Art and Artists Artist Talk

Art Break at the Getty

I am going to give a short talk and share with you two works of my own making and we will all look together at a third work, a Dutch Drawing, that is in the Getty’s collection.

First Slide Please – Slide 1 – Mirror 1

This first image is an oil painting I made in 2019 – its size is approximately 2 x 3 feet.  I thought to set the stage I would pair this painting with a quote from a short story by Borges – titled Pierre Menard, Author of the Quijote.  For those of you who are not familiar with this story, it details the works of a fictional author, named Pierre Menard, who greatest claim to fame was his attempt to write again Miguel de Cervantes story of Don Quijote.  This is how Borges explains it “Pierre did not want to compose another Quijote, …he wanted to compose the Quijote.  [But] his goal was never a mechanical transcription of the original; he had no intention of copying it.  His admirable ambition was to produce a number of pages which coincided—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.”

My purpose in bringing Pierre Menard into this story, is to introduce something about the way I, as an artist, engage with preexisting works and images.  I want to offer you some insight into the way I will be looking at this particular drawing from the Getty’s collection and to discuss how I engage with collections in general.  

My desire is not to copy, so much as to make again – dragging an object or an image out of a specific historical position and repositioning it into the present.  This is not such an uncommon thing for artists to do—or for people in general—after all, anytime we gaze at an historical work we are engaging with the past as if it still pertains to us, we want it to offer us something, reveal something – but I do this transposition quite literally, I want to return some immediacy to this relationship.  

To better describe my artistic process, I would explain that what emerges in my mind initially is something vague, something I want to get into view, in the case of the painting you now see on the screen – what I wanted to get into view was something about the gaze, how we gaze at artworks, and how this is related to how we gaze at other people, and wrapped up in this was a question about how to get into view our accountability to others, both living and dead.

The original Etruscan mirror that this painting is based on is in a collection in Italy, but I encountered the image in a book at the Watson Library at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  The painting depicts the reverse side of this mirror, where two figures stand in mirroring poses.  To get into view something about the gaze, my returning to some of the first mirrors ever created seems a logical maneuver, but the initial encounter was spontaneous and intuitive and brought about by wandering through the Met’s collection.  So I was excited to discover through my research that many Etruscan mirrors—such as this one—have engraved designs that depict what are called “sacred conversations” – conversations between mortal and immortal, the living and the dead.

Slide 2 – full image van Liender drawing

Over the last year, a new impulse has arisen, and I have been trying to get into view something about the possibility or impossibility of seeing nature.  I want to ask the question: Is it possible to see nature in any manner that is not purely anthropocentric?  For this reason, as I walked virtually through the Getty’s collection, this particular work stood out to me.  It is a Wooded Landscape made with ink by the Dutch artist Paulus van Liender, from about 1780.

Strolling around a museum’s collection—actually or virtually—is not such an indirect way to look at nature as it may sound.  In fact, I would suggest it may be more direct, less mediated, or perhaps better to say ‘it acknowledges mediation.’  I believe that my immersion in western culture; the photos and paintings I have looked at and the stories I have read, have served both to frame and to define what is to be considered “nature” or ‘a view.’  At the moment it would feel inauthentic to me—as an artist—to claim any first hand experience of nature.  To paint plein aire, as I once did, would feel like a bit of theater, in which I, like an actor on the stage play the role of an artist.

But let’s zoom in and look more closely at the drawing—

Slide 3: detail of VL drawing

I am very interested in close looking at things in the world.  I paint representationally because I think we can only ‘see’ what we know how to describe, and knowing how to describe clarifies in turn what we can see.  The instant one tries to describe something—to trace something of the world with words or a pencil—this expression is already ordering, classifying, valuing.  Perception itself is never neutral; looking is valuing. I want to think of seeing nature as a particular form of literacy.  We humans have a desire to make things comprehensible, to tame them. I sense that nature is domesticated by my glance, by my mere presence, and the activity of drawing may only compound this. 

I encourage you to direct your gaze towards the upper part of the tree trunk to the right, notice the different types of lines—When I look at this drawing, I first notice the motion behind the marks – anytime you have lines like this, it implies a confidence on the part of the artist, this is not someone who is using drawing to decipher—to learn or to carve out form—this is someone who’s brush or nib is skating along the surface of the drawing.  

This free-play could be arrived at from a variety of sources: if you had the shadow of the forms on the paper sketched in black chalk as van Liender did, you could move within those shapes with some ease, and get the forms in the right place so that specificity is revealed, but with the additional support of an optical device (camera obscura) it would be even easier.

But whatever his method – the artist’s hand is at play within the contours and shadows – there is not the sense of a labored looking, but instead of a pleasant facility.  If you look at the foliage you can notice how the outlines are not true to nature – but brought closer to regularity, conforming more to a mood than scientific observation – I want to say that these are oak trees, but you will see in a moment that ground cover is treated in a similar way.  Why is it that a near scribble is enough to convey to us a sense of ‘natural disorder’ and variety?  

Slide 4 – (repeat of 2) full drawing

I want to draw out a few details that are perhaps easy to overlook, first—notice the “poses” of the trees in relation to each other, a slight anthropomorphism – notice how the trees to the left seem to draw back from the prominent and more deeply shadowed tree on the right.

Slide 5: Next slide

–  I have circled two points of interest here – notice above, hidden in the trunk is a creature, a face and arms — and below is another face, and perhaps others will reveal themselves as we look – these tree-faces are as visible as the human faces.

Slide 6: Close-up with figures

Do not assume the artist overlooked these figures in the trees.  An artist’s impulse is often to disrupt “faces” as they reveal themselves, knowing how prominent they can become – so we should assume van Liender intended this anthropomorphism.  

I want you to also notice—creeping in along the top right of this detail — the delicate, finger-like dead branches.  The artist has depicted both growth and decay.  I think there is a story in this drawing — and our guide points the way, this man gestures towards the natural landscape as if to offer it to us, as ours.  

The German philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote: “Times in which nature confronts man overpoweringly allow no room for natural beauty.  Wherever nature was not actually mastered, the image of its untamed condition terrified.”

It is hard to access beauty if one is afraid –  so that moment when we can, at last, encounter nature aesthetically, as beautiful, coincides with the moment of our dominion over nature.

So, for a moment, imagine that these small figures stand at the threshold between myth and science – a instant before the one pictured the gnarled branches and the distorted faces in the trees might have terrified.  And look at them, these four tiny figures, don’t they still look a little sheepish and awkward?  But now as they enter the clearing, light illuminates everything as does some new knowledge.  The faces in the trees, twisted tree trunks and decayed branches, which on some dark night, might have seemed sinister and frightening, are revealed to be simple vegetation.  Daylight shapes our nightmares into mere matter over which we have mastery (but one should also keep in mind, mastery by whom, or for whom?).  So also consider that at the time he made this particular drawing, van Liender had been dividing his time at least 20 years previously between being an artist and being a lumber dealer – so we should not lose track of the fact that these forests and fields are already factories – and the very act of picturing, even the term ‘picturesque’ plays its part in this domestication, this subjugation of nature to the satisfaction of human needs.

Slide 7: Mirror 2 – full image

This is another image of my own work: a painting that depicts the reflective side of another Etruscan mirror, this one in the Met’s collection – it is roughly gouged with a word meaning “for the dead.”  

But rather than look at the entire painting I want to bring us closer to the material with this detail…

(Slide 8, mirror detail) 

…in order to get into view something about what it means to “make again.”   

If you think of the zig-zags and painterly squiggles of van Liender’s drawing, you can find there the evidence that he did not want to simply copy nature, but indeed make it again – but his sense of mastery over nature was so great, that his drawing in many ways becomes an occasion to showcase his facility rather than an occasion for close looking.  

In my work there is a different relationship to precision.  What feels truer to the act of “making again” is for people not to witness my hand—the little marks I would make to make it my own—but to witness the object through my hand.  Here is a divergence in my practice of “copying”, a move away from privileging my own mark making.  Instead a different kind of attention emerges, and a different way of being accountable to my material.  I think responsibility rests not only in what one does, but also in what one sees.  For an artist these two modes are nearly one and the same, and are made visible not merely through our activities in the world, but are also visible in the work we choose to make.

Slide 9 – (repeat of 2) full van Liender drawing

So to conclude, rather than suggesting I have the answers, I want to pose a few questions to you.  And my questions are the following: 

How to images both inform and warp our access to nature?  If drawing or painting nature counts as a domesticating or anthropocentric act, can it not also be an illuminating act?  Can the hand and/or the eye(I) instead collaborate with nature?  

And ultimately: How can we learn to see better – and what is the role of the artwork or the artist in this process?

Thank you…

Getty Art Break – April 2021