Thursday, August 16, 2012

Less Color, Please.

    I have recently (over the past year and a half or so, to be somewhat more precise) produced about a dozen paintings that differ markedly from the rest of my body of work in that they are more nearly colorless than has otherwise become the norm in my painting.  The first of these works to be completed was Acerbity and Other Calendars.  My original intention with this piece was not necessarily to create an image whose structural integrity was largely not dependent upon the interplay and contrast of color, but as the work evolved by means of successive layers of textural accretion, I purposely permitted more and more of the original color elements to became obscured, as I found them increasingly superfluous to the now-rapidly-changing gestalt of the piece.  I soon realized that this painting had acquired its own intrinsic logic that spoke to me with a radically different voice than any of my other paintings did. 
    As work progressed on Acerbity, I found myself revisiting the work and writings of other painters whom I admire, who, at least for a time, either partially or completely eschewed the use of color in their work.  Among these figures were Franz Kline, Nicolas Carone, Sal Sirugo, Kyle Morris, Ary Stillman, and Preben Hornung.  There are other, perhaps better known, individuals who could be cited, but these painters have always held a special place in my heart, largely for what they could accomplish through the expedient of denying themselves a full color palette.  I read and studied a great deal, in an attempt to quantify and better understand why this painting, and its attendant stylistic shift, was so affecting to me.
    Although I am generally quick to seek an explanation for my own emotional responses in the realm of reason, sometimes even I have to admit that research cannot satisfy every curiosity.  Even though I doubt very much that I was experiencing something that other painters before me had not also experienced, the effort to produce a greater understanding of the phenomenon before me via research was largely a failure.   
    Admitting to myself that I was in unfamiliar territory was an important step, in that it caused me to slow work on this canvas exponentially, as I meticulously evaluated each new decision, virtually each new brushstroke, with a premeditation that I realized ran decidedly counter to the dictates of automatism, which, of course, has long been seen as one of the guiding principles of Abstract Expressionism.
    It soon became apparent that Acerbity would corotate around the interrelationships between its sundry degrees of light, or white, and its varying degrees of dark, or black and gray.  This gradually began to affect the contours of the painting in unforeseen ways, as the more traditionally expected situation of darker content corralling and defining the lighter areas was countered by the lighter content seeking to exert a contrasting influence on the nature and positioning of the darker areas.
    Several months of obsessive tinkering passed before I was convinced that the variform elements of the painting had finally been brought into a state of accommodation with one another.
    The phenomenon I had sought so mightily to understand (namely the question as to what specific qualities of Acerbity had caused me to become so much more absorbed, and so differently absorbed, by its intrinsic reality and inner logic than I was expecting) by reducing it to its identifiably intellectualized components, still eluded me, but I continued to explore these ideas, moods, and structural manifestations over the next many months, and I have now begun reintroducing color into my canvases in a way that attempts to integrate aspects of my pre-Acerbity aesthetic with what I have learned since.  The recent painting which perhaps best exemplifies this synthesis is my just-completed work, Migration With Gothic Protocols.  Watch for its image to appear on the Paintings page in the next few months.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

An Anton Weiss exhibit and demonstration

    Currently, the L. Ross Gallery here in Memphis is exhibiting recent works of the painter Anton Weiss.  Weiss, who at 75, has lived a life full of both rich experiences and tremendous hardship, is a brilliant but also gentle and unpretentious man whose painting style arises from his early experiences with the American abstract expressionist painters of the fifties, notably the great Hans Hofmann, with whom he was privileged to study.
    His demonstration at Dixon Gallery, in conjunction with the Ross Gallery exhibit, was as enjoyable as it was inspiring and informative, with the artist providing narrative insight into his emotional, procedural, and structural decisions as he brought the rough draft of a large, abstract canvas into existence as the enrapt audience watched.  I felt that I could have happily observed him for days on end without feeling either bored or that I had reached the limits of what one might possibly learn by watching.
    Weiss has a keen vision and a superb sense for the guiding of the eye's traversal over the canvas by use of sympathetic iteration of line, shape, and hue.  His exhibit at the L. Ross Gallery is on view throughout April.  Don't miss it!

A few words from James Brooks

The following artistic statement, written by James Brooks in 1952, suggests a perspective that has relevance well beyond its most immediate subject matter, painting.
    My painting starts with a complication on the canvas surface, done with as much spontaneity and as little memory as possible.  This then exists as the subject.  It is as strange as a new still life arrangement and as confusing as any unfamiliar situation.  It demands a long period of acquaintance during which it is observed both innocently and shrewdly.  Then it speaks, quietly, with its own peculiar logic.  Between painting and painter a dialogue develops which leads rapidly to the bare confrontation of two personalities.  At first a rhythm of the painting is modified, then a chain of formal reactions sets in that carries painting and painter through violent shifts of emphasis and into sudden unfamiliar meanings.
    At some undetermined point the subject becomes the object, existing independently as a painting.
    There is no [more] forthright a declaration, and no shorter path to man's richness, nakedness and poverty than the painting he does.  Nothing can be hidden on its flat surface -- the least private as well as the most personal of worlds.  It is unforeseen, disquieting, inevitable and necessary.  It says little to those occupied with only its peripheral aspects, so interesting to talk and write about.  It will not return to nature, as it is a part of nature.  Its meaning is carried in its relationship, and the shapes, colors and things in it exist not as separate identites at all, but as carriers.  The impuse they transmit through the painting is its spirit, image and meaning.
     James Brooks, 1952

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Diebenkorn Mantra

     "I can never accomplish what I want – only what I would have wanted had I thought of it beforehand."       --Richard Diebenkorn
     It's hard to imagine an aphorism or other pithy saying that better seems to encapsulate my life (and life's work) than this one.  And for those interested in Diebenkorn's painting, the relatively recent book, Diebenkorn in New Mexico, by Gerald Nordland, Mark Lavatelli, and Charles Strong, exhaustively explores one of his most fertile (and often overlooked) periods.  Not only rife with stunning images, this book is also an excellent read.

Response to a Lobster Effigy

     I have just completed a new group of piano pieces, a set of five etude-like musical aphorisms that collectively bear the title Holophrasms, and that offer a series of musical "responses" to five seemingly unrelated non-musical artworks, which are nonetheless bound by their depiction of various, deeply disturbing manifestations of the human condition. 
     The first piece owes its inspiration to photos of a Mayan lobster effigy recently on display at a Ft. Worth museum.  The image, which is truly fearsome to behold, evoked a plethora of psychological and cultural associations, and seemingly demanded that I respond compositionally.  The resultant piece, marked risoluto, is in 11/16, and contains a great deal of complex syncopation.  Pedal is used only sparingly.
     The inspiration for the second piece is a series of very compelling paintings, collectively referred to as the "Grand Institution" series, by Italian painter Patrice Giorda.  These big canvases structure themselves largely around superimposed rectangles that appeal to my long-standing fascination with the work of Hans Hofmann, another favorite painter who periodically exhibited signs of rectangle fixation.  To me, Giorda's paintings speak to the frustration of man with implacable institutions.  The music that arises from this potent imagery is marked maestoso, is in 7/8, and uses pedal a bit more freely.
     The third piece is entitled Euthyphro, a reference to the antagonist in the Socratic dialogue of Plato that bears his name, a work with which I have been entranced for decades.  This short, turbulent statement is marked agitato, and alternates between 5/16 and 7/16.
     The set's fourth piece deals with a scene from the great novel Cosmos by Witold Gombrowicz, and is entitled The hanged sparrow.  Long one of my very favorite novels, this enigmatic work deftly allegorizes the entire human condition through depictions of a series of mundane events and coincidences of imagined importance.  The music meant to honor this work is just under a minute of rhythmically complex, highly filigreed whimsy in 13/16.
     The set's final piece is inspired by Hiroshi Teshigahara's magnificent film Woman in the Dunes.  Titled Jumpei's Dilemma, this piece is marked furioso and returns to 11/16, one of my favorite time signatures.  I have previously indulged my fascination with the combinational potential of this time signature in Calligraphic Forms from The Spattered Hand, and also, more briefly, in Pyrrhic Suite.
     Holophrasms will run about eleven minutes, if played (as intended) in its entirety.  The collective difficulty level is extreme, largely due to its rhythmic content and structure. 

A Perceptual Oddity

     A friend of mine, after reading Dr. Vigneau’s interview with me elsewhere on this site, asked me to elaborate a bit on my failure to derive enjoyment from the sound of massed strings.  First of all, allow me to assert that I have no intrinsic dislike of stringed instruments; I merely prefer winds. Probably foremost among possible reasons is the fact that most string players (as I stated in the interview) use vibrato to a degree that I generally find aesthetically disagreeable, and that (in my opinion) is stylistically inappropriate in most other-than-Romantic-period music. Additionally, the fact of the most commonly-used stringed instruments being unfretted, leads, invariably, to pitch inconsistencies.  The effect (at least for me) of these inevitable variances of pitch is exacerbated by unison scoring for multiple players, which, of course, is a common state of affairs in orchestral string sections.  This is something I’ve discussed, over the years, with various people. It seems to be the case that when most people hear a string section ostensibly playing the same note, these sounds get, in essence, “averaged out” to produce a single lush, warm tone. (I think this experience probably depends on a certain minimum distance for best effect.)
     However, this “averaging-out” effect doesn’t really happen with me, or at least not until I actually leave the room and listen through a door. I don’t fully understand why this should be, I merely know that it is. When I hear a violin section play a sustained tone, particularly if it isn’t an open string, I hear many distinctly separate notes that compete with one another for my attention. I am often aware (without desiring to be) of the individual contributions of particular players (to whom I can generally, if desired, unerringly point) whose vibrato (or pitch) might be especially out-of-step at a given moment.  This perception, largely unaffected by room acoustics, is almost always unpleasant, (especially as it interferes with my ability to fully enjoy orchestral music) and when I was younger, and my hearing more acute than it is now at the age of 54, the sensation was sometimes actually painful. (This sensation of pain when younger, and mere displeasure as I have grown older, is almost entirely limited to the treble clef. This means, of course, that violin sections are much more likely than other string sections to prove unpleasant to my ear.)
     Although I don’t fully understand all the reasons that contribute to what I have come to regard as a hearing anomaly, I do have theories.  One, to which I’ve already alluded, involves vibrato, and the fact that precisely coordinating that parameter with many players at once is usually not an orchestral rehearsal priority. A lifetime of listening to string quartet literature has brought home the reality, for me, that quartets that take the time (at least sometimes) to precisely coordinate their vibratos, are much more pleasant to my ears than those that don’t. This leads me to the conclusion that conflicting speeds and widths of vibrato are likely to be at least partially to blame for my inability to perceive a string section as the cohesive unit that most do.
     Another almost-certainly relevant component is the fact that, until quite recently, I had perfect pitch. I became aware of what perfect pitch actually was, and that I had it, when I was seven or eight. I have early memories of finding highly unpleasant the common situations that generally irritate people with perfect pitch. These include, but are not limited to, hearing or playing out-of-tune pianos, the usual pitch vagaries of singers, (particularly the surreal caterwauling that characterized the unaccompanied congregational singing in the fundamentalist church of my youth) and, also, at least for me, the unpleasant sensations of hearing a string section. The fact that, as I have aged, I have been aware of the decline of my pitch acuity corresponding to my growing tolerance (and, much more recently, even enjoyment) of string ensembles to be indicative of my perfect pitch being at least a factor in what I have, again, come to regard as a hearing anomaly.
     In the fall of 1974 I developed an ear infection that resisted medication, and as a result, tubes were placed in my eardrums.  Following the procedure, eardrops were used to prevent subsequent infection, and I had a violent allergic reaction to the eardrops, and was almost totally deaf for about ten days.  Over the next six weeks, my hearing gradually returned to a condition that I acknowledged as normalcy. During the spring of 1975, I had my hearing tested twice, and the results both times, according to our (new) ear doctor, were that my hearing was twenty-odd percent more acute than what was considered perfect.  I only tell this story because the incident precipitated hearing tests that seem to bear out the fact that my hearing has always been a bit different than the norm, not to suggest that the medical incident had anything to do with how I hear. 
The fact, however, of my extra-normal hearing acuity is probably the culprit in my traditionally greater unease with violins than with other stringed instruments. The brilliant tone quality for which violinists normally strive (and to which most listeners respond pleasurably) quite simply extends beyond the comfort zone of my hearing.
     Now that the aging process (with an able assist from rock music) has rendered my hearing a bit less unerring in some respects, I find myself increasing able to ignore any residual unpleasantness that I’ve traditionally associated with the hearing of strings, and especially violins. Last year, for example, I was totally mesmerized by violinist Tim Shiu’s performance of an early work by Crumb. Hopefully, I’ll soon be able to embrace the violin experience in a way that has previously eluded me!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Garrett McQueen

     Many thanks to Garrett McQueen for including his fine performance of my bassoon/piano piece, “The Spanish Flying Machine” on his website. Check this and other data about the illustrious Mr. McQueen at and if you're in LA, needing a bassoonist, this is the guy to get!