Monday, September 24, 2007

At The Richmond Art Center

I took my partner and parents to an exhibit at the Richmond Art Center, where one of my paintings was featured in the members' only show. I had made this portrait of my mother about two years ago during the winter. She had posed for about eight or nine two hour sessions. The members' show is staged in one of the center's hallways, so we saw the other exhibits first before we got to my mom's portrait. There was the Neighborhood Public Art show in collaboration with the city of Richmond, a photography retrospective celebrating the California College of Arts Centennial, a member's showcase room featuring five artists chosen from last year's members only show, and finally the member's only show. The event was very well attended and diverse, in fact, we could barely squeeze in through the crowd!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

With No Preconceived Notions

I have been working with the expression of energy through line and brushstroke on canvas, board, and paper. This is the opposite of what I do with my other work, where content, color, and form take precedence over movement. When you are working towards creating the illusion of distance, texture or an environment, it is an extra challenge to convey the stored energy of the brushstroke. I picture the work of expressionists Robert Motherwell and Emily Carr when I think of the preservation of this energy, whether the work is abstract or representational. In these pieces, I abandon the narrative of representation and embark on the joy of movement for its own sake.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Painting Flowers

Here is a painting done in two afternoons. My neighbor brought these hydrangeas she had picked that same day. In Spanish, they are called hortensias. They were sitting in front of one of my studio windows. I was fascinated that they had not wilted or fallen apart the day after, so I painted them. Here I must explain that two years before I had had a conversation with a florist who told me she would "never do a wedding where hydrangeas where involved," because of their fragility. I wanted to drive over to her flower shop and tell her these hydrangeas had lasted a whole week.

I confess I am not a fan of painting flower arrangements. There is something about the subject that will make viewers smirk inside. Some people have told me I can paint flowers "so well" because I'm female. Ugh!

Should I then move on to disturbing, undecypherable subjects? "Only if you want to sell to collectors," advised a colleague, the assumption being that regular folks (those who don't care whether their art is "serious" or not) like the soothing, the familiar, the kitschy, or beauty for beauty's sake and nothing else mixed in with their art.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

On Matters of Size

How do artists decide on the size of a piece? This is, assuming this decision is up to the artist, of course. Sometimes, it is not. I recall a call for entries from the California Watercolor Association. Only pieces about the size of a coffee table were considered. This effectively ruled out most field work, as it is extremely difficult to work on paper of that size outside of a studio. This in turn meant that most of what I had done could not be sent.

So if artists can choose size, how do they go about this? I can only talk about my own experience. Some of these choices are arbitrary and have to do with what's available at the moment, and how badly you want to hop in your car and drive to the art store. Some days, I'll just grab an odd-sized canvas or piece of paper because it's been lying around too long, then I'll challenge myself to find a composition that fits it.

More deliberate decisions usually have to do with time. A small representational piece almost always takes less time to complete than something double its size. This cabbage painting, for example, is 12 x 12 inches. It took me three two-hour sessions to paint it in acrylic, while a larger canvas would have taken me six or seven sessions. Had I decided to do it in oil, we would have had to add additional time, as some effects may have required the preliminary layers to dry a bit before I could continue.

Although some of us might like to think that the subject can dictate the final proportions, this belief has been challenged by scholars such as Anthea Callen. A chapter in her book on the impressionists explores the origins of old European standard sizes for marines, landscapes and portraits dating back to seventeeth century France. Callen found that loom size, the convenience of the merchants selling pre-assembled stretchers, and the artists' own priorities influenced size decisions more than the type of subject to be painted.

Sometimes I think of a piece's "presence" as I am considering the size I will assign to it. The same cabbage painting, in a larger size, would have been overwhelming. There is too much contrast and not enough subtlety for a larger size. Or what I paint may become too complicated for anything beyond a foot wide or long. There are days when I want to saturate the colors, and a small piece tolerates this effect a lot better than larger canvases, which would project a certain vulgarity.

Finally, there is practicality. I think of ease of transport and the expense of presentation. Almost all work done in the field is of reasonable dimensions (less than 24" long), given the challenges of that environment. Some colleagues paint in sizes they can store easily, while others choose works commanding awe in the gallery circuit, but expensive to move around. Large pieces are also more expensive to frame and in some ways more fragile.

No matter what the considerations are, size decisions are seldom made randomly, they follow artist's idiosyncrasies and practical matters much more more than any "rules."

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

For Art's Sake

It was during my middle school years when I realized the art world was not the homogeneous, equal opportunity institution I took it to be. Back in the early seventies, I bought my art supplies at a mom and pop framing and art store in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico. The display shelves in the beyond-cluttered one-room storefront were taller than me. More art materials than I had ever imagined advertised their mysterious uses in a secret language I could not yet understand. I needed time to figure it all out. I wanted to examine all of the point-of-sale displays, I wanted to read all the labels, and I wanted to ask how artists used each and every object in front of me.

Upon arrival, I was always greeted by a stentoreous "Are you looking for something?" After my first time, by the tone of their voices I quickly learned I was not supposed to "loiter," that I had to bring a list of supplies for the ancient man and woman behind the counter to fill. That was the purpose of an art store, I concluded. Being that my needs and budget at the time were modest, I used to spread them out over the school semester so I could earn more opportunities to visit. I would go there just to buy one tube of Grumbacher Academy watercolor, or an eraser.

It was during one of those flash visits that the door opened and in walked a teenager not much older than me. Instead of waiting for the standard question, he greeted the ancient woman by name and spent a few minutes on chit chat. She asked him how school was going and I learned he attended an art school in San Juan for those who already had selected it as a career. Before I could process this, he left the counter and selected a few supplies for what seemed like an eternity, nothing expensive. He was never interrupted. Then he went back to the counter and asked for Damar glaze, paid for it all and left.

As soon as he was gone, I was asked again what I needed. I did not have loitering privileges because I was not going to the best art school in the island. Attending a school of the arts didn't count because its graduates didn't go on to earn BFAs. In fact, ancient mom and pop had never asked me where I went to school, the assumption being that art would not become a career for a girl in middle school. All of this didn't sink in until I reflected in the discomfort of those years a bit later and decided that, just like the rest of society, the art world is stratified. Whether we like it or not, public perception will place us in one category or another. The art store was one of my first lessons.