Open Source

I don't usually post the source material I use for my paintings. There is always the risk that it will ruin the magic of the illusion I'm trying to create. But this is a studio blog after all, and maybe just this once, I feel compelled to pull back the curtain for those who want to take a peek.

The finished painting is entitled "An Apparition of Two". It's 42" x 55", oil on canvas. This is an installation shot from a recent exhibition.

"An Apparition of Two", 42" x 55", oil on canvas, Amanda Clyne (copyright 2012)
The composition is a merging of two images, both of which I dissolved through my inkprint process that I've described before. The original images are from a fashion editorial from the March 2010 issue of Vogue (Russia) and Gustav Klimt's "Mäda Primavesi" (1912). It was a weird twist of fate that I even tried to layer the images together, but once I did, the relationship between the two images became immediately and eerily apparent.

I'm intrigued by the ambiguity that results in the final painting. There is a strange merging of faces, of eras and of media. The two faces become an unstable apparition of a girl that appears no longer young yet not quite grown. Mirroring Klimt's iconic image of the past, the painting catches a photographed pose of the present in its reflection. Photograph and painting come together in a vulnerable exchange of emotion and empathy.

It was the first time I painted with glazes of color, and the richness of the surface surprised me. I want to push that more in the works to come, and hopefully continue to find fated pairings of source imagery. I may not share the source material again in the future though. So for now, I hope this peek behind the curtain enhances and doesn't detract from your experience of the painting.

Don't Judge Me

While it seems everyone else is obsessing about the new and the now, I've recently been obsessing about the old and the historical. OK, maybe not just recently. My work has always centered around my interest in the history of painting and its contemporary relevance. But I finally got up the courage to go beyond just looking at images of the Old Masters, and extend my experiments in process to include some of the academic techniques of painting that have secretly held my curiosity (I can hear the contemporary painters GASP-ing in horror!). But I just wanted to know: how do they get such refined surfaces? how do they paint all that delicate lace and those reams of diaphanous ruffles? Can I legitimately call myself a painter and not know how to do these things?! (I can hear all the painters yelling at me -- "yes! of course you can!") But for me, I just couldn't. I had to know -- and actually try to do it, even if not masterfully.

Since no one actually taught me how to use oil paint, I have basically taught myself an alla prima method that has given my work a loose brushy style. I like the effects I've been able to achieve so far, but lately I've been feeling limited in my technique. In my new paintings, I want the surface to be more ethereal, more delicate, but still strong and complex. So I secretly signed up for a mini-workshop to learn the basics of traditional oil painting. In particular, I wanted to learn more about the glazing techniques that create such soft and mysterious surfaces (and that are usually skipped over at art school, dismissed as too time-consuming and old-fashioned).

Here are the results of my preliminary efforts:

My preliminary copy of Ingres' portrait. I won't refine my painting any further. I get the point. But kinda cool, isn't it? Whenever I do something I didn't think I could do, it feels like magic.
I know this is generally considered very passé in the contemporary painting world, but can I admit how fun it was? The final glazing step (which I only got to on the face) was a revelation. I have such a naturally light touch to my hand that this technique seemed made for me -- soft tiny brushes, strokes as light as air, veils of glossy color. SO FUN! Not that my paintings are suddenly going to start looking like Ingres'. For me, this meticulous old process made me not only understand so much more about the techniques of some of my favorite Old Masters like Velasquez and Goya, but opened my eyes (and abilities - and/or perhaps just confidence?) to so many more possibilities in the application of paint in my own work. My new paintings are already in the works. Nothing like a quick blast from the past to help catapult me into the future.

I painted that!! A close-up look at the glazing effects in my copy of Ingres' portrait.

De Kooning Debrief

I have no interest in writing a "review" of an exhibition I've seen. I'm not an art critic or art historian. My interest in seeing the works of other artists is as an artist myself. And as a painter, there are few artists that are more instructive or inspiring than Willem De Kooning.

Inspiration on Steroids

At the entrance to the exhibit was this portrait from 1943-44. I visited the show with my friend and fellow artist Nitasha McKnight, and as the two of us stood in front of this painting in awe unable to move, Nitasha said, "I get the feeling we are going to leave this show crying in pink." I think I already was. 

We were finally able to pry ourselves away from this portrait, but we found ourselves continually immobilized by almost every single painting. His complex, labored surfaces offer so much subtlety and depth, while the fluid drawn lines insert an intentionality and confidence that so elegantly evokes sexy, sensual forms. These forms are repeated throughout his oeuvre and begin to form a language that becomes evident as you patiently work your way through the exhibition. Of course De Kooning is known for his bold merging of figuration and abstraction, of figure and ground, but until I had the luxury of walking through the annals of his entire career in one day, I don't think I fully appreciated the continuities and linkages among his seemingly disparate bodies of work. But there they were, available for all to see if you could just spend enough time looking. And as we stalked our way through the different stages of his career, every leap seemed more understandable, more inspiring.

Half way through the show, Nitasha and I had to take a break. We had spent hours studying the first few rooms, and we hadn't even come to the Woman series yet. Our heads were ready to explode as we tried to memorize every stroke and sensation that lay before us in charcoal and paint, analyzing and grappling with each and every major and minor development we could glean. Our eyes were exhausted from having to accommodate the demands of his scrambled, anarchic but palpable spaces. And the endless array of marks and gestures, scrubbed surfaces and impastoed passages, frail glazes and fearless over-painting, we were consuming it all in a gluttonous visual feast. We needed some time to digest.

We went downstairs for a coffee and sat there for awhile in silence. Finally, we both confessed that the show was inspiring to the point of shaming. Our own practices suddenly looked timid and cautious. We had viewed barely one-half of the exhibition and yet we had seen enough breakthroughs for at least three careers. De Kooning was ambitious, brave, constantly pushing his ideas into new territory in ways that were risky and fearless, never harping on one idea for too long, incurably restless and rigorous in his pursuit. It is an incredibly inspiring - and humbling - model for an artist's career. Nitasha and I agreed, we will have to do better.

Hidden Gems

De Kooning's "Black Untitled", oil on canvas, 1948
For those of you who know me, you know that I am really interested in the genealogy of images, in the influence of past images on the making of new images. This painting ("Black Untitled") by De Kooning is not one of his more famous images, but I was completely smitten with it at the exhibition. When you first approach it, it looks like a strange process-based piece, a relatively inconsequential work that must have been a mere stepping stone toward the more iconic masterpieces like the black and white "Painting" from 1948. But this modest untitled work just wouldn't let me go, and the more I looked, the more I saw.

The photograph of the painting looks much more graphic that the real thing, of course. The painting has a ghostly quality that is eerily dramatic. The longer I looked, the more figural references I came to see, and the tension and angst it evoked brought other great black and white works to mind. Most obviously, it seemed to have a lot of similarities to Picasso's Guernica:

Picasso's "Guernica", 1937

And once I put De Kooning's work in the lineage of Guernica, it was impossible to not see the spectre of Goya's "Disasters of War" etchings (1810-1815).

Etchings by Goya from his "Disasters of War" series

Most of the visitors were only giving this modest De Kooning a cursory glance as they walked through the exhibit. And it certainly would never have been a painting that I would have paid that much attention to if I had only seen it in reproduction. But standing before the painted object, I was completely seduced. Offering it my time and contemplation, it more than rewarded my efforts. These were not painting of instant gratification. Thankfully, Nitasha and I had the time to revel in each work, and the rewards would grow exponentially as we continued our epic trek through De Kooning's career.

Die Hard

By the time Nitasha and I had worked our way through the Women series and later figurative works, our knees were beginning to buckle again. Feeling like exhausted prizefighters entering the ninth round of a boxing match against the world champion, we took a moment to breathe deeply, trying to reinvigorate ourselves. We had to shake off the latest visual onslaught so we could brace ourselves for the body blows that we were certain would come. And come they did.

In the next room, the paintings were hung so close together you could practically see the curators throwing up their hands in surrender, unable to edit even one of the brilliant works out of the tight line-up. But there were two paintings that captured our attention for the longest.

De Kooning, "Untitled", oil on canvas, 1977

 The first was "Untitled" from 1977, the watery blue painting with the red high-heeled shoe. In reproduction, it's hard to see what makes this painting so hypnotic. But in real life, it towers over you, the swaths of pale blue paint forming spaces that are positively pillowy, inviting you to dive in. The dark pthalo brushstrokes recede into delicate crevices, and the suggestions of surf, sand and sex is irresistable. As we walked around the room, I kept looking back at this painting, continually surprised by its visual depth and frothy surface. It wouldn't leave me alone.

The definitive punch that finally knocked us out was "Untitled III", also from 1977. Nitasha and I must have stood in front of this painting for almost half an hour, so long that we started to strategize ways we could pocket the 6 foot painting and run away with it forever.

De Kooning, "Untitled III", oil on canvas, 1977

Among the million and one things that we loved about it was the crazy color choices he had made and how perfectly they played together. We had been noting his color choices throughout the exhibit. I have always associated a particular pink with De Kooning (a juicy pink made from cadmium red light), but despite all of his well-known fleshy hues, throughout the exhibition I couldn't stop remarking on his use of yellow in particular. Any painter will tell you that yellow is a tough color to use well and with subtlety. It can easily be neutered into Easter egg pastels, or poisoned with too much complimentary purple. With the tiniest bit of red, it can succumb to the pressures of orange. Or in an attempt to dim its blinding brightness, it can quickly become fatally drained of its fragile vitality. But De Kooning uses yellow masterfully, unpredictably, never making it come off as staid or cliche, often making it the life-giving artery of the picture.

And don't get me started on his enlightened use of greens.

When we came upon "Untitled III", we just stood there in amazement. At first glance, it's just bloody gorgeous, but as you try to imagine the process of making the work, the subtle and bold choices of color become curiouser and curiouser. Admittedly, De Kooning has his muddy moments, but they always seem to be alleviated by an unusual and inspired remedy. One could look at this painting forever. I certainly tried.

We stared at this painting for as long as we could, hoping that if we just looked long enough, we could absorb his spirit and later replicate his genius in our own work. But overhwelmed and slightly dazed, we finally had to leave. Ever since, as if the ghost of De Kooning himself were whispering in my ear, I keep hearing a voice in my head repeating over and over: be more brave. Get back to the studio and be more brave.

Fluid Forms

"The human body is above all a mirror of the soul,
and that is the source of its great beauty."
-- Rodin, 1925

Watercolor is so underrated. I'm returning to some watercolor experiments that I began many months ago, and it never ceases to amaze me how it is one of the most sensual, unpredictable, heavenly media. Too closely associated with flower paintings and seascapes, watercolor seems born for the body. These are some of my favorite watercolor paintings by Auguste Rodin from the turn of the century -- bold, sexy sources of inspiration.




Eugène Carrière

I discovered the work of French Symbolist painter Eugène Carrière after leaving the Alexander McQueen show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last week. I saw this small painting hung in the corridor of the museum. Through my new McQueen-infected eyes, the work struck me as particularly haunting, with a renewed contemporary relevance.

"The Communion", Metropolitan Museum of Art

Here are a couple of Carrière's portraits that I think have an equally eery, fragile presence.


Portraits of a Sensation

photograph, Amanda Clyne ©

I am not a storyteller. My curiosity in the world lies not in reconstructing a nebulous past or imagining a fantastical future, but in experiencing the pregnant intensity of a living moment. When I am drawn to something, whether a person, building, object or image, I place the world on pause to probe the source of my empathic fascination. I delve deeper into the experience, not by inventing accompanying narratives or researching encyclopedic details, but by envisioning ways to embody the moment and prolong the sensation. Art can fulfill this desire in me, either through the creation of my own work or through my experience of the work of others.

Growing up, I found that the art that spoke most profoundly to my sensibility was in the modern works of the 20th century, particularly those of abstraction. While I appreciated the skill and complexity of the great works of the old masters, their dramatic form of storytelling did not move me in the way that a de Kooning, Twombly or Agnes Martin work did. The more narrative I perceived, the less I felt engaged with it. I didn't even like reading. Stories just didn't do much for me.

So imagine my surprise when a few years ago my painting began to move away from abstraction and toward representation, of the human body no less! But my paintings are not at all about storytelling or even description. Is what I paint really representation? Is the use of the figure determinative of whether a work is representational?

I am beginning to find an answer in Daniel Smith’s erudite introduction to Deleuze’s book “Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation”. Without taking on the grand debate between Modernism and Postmodernism, I find myself drawn to Deleuze’s distinction between “figuration” and “the Figure”, as his concept of the Figure seems to offer a third category of imagery that seeks to challenge the conditions of representation while lying somewhere between representation and abstraction. Smith explains that for Deleuze, “figuration” is a form that is intended to represent a particular object to the viewer (ie. representational), whereas “the Figure” is a form intended to elicit a sensation from the viewer through more direct means, such as in the work of Francis Bacon. In my own work, the insidious melancholy and pathos I evoke is far from the violent rage in Bacon’s work, but I find I share with Bacon, as Smith writes, “the problem he shares with Cézanne: How to extract the Figure from its figurative, narrative, and illustrational links? How to “paint the sensation”…?”

For my last solo show, my exhibition “Illusive” was sub-titled “Portraits of an Image”, a kind of statement of purpose to clarify that I did not consider the paintings to be representational portraits of a woman. Perhaps I need to expand that idea, and conceive of my next paintings as not just portraits of an image, but as portraits of a sensation.

The Risk of Being Earnest

I have been salivating over images of paintings today, particularly those by Jenny Saville. I have been thinking about where I belong as a painter, and I am finding it increasingly difficult to not place myself in the figurative painting category. And yet it feels uncomfortable to be there. The thick and meaty brushstrokes in Saville and Freud's work seem loaded with aggression and impenetrability. It is hard to look at that work and not feel that my paint handling is timid in comparison. Their surfaces are scarred and overwrought. Mine are ethereal and dissolving.

So if my paintings are not going to evoke the visceral quality of flesh like the great figure painters, then where do my paintings belong? My use of mass media images suggest that I would fit easily in the company of pop artists, like Andy Warhol. But there is a jaded quality to the critique by these artists. I don't want to mock the images I use, I don't want to de-humanize or caricature those photographed, and I don't feel above the seduction of the fantasy such images are hawking.

I don't know why I am looking for what box I should fit in. Perhaps I am looking for reassurance that I am pursuing a legitimate track, or that I am part of the right conversation. Lately, I have been experiencing what I would describe as a crisis in confidence, an overwhelming desire to be BETTER. And yet I'm not sure what that means at this point for my work, and I'm not sure where to look to find the answer. Does it mean more paint, more distortion, more emotion? In a visual world dominated by slick, bold hits of instant gratification, my work's subtlety and fragility make it feel like the underdog, fighting to be heard amidst the din of so much aggressive visual bellowing.

Look. LOOK!!!!!

It's not about the body.   If I want you to see me, to really see ME, I want you to see my face.  The body can be revealing, but it is not the most insightful.  That isn't to say that the body cannot be expressive, but it's distracting.  The naked body is too wrapped up in sex, flesh, carnal pleasures and pain.  The clothed body reeks too much of status, style and costume.  As my studio fills with painted portraits, I realize I have systematically deleted the body.  All that remains of the original images is the face, painted larger than life, looking at the viewer with a certain yearning - to be looked at, to be seen.

Without Shields

Today I came across an article about a naked photo of Brooke Shields, taken when she was 13 years old:

"The original – authorised by Shields's mother for $450 – had been taken by a commercial photographer, Gary Gross, for the Playboy publication Sugar 'n' Spice in 1976. Shields later attempted, unsuccessfully, to suppress the picture."

The artist Richard Prince photographed the image and it was chosen to be included in the Tate Modern's recent exhibition on pop art. The image has been challenged as obscene by the London police (and has now been taken down by the Tate curators), and it has provoked lots of discussion on our current notions of obscenity (interestingly, the image has been publicly displayed without controversy in the past). Only the top portion of the image was printed in the press, of course, but I find the fragment disturbing enough. It's like a sexualized pageant picture, taken inside a sleazy motel. The naked body, unseen in this cropped version of the photo, seems superfluous.

One aspect of the story that fascinates me though (beyond the obscenity/censorship issues) is the lack of Shields' consent in the display of the image - not from a legal point of view, but from an artistic point of view. Forget the fact that her mother consented to such a perverse image being taken of her daughter for a Playboy publication. What goes through the mind of Richard Prince when he chooses to perpetuate the photo's display, knowing that the exploited child, now grown, does not want the image exhibited? What if a rape had been photographed as part of the commission of the crime - would those images be fair artistic game? Even if they could be legally, should they be? Would it matter whether or not the raped woman consented to the artistic use of the images? Should it matter? The images of the people jumping to their deaths from the World Trade Center towers of 9/11 have generally not been published. Jonathon Safran Foer included a similar image in his book "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close", but he took pains to note that although the image was based on a real photograph,the image published for the book had been digitally created. No victims were exploited for artistic purposes.

I think of all the images that circulate on the Internet now - millions of personal, intimate, embarrassing, startling, revealing, horrifying images. For artists, it is a treasure trove, a little shop of horrors. But the more artists work from images, avoiding the confrontation or relationship with the people who inhabit those images, what is lost in the artistic translation? Or worse, do artists become participants in the process of dehumanization that so many of us are trying to overcome?

In my artist talk at Daimler Financial recently, I brought in the two paintings of Elizabeth Taylor that I had just completed. One participant asked me, "What do you think Elizabeth Taylor would think of these paintings if she were to see them?" The implication was that she may be offended or horrified by the disfiguring distortions I had imposed on her image. And while I admit I had not thought of the issue before (due to the obvious unlikelihood of the event), without hesitation I acknowledged that her opinion would in fact matter to me. I would want her to see that I was not trying to caricature her in any way, but rather seeking to find an expression of a deeper humanity lost in the artificial glamour of the original photograph. I would hope she would like it.

I know that sentiment is generally seen as anathema to the conventional artistic credo of "don't give a fuck" - but I'm not convinced of its universal value. I am certainly not advocating any attempt to please anyone in an artistically castrating kind of way, but there has to be some validity, if not value, in respecting the humanity of the person behind the image. There is obvious artistic value to exposing the ravages of our cultural psyche in images such as Richard Prince's photograph, but these images do not only function as mirrors of our culture. For those trapped within the image, they are mirrors of individual souls, exposed, vulnerable, for all to see.

Such A Dirty Mind

On Friday, Nitasha and I ventured out to Chelsea to see if there was anything worthwhile. I always find it's pretty hit-and-miss in the Chelsea galleries, and I wasn't optimistic for the August shows (New York is deserted in August). Generally, I would say there were mostly misses this time, but there were a few great things.

One of the highlights was a Cecily Brown painting from 1999 ("Boy Trouble" - left image) that was hung in a group show called "Naked" - a collection of almost 50 figurative paintings from as early as the 1800's to today. The Cecily Brown painting was one of the best I've seen of her work (I saw the Oct 2008 show at Gagosian and had mixed feelings about it) and it was definitely the best piece in the show. The paint handling was a tour de force - varied and exciting. While the style was loose and gestural, there was a great sense of editing, just enough control that every smear and mark oozed with intention. I thought it was a much more powerful piece than those from 2008. The newer work is much more chaotic, full of anxiety and a hyper-kinetic energy - the initial confrontation with it is impressive, but with a longer look, the paint overwhelms every representational reference, making the experience more of an adventure in painterly abstraction than anything else. But in this 1999 painting, the energy seemed to emanate from within the figure itself - a man with a huge erection dominating the canvas.

But since I've always considered myself an abstract painter, it makes me wonder why I wouldn't prefer Brown's 2008 paintings that have been obliterated into abstraction? When did I cross the line from abstract painter to conceptual painter to (gasp!) FIGURE PAINTER?? While I have been using the figure in my work, I wouldn't say my work has been ABOUT the figure. But maybe it should be. Maybe I want it to be. Maybe it already is. Dear God.

And then there's that huge erection. Really? I'm certainly no prude (and I love this particular painting), but I don't understand why so much of the figure painting in contemporary art (that gets any international attention) seems to be either graphically violent or pornographic. It's just so OBVIOUS. Are there not more subtleties to be explored in the human condition? And even if sex and violence are so fundamental to human nature that any image of the figure cannot avoid them, are there not more interesting and complex ways to address them? In Camera Lucida, Barthes talks about how some photographs are endowed with a "blind field" - that the punctum of the photograph (discussed in my posting yesterday) implies a broader image/context than the photograph explicitly shows, which the viewer makes seen through his own assumptions/imagination/input. That seems much more interesting to me. Why do these artists feel compelled to display the contents of their own dirty mind, when it seems much more confrontational and provocative (and ultimately more effecting) to create an image that forces the viewer to delve into the contents of their own dirty mind. I think Kara Walker is one artist who does this particularly well - the disturbing implications of her work come from the viewer making the final connections in the images she creates, a much more potent and shocking experience for the viewer - although a lot of Walker's work is still pretty graphic, I think her more ambiguous images are much intriguing and arresting.

Speaking of the erotic image, Barthes writes:
"it takes the spectator outside its frame, and it is there that I animate the photograph and that it animates me. The punctum, then, is a kind of subtle beyond - as if the image launched desire beyond what it permits us to see: not only toward "the rest" of the nakedness, not only toward the fantasy of a praxis, but toward the absolute excellence of a being, body and soul together." (p.59)
Admittedly, it's much harder for the artist to involve the viewer in the completion of an image, but as Barthes argues, those are the images that the viewer retains in his/her memory - when the image is completed by SHUTTING the eyes.

My fascination with these issues may mean my work is heading somewhere new - sensuality, eroticism, seduction...more subtlety and may be a whole new world.