Friday, November 23, 2012

Treasures and Weeds

"A Weed is a Treasure"  72" x 40" Acrylic on canvas
On this canvas, I used flexible modelling paste in some areas, applied with a large palette knife to suggest the texture  and veins in leaves without depicting them in detail. I sanded the surfaces lightly to remove sharp points and edges and began using a rag to apply thin layers of acrylic paint. I used a calligraphy brush to sketch the plants, keeping in mind the objective of letting the materials speak for themselves and leaving a somewhat unfinished state so the that the work breathes and suggests its concept rather than portraying a literal rendition of it. I am happy with the result and I will leave it alone for now!

Below is a detail photo showing some of the textures achieved with the modelling paste.

"A Weed is a Treasure" detail
 The title of this piece in progress comes from  Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. The chapter or mini-lesson is called "Calmness," a quality which visitors to my exhibitions ascribe to  much of my artwork. This 'American Classic' about Zen teachings is clear and helpful, in spite of the difficulties of translating Japanese concepts and the Japanese language into English.

While contemplating the role of entropy in the natural environment in my last essay, I came across a seeming paradox in a simplified scientific explanation of this concept, which reminded me of Asian ideas. Entropy can be seen as the amount of energy available to do work, but not yet used, and it is also the tendency of a closed system to move from order to disorder. The paradox develops when a closed system becomes so perfect that it never changes, recouping a maximum of entropy, energy which is never used.

Such an idea of opposites in tandem simultaneously reminded me immediately of a text I had read on Japanese aesthetics. It also occurred to my faculty advisor, Peter Rostovsky, who suggested that I research the Japanese concepts wabi  and sabi. This brought me back to my adolescence when I had studied Japanese ceramics and learned about the tea ceremony. Peter suggested that I think of my work as a pursuit of unfinishedness. My mentor, Suzanne Gauthier had already talked with me about letting the materials speak and forgoing much of the control I was imposing on them, a remarkably similar discussion I had had years before about my stoneware pottery (which I usually overworked)!

"Curves" about 32" x 24" Acrylic on plywood panels
 I decided to embrace entropy and act on the materials as if I was wearing them away or eroding them in the exterior environment. I had applied glossy paint to my "Curves" project, but it was not working well. After sanding the panels with coarse sandpaper, I began to be more satisfied with them. Some of the earlier drips I had rejected as being too busy reappeared in a more interesting guise as faint stains.

I have put the router away. I prefer the natural grain of the wood and the roughness of ordinary wood chisels to help keep me from overworking the wood on the next projects.

"Autumn" Stage 6 Acrylic on canvas 48" x 36"
Although I succeeded in suggesting light, I am not satisfied with this canvas. Another one of my tendencies, besides overworking, is to use directionals going only one way, or an overall pattern which can become monotonous. Time to move on!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Halifax Visit and Exhibitions

Please note that I was not able to copy photos from the exhibitions mentioned in this post, but I have included links to the artists' web sites.

I was happy to be able to see several exhibitions, attend an opening and visit another grad student last weekend in Halifax while also meeting with my mentor, Suzanne Gauthier.

I returned to see "Canadian Pioneers: Tom Thomson, Emily Carr, J.W. Morrice and the Group of Seven, Masterworks from the Sobey Collections." The works in this exhibition are on public display for the first time. The list of prominent Canadian artists is much longer than the title of the show implies. The painting that impressed me the most is a large oil study of a grey rock outcrop, with several brilliant red maple saplings in front of it and mist blue hills barely visible in the background. Almost the entire composition is in shadow, with subtle gradations and variations of grey modelling the rock face in large brushstrokes. The color relationships are outstanding, The red is brilliant, but judiciously used against the nuances of the stone. I sat in front of this work for at least twenty minutes absorbing it as there are no reproductions of it available.

There were other fantastic paintings as well. High Water by A. J. Casson is very memorable also. I always enjoy seeing work by Emily Carr. I think I have adopted some of the greens she used in her paintings of the forests of British Columbia.

After Suzanne and I discussed my current work, we headed downtown to NSCAD to visit another grad student in his studio. Conor Fagan was working on a new canvas and a small study in preparation. He uses man-made and organic small objects under spotlights and creates whimsical scenes where ceramic boiled egg-holders become floating ducks or laughing monks. It was interesting to talk to him about his work and then show him my blog.

The gallery, Studio 21, has moved to a new and much larger location. The opening on Friday night was very well-attended, even crowded and I ran into two friends from my undergrad years whom I hadn't seen for a very long time. One was Susan Wood, one of the featured artists in the new Studio 21 exhibition. Her drawings are sensitive, beautiful and restrained. Susan has developed her own way of using collage under her drawings, which seems to convey a sense of timelessness and nostalgia.

Another show I was fortunate to see is "Synchronicity" at the Secord Gallery. I particularly responded to Leya Evelyn's abstract paintings. Suzanne had recommended that I look at her work online, which I had done during the summer. It is never the same, however, as seeing the actual artwork. Leya creates textures on her canvases with what seem to be sand and fibrous materials as well as rectangles of canvas. Over this surface, she adds small accents of collaged patterned fabric and paper and rich, textural colors in oil paint. 

I wanted to rush home and take out my oil paints right away. Never mind the odor or the slow drying time! I will put up with it. I haven't been able to duplicate the subtlety of oils using acrylic paints. Hopefully I will be able to work in oils without aggravating my asthma.

Sculpture by Brad Hall was also interesting. Brad combines several elements together with ease, such as wood, copper, steel, and aluminum, utilizing their individual textures.

View the show online at:

On the way back home, I stopped at a metal recycling establishment, otherwise known as a junkyard! My next painting may have bits of discarded machinery amongst the lush undergrowth of my imaginary back yard. Suzanne sent me there and along with directions from the gas station attendant and my GPS, I arrived at the right place. The yard is open on weekdays only, so I took a few photos. Maybe next time I am passing by, I will stop in and pick up some rusty treasures for my studio. I find having a few concrete objects in front of me while I am painting to be extremely useful. There are also the junkyards of Moncton to explore, a little closer to home.

Jones & Son Metal, Truro, NS
This place has a huge metal crusher. I was kind of glad it wasn't in operation while I was there! It does create some interesting folds and permutations in the metal, however.

Harmony Acrylic on Canvas 8" x 10"

I stained the canvas with acrylic inks, and then interrupted the strokes with black paint. I like the contrast between the watery pigments and the thick paint.

Aqua Dream  and Pink Flow Acrylic on Canvas 8" x 8"

Here I was trying out several ways of applying opaque acrylics over a medium grey. I probably need to work on these more. Perhaps I will experiment with oil glazes over the acrylic.

Today I began working on my 72" x 40" canvas, applying modelling paste in some areas and texturing its surface by patting it with a large palette knife. I am planning to sand down the spiny points a bit before washing pools of paint over the canvas. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Curves, Dwelling and Gyro Projects

"Curves" about 32" x 24" acrylic on plywood panels
This project has been challenging, frustrating and fun at different stages. I have tried to differentiate each panel with its surface treatment. I poured paint over the rear panel, only to quickly wipe it off. There were some faded bits of white paint clinging to the wood, so I decided to sand it. I liked the effect so much, that I sanded the rest of the panel. This was done with a piece of coarse sandpaper held in my hand. I avoided using a sanding block so that I would not have lines etched into the wood, although there are a few small ones here and there.

The back of each panel is painted flourescent orange and there is glow cast when the piece is in front of a white wall. I may use a small light bulb behind the project to heighten the effect of the orange glow. The holes bored through the panel are painted orange inside to create a link between the front and the back of the sculpture.

Pieces of 2" x 4" wood painted to match the panels create spaces between them, and allow the piece to be free-standing. All of the pieces come apart and go back together again with nuts and bolts, so they will all fit into a 24" x 24" box for shipping.

'Curves" Frottage, previous stage.

This frottage was done before I bored more holes into the large curved panel. Next time I take "Curves" apart. I will make a new frottage and see what the new piece looks like. I used a rubbing stick this time instead of graphite. It is cleaner than graphite and reveals more detail. It is actually a square of dense black wax, like a big, flat chip of children's crayons melted down and re-molded. I like the way you can build up darker areas with several careful layers.

"Dwelling" (below) is an assemblage of scraps and bits I have collected in my studio. A piece of shelving split at the lumber depot, and the pieces were being thrown out, so I grabbed them. I like the waving grain patterns in the split areas contrasting with the evenly sawed and sanded sides. The rotted wood and bark pieces are sealed with "Clear Coat", turning them a rich dark hue. They need a couple more coats to preserve them as I am finding little bits of them around after working with them. 

I haven't attached any of the pieces together yet. I am still mulling it over. The piece looks like a maquette for a larger, outdoor work. Perhaps I should make a small figure or two to give some scale to it. 

While working with the pieces, I was reminded of the hours I spent as a child building towers and castles with two sets of wooden blocks.

"Dwelling" Wood scraps about 16" x 18" in total.

"Dwelling" from another angle.
I have just begun "Gyro" after creating a series of thumbnail sketches and finally coming up with the germ of a workable image in my sketchbook. I used a big brush to create the main shapes in thin Payne's Grey and liquid medium. I rubbed out one shape with a damp cloth and discovered the staining effect on the wood grain. I will enhance the effect later. When I took the photo, the wood was still wet, but once it dried, the stain turned a light grey. I am planning to carve some texture into some areas of the plywood, and I will use spacers to have the middle and right-hand panels project from the wall.

"Gyro" will be a low-relief painting on plywood. My sketch has transparent violet, blue and yellow accents along with the dark shapes. I plan to keep the paint transparent over the stained wood grain areas and I want to vary the mark-making on this project.

"Gyro" - This is the beginning of the project!  22" x 44"
I also began a large canvas this week (72" x 40"). The second coat of gesso is drying as I type this blog entry. I am still working out the concept and experimenting with collaged paper to create texture before painting.