew that "I would go to Nepal one day". By fate, a humanitarian urge and a prototype art project I had created for Tibetan refugee children were the seeds that brought me to Nepal finally in 2001. My trip was amazing. Since that time I have watched in shock and dread as the last Hindu kingdom on earth has become embroiled in a social and political tragedy that is testing every spirit in the tiny country and will direct the future of the entire Indian sub-continent.

It was a life-changing trip for me. I was able to experience my dream come true, while being able to meet people beyond my dreams. One of them was an artist named Kiran Manandhar.

Kiran is the most famous visual artist in Nepal. He is a charismatic, articulate and passionate man. As president of the Artists Society of Nepal (ASON) he holds great power in the eyes of his fellow Nepali artists. I met Kiran through some other very talented painters while visiting Kathmandu, the almost medieval city of mysterious temples, crazed tourist ghettos and chaos. "You must meet Kiran", everyone told me, and a meeting was arranged. The day finally came to visit him in his lavish studio, housed in a neo-classical palace which looked airlifted out of Vienna or London, and placed in the middle of a crumbling Nepalese neighborhood.

truly, the artists who keep their studios in this prestigious building are held in the greatest esteem. As artists of the Royal Academy, they are officially the brightest lights of Nepali culture. Kiran Manandhar's studio was the largest, housed at the top floor, with the roof of the building serving as his extended patio. The views of Kathmandu from the roof were stunning , but clearly exhibited the poverty of the city far below. The white neo-classical palace, with it's tall columns and decorative features was very much a citadel.

Kiran extended kindness and a warm welcome to us. He brought in hot milk-tea and snacks as my wife and I surveyed his paintings. Abstract expressionism was becoming the new movement in Nepal, and Kiran was a master of it. Vibrant colors, thick impasto strokes, written text and occasional found objects were his forte, with much of his work feeling as playful as Picasso's. Bright colors and confident experimentation helped each canvas to radiate with strength.

When asked about my own paintings, I introduced Kiran to my series of portraits of missing children. The social aspect of my work interested him and we talked about the future of Nepali art. How might it evolve? Abstract expressionism conveys emotion and activity to the audience, but can just as easily alienate and put off viewers. Could the art of the great Nepali contemporary painters address the heavier social issues facing the world?

Of course, some of the Nepali artists we met on our journey scratched their head when asked this same question. "Social issues?" They replied that they would rather paint the mountains , or the lush green landscape. Poverty, environmental concerns and the human crisis of girl-trafficking were all topics of conversations amongst us, but were not seen as content for painting. One topic especially was discussed very cautiously: The Maoist insurgence.

The topic of Art And Courage will resume in a moment, but I would first like to give you my own personal experiences with the Maoists. Without referring to ideology, I will let their deeds tell the story. During my stay in Nepal, every few days the Maoists would demand that all twentieth century life be stopped. For example: some days, just for kicks, the Maoists would demand that no automobiles be allowed driven. For that matter, no machines be allowed. All Buses would be shut down, all air travel postponed, all shops and schools would be ordered closed. Even the use of electricity would be banned. The Maoists demanded these restrictions be obeyed on penalty of violent punishment, and their whims were proclaimed randomly as a way to demonstrate their ability terrorize. The day we arrived in Pokhara, the once peaceful village clinging to the picturesque shores of Phewa lake , the airport had been shutdown on the insistence of the Maoists. We arrived in the last plane that they would allow to land and were met by our travel guide on a bike, while a porter begged to carry our baggage for us on a wooden fruit cart. The two of them argued over whether the use of these rusty machines would constitute a disregard for the Maoists strike. In the twentieth century we were risking being shot for our use of the wheel.

Many of our subsequent days in the city came to a screeching halt when mini-parades of mask wearing thugs marched menacingly past restaurants and tourist spots with loud speakers, screaming at proprietors to close their shops, and demanding that we capitalist pig foreigners get the hell out. Everyone would look away. Nobody dared to engage the Maoists in debate. We were all aware that thousands of people were dead from conflicts with them. And the death toll was rising.

Every morning, The Kathmandu Post ran an article numbly describing the recent horrors eroding at the civilized people of Nepal. The Maoists fancied themselves as Robin Hood characters. They were going from village to village, massacring the local police, and distributing all the dead policemen's household belongings to the poor. Imagine getting a free bed or a jacket from the Maoists. Imagine knowing that these "gifts"had been stolen from the home of a murdered neighbor. Imagine the frightening message that comes from that kind of manipulation. Of course, plenty of the villagers would eat this up. The Maoists were able to recruit many poor uneducated kids this way. The fact that even the Chinese have admitted that maoism was"49% failure, and only 51% good" seems to make no difference to the idealists who read and accept all of Chairman Mao's insanely backward ideology. All People, (especially artists) need to pay special attention when flags of any color start waving. Banners carried by camouflage wearing youngsters with angry expressions usually spells trouble for anyone with an individual voice and point of view.

How was the Government of Nepal dealing with this terror? The King was being criticized for not doing enough to squash the Insurgence. Should the army be called out to destroy the Maoists, or should the King treat the Maoists with respect and have lunch with their leaders? No clear decision was being made.

Anyway, when outspoken Nepali artist Kiran Manandhar was entertaining us from his studio rooftop, I could listen to Maoist rallies taking place in the streets below. I wondered how the artists would be able to justify their palace-style digs when the pitchfork carrying villagers finally gained momentum and stormed the Capital. Many of the writers and poets we met whispered about the new threat. They all felt that something was coming... Something that would change the country forever.

That something occurred on June 1st, 2001, when the royal family of Nepal was suddenly massacred. The shock and sadness of the event was made even more unbelievable by the mysterious circumstances surrounding the deaths. It was reported that Prince Dipendra was distraught over his father the King Birendra refusing to support his marriage. The Prince walked into the family meeting room dressed in military costume and carrying automatic weapons. In two minutes everyone in the family was shot, including the Prince Dipendra, who finally turned a gun on himself.

The soul survivor of the Royal family was coincidently away that day, on vacation at a jungle resort. Gyanendra, brother to the now dead King Birendra was the new heir, and Gyanendra was crowned king amid increasing waves of suspicion. It was mighty odd that he and he alone was not present that night, and that he and he alone would be able to ascend to the throne in the wake of the deaths. (If you are interested in reading a detailed account of the bloody night of June 1st 2001 along with updates outlining the arguments both for and against a conspiracy, take a moment to explore this intriguing article:)

As the new King, Gyanendra decreed that the Democracy in Nepal be suspended, and that crackdowns on the Maoists be severe. By suspending the freedoms of the country in order to better fight terrorists (Hmmmm... That sounds familiar...) The King began to undo his own kingdom.

When the people of Nepal reacted in April 2006 by staging massive civil protests, they ultimately regained an amount of say in their country's direction. At the same time however, the Maoists are functioning less as an underground movement, and are now showing their numbers and force out in the open. The pending revolution in Nepal could be of the worst sort imaginable. And, as I have noted, artists tend to be the first folks at risk when flags fiercely wave.

Yet the politics and drama ultimately return us back to art. I was excited to read that the Nepalese painter Kiran Manandhar was recently featured on an internet article for Yahoo News. Kevin Sites is a journalist focusing on political "Hot Spots" and he turned his attention to Kiran and his response to the violence of the uprising and popular resolve of his fellow citizens. The actual interview, along with images of Kiran's passionate art can be viewed here.

To paraphrase from this article, Kiran is making a true adjustment to the recent events, and instead of producing his expected sensual paintings of abstract exploration, he is allowing distinctive political content to help drive his creations. His need is to communicate the images he saw while marching in the demonstrations, and to document what he felt. I do not know Kiran's political leanings. I do not speak for him, or link him with any affiliation. I am less interested in his politics than I am in the knowledge that Kiran ( and many other wonderful Nepali artists we met), are responding to these events.

It would be easy for these artists to continue to paint cute Nepali huts and basket-carrying children. It would be easier to paint snow-capped mountain peaks and picturesque green rice fields. It would be easier to create decorative splashes on canvas. Artists can be unaffected, sticking to standard habits,and deciding to retreat from the events of his day. For artists, there is a risk in his involvement. I wrote about the potential to withdrawal that we artists must face in a previous post called "Sleeping in a swarm of bees". When artists awaken to life, it is the birth of our greatest hope. Kiran, like the best of the artists from our collective art history, is responding to the unexpected crisis of life. As he does so, even this master of Nepal is bravely reinventing himself. Perhaps he navigates carefully through the rocks of conflict. Perhaps he takes a side, or none at all. The point is that he is responding, reflecting, and speaking. Artists are not soldiers. Is The act of creating in itself the stand that an artist should make? Surely, to respond is the requirement. This is what keeps art relevant.

I pray for the safety of my friends in Nepal and I pray for the strength of the individual voice.