Jason Benjamin. Everyone is Here.

Jason Benjamin.   Everyone is Here.   Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, 1st August – 28th September 2014.

Benjamin She's Searching for You 2013

Jason Benjamin She’s searching for you too (Adaminaby NSW)                       2010, oil on linen

This touring survey exhibition, curated by Gavin Wilson, offers 35 paintings and drawings from Jason Benjamin’s recent work. The media release “talks up” this selection as a re-affirmation of a landscape tradition “at the heart of the Australian experience”. Edmund Capon, in the catalogue introduction to the show, speaks of scale and the infinity of time and space in the work. The collection suggests an intense feeling of being alone with the earth, an entry into the space of a particular form of nature, spare and haunting, a poetic reverie said to be saturated in poetry and beauty.

Benjamin 2

Jason Benjamin, The Waiting Garden, 2011, oil on linen, 180                       x 180 cm.

The exhibition is moving around several large NSW centres including Cowra, Wagga, Bathurst and Katoomba. The arrangements for such a touring show must be complex and the motivation for an artist such as Benjamin to engage in the venture are not exactly evident. Certainly it is great for the rural NSW art-lovers, but there must be more to it than this.

Benjamin is a brilliant and unique artist. When I first saw some of his work exhibited in a Melbourne gallery a few years back I was astonished by the scale and technical ability of the works, far beyond anything which normally appears as “landscape” in the contemporary art scene. His work is realist, maybe at a brief glimpse hyperrealist, but underneath this superficial impression are layers of profound subtlety. Time and space are expanded and condensed. Horizons tremble, seemingly alive. Skies are overwhelming and absorbing. Details of rocks, leaves, grasses and trees are rendered with what almost seems like love. I thought at once: I want to buy one of these paintings. I had never heard of Benjamin and imagined his work would be at least affordable. Wrong. These large landscapes were selling for $30,000 and up, and almost all in this show had been sold.

Benjamin was born in Melbourne in 1971 and began exhibiting in 1989. At the age of 16 he received a scholarship to the Stony Brook School in New York for a diploma followed by work at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He has won many local prizes in Sydney (Mosman Art Prize, Kings School Art Prize) and has had been a finalist in the Archibald in 2011, 2013 and 2014. He has also had solo shows in Tokyo, London, Hong Kong, Singapore and Rome. His work is far outside the conventional expectations of the contemporary art world. As Maurice O’Riordan commented in an Art Monthly piece in 2010/11, his work at first sight seems to be “acritical”, beautifully rendered but earnest and conventional. This impression was based on seeing jpegs of the images; once seen in the gallery or studio the full impact is a revelation. O’Riordan saw the exhibition Shelter at the Michael Reid gallery in Sydney (4 May – 5 June 2010) and noted the moody colour and obsessive detail, realising the importance of encountering the actual surface of the expansive oil-on-linen works. These were not works of mimesis, but evocations of emotion and psychology.

Benjamin’s career began with an encounter with Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionist canvases in New York, very far from his current landscape work. The monograph on his work What Binds Us, 2007, goes through the various phases and genres of his work, including his portraits of Tony Abbott, Bill Hunter and others. Nevertheless, he is best known for his landscapes.

Benjamin Tim Rogers 2014

Jason Benjamin, Portrait of Tim Rogers,  I Just Wanna                                        Dream. Archibald Finalist, 2014.

In 2008 Benjamin and his family were invited to stay at the station Burrabogie on the Hay Plains, from which the work in this show emerged. Benjamin considers that this experience resulted in a “drastic shift” in approach (p.11) It is not really clear what this shift consists of. Journey, centred on a huge, partly dead tree, offers a simple composition with an odd centredness. Poem, from the same year, is highly repetitive in structure, with a few dark birds scattered across the detailed sky. One of the most moving works is She’s Searching for You Too (2010). A gently curving road stretches across a rise into the far distance. A setting sun illuminates banks of clouds while the sky behind is a tremulous pale blue. In many works the semi-circular grey granite rocks look like sheep resting in a paddock. The large square composition, Can We Stay Here Forever (2012) again offers a very formal composition of rocks on finely detailed grass, with the same turbulent sky and scattered birds above.

Benjamin Post-History

Jason Benjamin.  Can We Stay Here Forever?  2012.

The material in the touring exhibition does not seem up to the quality of his best work.  His paintings are sometimes criticised for being picturesque or sentimental.  That is not the problem here.  Rather, there is something formulaic and perhaps casual about it. In part this may be the result of the smaller scale of the works, and perhaps the scope of the palette. The introductory interview by Gavin Wilson offers many insights into his thought process in depicting the granite boulders and shifting skies, the sense of elation and foreboding found in the place. The dead tree limbs set up the compositions. Benjamin has studied Chinese and Japanese traditional art and philosophy, which seems to provide inspiration and interpretation especially through the concept of the Zen garden.  The idea is great, but sometimes the execution seems to lack immediacy, the sense of rapidity which underlines Zen/Chang art.

The works on paper are beautiful and extremely elegant. I particularly liked the heads of birds: kookaburras, parrots and owls, rendered in exquisite detail. I have never seen Benjamin’s drawings before so this was a particular pleasure.

IMG_6838

Overall though, in spite of the curator’s efforts to affirm some kind of transcendental significance to this show, it is not at all apparent why we are seeing in his recent art a “gradual transformation of the physical into the metaphysical” (p. 10, Catalogue publication). Or, at least, it is unclear how this show in particular demonstrates this more than his earlier landscape works. On the wall these paintings look far less powerful. There is a blankness to the earth, and a kind of hysteria in the heavens. Somehow the fascinating balance of the Monaro and high plains landscape seems to be just missed here. One hardly dares to suggest it, but what might be needed is a genuinely new approach, one which moves away from the well-established and recognizable Benjamin “style” and leads the viewer to stop, and ask: who is this painter? Whether a change of landscape subject in itself is sufficient to provoke this, or whether some very different grasp of the issues in perception and representation might be called for, is an open question. However, the current tendency, or insistence, on the “signature” of the individual artist in the works may be reaching its limits in Australian landscape painting today, and Jason Benjamin may be the first in line to suffer for it.

References:

www.bathurstart.com.au/…/347-jasonbenjamineveryone-is-here.html [accessed 10 October 2014).

O’Riordan, Maurice. 2010/2011. Jason Benjamin and the importance of being earnest. Art Monthly #236, 68-70.

Marx, Jack. Jason Benjamin: What Binds Us. MacMillan Art Publishing, Melbourne, 2007.

 

 

REMARKABLE RAT MAN: LUCIAN FREUD IN W.A.

Freud Naked Man with Rat

Lucian Freud, Naked Man with Rat (1977-78).

Comment on Kitty Hauser’s piece in Public Works, The Weekend Australian, October 25-26 2014, p. 11.

One of the most challenging and “shocking” of Freud’s large-scale paintings – 91.5 cm square – it was quite surprising to see it in full colour in the Weekend Australian. The painting is reproduced in some of the published books on Freud’s oeuvre but for some reason I had never realised it was acquired by the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth in 1984. This is another of those super-mysterious Australian art-acquisitions about which I am thinking of writing a short study. My interest in Evariste Luminais Sons of Clovis 11 (1880) has been mentioned elsewhere, and I am writing a preliminary outline. The research I have done to date on Clovis (including at the excellent library at AGNSW) has revealed a lot of short comments and magazine and newspaper reviews published at the time of its purchase in Paris in 1886 but little detail on this surprising decision by the AGNSW – we don’t know who was involved, how it came about, why it was this particular painting and not the second, almost identical version which was acquired, and so on. I imagine the answers, if there are any, must lie deep in the archives, but if there is material there, it should be accessible.

The second example is perhaps the most obvious, the controversial acquisition of Blue Poles (1952) by the National Gallery in Canberra in 1973. This seems to be generally attributed to the innovations of the new “It’s Time” Labor Government. Prime Minister the late Gough Whitlam personally approved the purchase even though the Gallery then did not have authority to sign off on purchases of over one million. James Mollison, the director, believed the painting would be a great start to the new national gallery, at a time when it did not even have a building. The painting was purchased from the collector Ben Heller of New York for the unprecedented sum of 1.3 million Australian dollars. (For some reason the sum of $2 million is now often attributed to the purchase). Clement Greenberg, New York art critic, was Pollock’s particular champion, and had given a lecture on the worth of Pollock’s abstract expressionist works which was challenged by the local theorist Donald Brook but supported by the Melbourne critic Patrick McCaughey.  Local response was largely one of outrage, involving the retelling of various stories current in books and magazines about the circumstances of the painting’s creation. “Barefoot drunks painted our $1 million masterpiece” said one newspaper headline.

Some other less famous but contemporary paintings purchased by Australian galleries include pieces by Willem de Kooning at the NGA, including Woman V of 1952-3. Australian public galleries continue to invest in old masters: the National Gallery of Victoria purchased Correggio’s Madonna and Child with Infant Saint John the Baptist (1514-15) from Sotheby’s London for $5.2 million, the single highest priced acquisition in the NGVs history.

Naked Man with Rat is a very interesting case. I think there is only one other early Lucian Freud painting held in an Australian gallery: And the Bridegroom (1993).   I mentioned it earlier in the context of the small exhibition at AGNSW of treasures from the Lewis Collection. So I guess it isn’t really in the same boat, i.e. the picture was bought by Lewis and then bequeathed to the Gallery, along with the much smaller painting Susie Sleeping (1988-9). It is perhaps a stranger painting than Naked Man with Rat, but both are outstanding examples of the bizarre quality of Lucian Freud’s vision and technical approach, and it is amazing that these two, at the least, are in public collections in Australia.

and the bridegroom

Lucian Freud, And the Bridegroom, 1993

30-cezanne-naples

Paul Cezanne,  Afternoon in Naples, 1975.

The NGA also holds Freud’s After Cézanne, a variation on the theme of Paul Cézanne’s L’Aprés Midi à Naples (Afternoon in Naples) (1875), which was purchased in 1985. This was one of Freud’s “day pictures” which he painted in nine months from December 1999 to August 2000. The painting is famous in part because of its peculiar composition. It was initially painted on a rectangular canvas, but when Freud found there was not enough room to put in the upper half of the maid’s head, he added some additional canvas. This is a completely unexpected mode of approach to composition, which normally takes the boundaries of the canvas on its stretcher as the limits of what can be displayed.

Freud after Cezanne

                                         Lucian Freud, After Cezanne,1999-2000

As far as Naked Man with Rat is concerned, the commentary by Kitty Hauser is short but to the point. She has some good gossip on the painting – this is unattributed but no doubt came from one or more of the books recently published on Freud – I suspect from the excellent and informative book by Georgie Grieg, Breakfast with Lucian (2013) – but also identifies the genre as portraiture, rather than a “nude”. Yes, the subject is naked, but the purpose is to create a portrait, without clothes. The subject is Raymond Jones, an interior decorator from whom Freud borrowed money to settle a gambling debt. Repayment was in the form of this portrait. The viewer is gripped by the very strange posture of the figure, the floppy genitals almost at the very centre of the composition and then the rat (and its tail) which is at first hardly noticeable and then impossible to ignore.

I am not sure what to think about the details of the involvement of the rat in this painting. What ethical obligations does the artist have to his subject, even if it is a rat?   This rat was dosed with sleeping tablets dissolved into a dog’s bowl of Veuve Cliquot for the entire time of the painting’s completion. Freud was notoriously slow and extremely thorough in his work. At the end of it, this rat was without doubt an alcoholic and addict. Nothing in the literature which mentions this picture gives us any further information about the life (and death) of this nameless rat, but we must agree that it is one of the heroic figures of contemporary art, truly martyred in the interests of great art.

Eric Fischl. Bad Boy: My Life on and off the Canvas

Bad Boy. My Life On and Off the Canvas.   Eric Fischl and Michael Stone. Crown Publishers, New York, 2012. 357 pp, Index.

 Bad Boy cover

Books about the life and times of artists are not always what you expect. Biographies are often so dense with detail that you lose the sense of the
story, or tiringly familiarity in tone and observation. In part this is because we already know so many artists’ stories from media, movies, magazines and elementary art history lessons: consider Van Gogh’s ear, after all. And hasn’t this become the high point of the story, the bit we always focus on?

Very few artists write their own story (that is, write an autobiography) and fewer still see it in print while they are still alive and very much kicking. This is just one of the elements which makes Eric Fischl’s Bad Boy such a surprise. The voice of the artist is close to us, in time and outlook and feeling. Reading it, you feel you could make a phone call and discuss things with him, and his responses would make perfect sense. Besides this immediacy, it is a really great read. Whether this is down to Fischl, or whether the excellent writing should be credited to Michael Stone who appears as co-author – or is it ghost? – is not clear. But, beyond its technical excellence – lovely sentences expressing complex ideas, genuine engagement with the processes of memory without over-dramatisation – we enter into Fischl’s story, a long arc which has taken place in our own era and goes from psychologically tortured childhood in the affluent suburbs of 60s America, through an art-obsessed young manhood with the regulation overconsumption of cocaine and alcohol, to his current world of relative affluence and international glamour as a Golden Senior of the contemporary art scene. And we go through the art alongside the life. The one illuminates the other, a rare quality in this genre.

This sounds like a story that shouldn’t be enjoyed. After all we aren’t supposed to admire white male American artists especially when they offer figurative paintings with a lot of naked flesh in them. When I first encountered Fischl’s huge canvases of unclothed bathers on the beaches of southern France (what he painted, not where I was) I thought this was a contemporary Norman Lindsay even if the bodies were more realistic and the flesh more recognizably modern. But a deeper exploration quickly shows that this is not what Fischl is about. His art has grown from his own experience, in particular his early traumatic exposure to a very odd domestic scene disguised as perfect normality, and a sense of engagement with a kind of realism which is always imbued with something more, something deeper, something disturbing even while it forces an aesthetic admiration. As he has grown older the vision has, if anything, lightened. But he still stands as an observer, a viewer, a voyeur, a critic. He pursues surfaces only to insist on what is beneath them. Following his art from its earliest beginnings to the present offers a vista of a society and culture twisting and turning around its own sordid mythologies, centred on its own misguided fantasies, narcissism and self-defeating representations.  Fischl puts it thus in his second chapter, “Childhood, 1948-1965” (p. 11).

I began to experience a profound, dizzying sense of disassociation. I became acutely aware of the disconnect between appearance and reality, between people’s emotional needs and desires and the status symbols and objects they surrounded themselves with …. I became increasingly aware of the differences between what things looked like and how I felt as my world spun erratically and dangerously off its axis. It would later form the basis for much of my art. Almost all of my early paintings deal with the fall-out from middle-class taboos, the messy, ambivalent emotions couples felt, the inherent racism, the sexual tensions, and the unhappiness roiling below the surface of our prim suburban lives.

 This is the context from which his early, famous and controversial paintings arose. He struggled for many years in the art school environment to find a way to express himself. The account of his entry into the art world is vivid and totally believable. He relates his emotional life to the work he was doing, and his search for a viable attachment to a female partner became part of that environment. The connection between his personal, emotional, inner life and the creation of his art is a consistent theme throughout the book, but especially compelling in the first sections.

It was extremely unfashionable to be a representational or figurative artist at Calarts, the prestigious California School of the Arts which at that time (the 70s) specialized in conceptualism and offered the now-familiar critiques of all representational art forms, in the hysterical early post-modernism transferred from late 60s France. His description of the teaching methods at Calarts are dramatic and very funny. He, and a few others, were pushing against the tide of conceptualism, in an environment where manufactured images such as photos, movies and stills merged with the study of Wittgenstein and the French structuralists. He could not accept that painting is an art form necessarily associated with white European males and therefore inherently elitist, antifeminist and racist. He went on painting – abstracts of course – but with increasing disillusion. He dropped his long-time girlfriend Lannie, fell in love with another student, Laura, and moved to Chicago. The affair lasted six months while he spent his days at galleries and was hired as a guard at the Museum of Contemporary Arts. The affair with Laura petered out, he reconnected with Lannie, and they married.

Unexpectedly he was offered a teaching position at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. The focus there was conceptual art, but his own background seemed relatively unimportant – they urgently needed someone to supervise classes. He was now making large abstractions, working with oil and encaustic. He became increasingly anxious, swinging between euphoria and spells of black hopelessness. Lannie left him. However he soon met April Gornik, who was to become his wife and partner in an enduring relationship. He writes extensively and with deep appreciation about April, herself a talented landscape artist.

By 1977 he was working in a new technique, using glassine, a milky transparent paper on which he painted in oil. Its transparency allowed him to overlap several drawings at once. The glassine works became the foundation for his explorations into narrative: they seemed like photos, “thinly sliced moments of reality” (p. 100). They suggested rooms, and the rooms triggered an association which he described as being like the emergence of a soap opera. This was taking him back to his own traumatic life and offered a new way of painting narrative. The glassine drawings were depicting relationships within a fictive family, but it was soon apparent that his own family was going to provide the basis for a different kind of art.

Because of his scattered art education Fischl had no formal training in realist painting, but he was increasingly impressed by others involved in traditional portraiture and landscape. His friend Bob Berlind at NSCAD worked alla prima, drawing with his brush. The difficulties of this technique are many, but Fischl was excited by the ability to capture a luminosity and clarity of light and shadow. Bob was an artist completely outside the current trends, but the rich visual experience stayed with Fischl, and was further enhanced by a trip he made with April to Europe visiting the major centres and galleries. In Madrid he studied Velazquez and Ribera’s old men. In Florence they spent their time with Michelangelo and Donatello. They returned to Canada and set up a new joint studio and living space.

In the late 70s they moved to New York. The alternative art scene was centred in SoHo and spilling over to the East Village and TriBeCa at a dizzying pace. The post-studio artists from CalArts had a landmark exhibit in 1977 where Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer were making an art of feminist protest, while Italians Sandro Chia and Francesco Clemente brought symbolist imagery and Julian Schnabel offered a neo-expressionist revival with his broken-plate works.

There was a downside to life in New York. Finances were tight, April worked at waitressing, while Eric painted lofts and became an art removalist. By late 1979 things were happening in the art world. Eric was alert to the changes in contemporary art but also was engaged with Manet, Degas, Bonnard, Beckmann and Hopper. He liked the enormous scale of the abstract expressionists and he wanted to do heroic work of his own. The glassines were not offering enough scale or scope, and in 1978 he made the first painting of the type he went on to produce for the rest of his life. Painted on four by eight foot plywood, Rowboat was a simple composition in bright primary colours. “The string of associations which led to Rowboat were mostly unconscious … They produced an image that surprised and transfixed me” (p. 117). He felt what could happen when a painting took off by itself from his own unconscious. It was the first of the “frozen moments”, a state where all the elements of a picture are balanced on a knife edge, harmonious yet about to change.

This was the beginning of his move into full-colour, traditional oil paintings. The next major work was Sleepwalker. On a six by nine foot canvas, an adolescent boy stands in a child’s pool on a suburban lawn at night, in a still darkness. Far from awareness, he is masturbating into the pool.

Sleepwalker ERIC FISCHL

This was the start of Fischl’s depiction of “taboo” subjects. At the time, the explicitness of his images was shocking and destabilizing. Paintings such as Bad Boy (1981) and Birthday Boy (1983) opened up a space which was then, and still remains, largely forbidden. Many of his themes arose directly from his family experiences, especially his deeply troubled relationship with his alcoholic and ultimately suicidal mother. Hypocrisy was to be stripped away, and the viewer was forced into a regime of Truth which modern life systematically obscured.

And much of my work was about skin, stripping away the layers of pretense in which my subjects clothe themselves, exposing the naked or unguarded truth of their lives, the posture beneath their meticulously arranged poses. (p. 199)

The eighties picked him up, along with many others, and swept them on a wave. The demand for new, young, or as we would say today “hot”, artists seemed limitless. Their work was snapped up, and by 1982-3 they started making good money. The early eighties were an amazing time in New York anyway: limitless cocaine, nightlife, restaurants, a whole city of openings, museum events, previews and screenings. The mid-section of the book conveys brilliantly the askew sense of urgency of the era, the narcissism it provoked, and the feuds which arose. Fischl had an especially difficult relation with Julian Schnabel. He was envious and upset that Julian had become the anointed one with an art which seemed to Fischl somehow full of fake emotion, operatic or theatrical in tone, too full of the existential heroic stance typical of the abstract expressionists.

However, he soon developed his own following and success and money flooded in. The economy was blasting through the real estate boom and the new global equities markets, and this produced a novel breed of collectors, moneyed and aggressive, tuned in to fashion and status, hosting movie stars and artists in lavish uptown homes. It was the dawn of the celebrity era. Eric and April now needed several thousand dollars a month for their expenses. He began paying in art works, and had a special budget for his cigar and cocaine bills. Success sharpened rivalries among the painters at the top of the tree. As Fischl says, for those who are ambitious there can never be enough success. The rivalry with Schnabel went on. But a reckless confrontation with a gangster after the opening of his show at the Whitney led him to stop all his drinking and drug use, which was no doubt a good thing considering what was coming.

By 1990 many other artists were challenging him on his terrain, featuring themes of sex, the body, desire, relationships and identity. And the art-market had crashed. Shows had been panned, including one of April’s, and the two of them fell into a state of depression. On the positive side, Fischl was beginning to receive a lot of attention in Europe, and he had done a series of paintings based on his travels in India which had moved away from the personal/sexual/analytic field. In 1992 they decided to move out of New York and away from the art scene. Another wave of the global wealthy emerged, in Russia, Brazil and China, looking to diversify their investments. And the Internet opened up new ways for art to be seen. However Fischl did not join the ranks of those who found success in this new environment. Jeff Koons and Damian Hirst had become the darlings of the art world. The spotlight had shifted away from realist painting on challenging themes. The faddish new work was what was selling. Fischl had not “made the cut” in the art market, and “the art market had become the art world” (p. 280). The process whereby the value of art was determined by its place in the market had begun. Artists had to conform to the dictates of what sells. Fischl went on selling, but not as one of the “artists who matter”. The art world had become part of the entertainment business, and it “favoured product that was splashy, replicable, and attached to an A-list, brand-name artist”. (p. 281).

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the extent to which other artists enter it. Fischl’s discussion of his relation to Edward Hopper is especially enlightening. He describes the mixed feelings Hopper raises in him. Fischl feels that Hopper lacks painting style. He describes a reductive technique, a kind of directness and honesty in an awkward kind of painting. “He’s not very good at rendering figures. They often seem overworked and turgid, and as such they reveal his puritanical anxiety about flesh; it’s as though he wasn’t in control of his medium”. (p. 299).

In spite of his critique of Hopper, Fischl was forced to accept that Hopper seemed somehow present in his own work. It was the same territory in painting. He had captured something about the experience of being American: “a bone-deep loneliness, a sense of alienation and anxiety that’s the flip side of self-reliance …” (p. 299).

Fischl then entered into a dialogue with two Hopper paintings, Summer in the City and Excursion into Philosophy. They embraced themes central to Fischl’s interests. These paintings were ten years apart but seemed to be telling the same story. They are about distance and abstraction, the gaps between lovers and life. His response was the painting The Philosopher’s Chair, a bedroom scene which enlarges the tension in the Hopper paintings.   This led into a series of paintings based on similar themes, “The Bed, the Chair …” . He used a theatrical or cinematic device to advance the themes. In each picture (eleven in all) he placed different subjects in the same room, so that space became the location of different dramas over time. The series’ principle characters became the bed and the chair, while humans engaged alongside, on, or in them. The discussion of the thought process which went into these painting is almost unique in contemporary art writing (see pp. 300-303).

Thephilosopherschair

This led into the Krefeld Project in 2002, a series of large paintings based on an unprecedented encounter between art and a kind of realism. Two actors, a man and a woman, were photographed performing different scenes in different rooms of Museum Haus Esters, originally designed by modernist architect Mies van der Rohe. Fischl photographed them and finished up with more than 2000 photographs, which were digitized and uploaded onto a computer. Fischl then edited the photos into ten scenes which became the basis for ten paintings. Fischl gives relatively little discussion to this project, possibly because there is an excellent and extensive account of it published to accompany the exhibition. These two series brought together the storytelling devices he had been working on since the late 70s. They functioned like cinematic pieces using montage. Each painting worked on its own, offering an intense individual drama, but together they constituted a larger meditation on the nature of relationship, gender, power, place, intimacy and alienation – the themes which Fischl has been exploring throughout his career.

Krefeld Project 1

In one way, all of Fischl’s work can be seen as the construction of scenes within a series. The link between the elements of the series is not always evident, or can even be seen as deliberately obscured. Many paintings can be read in different ways and the relation between them is not necessarily temporal. If there is a sequence it is formed in the unconscious, so that the artist asks the viewer to make up his/her own mind about the narrative elements, the “what happened when”. Perhaps the pictures function together like a William Burrough’s writing sequence, reflecting back on each other while opening up new vistas.

It has proven very difficult to summarise this book. As in the narrative frame of Fischl’s paintings, the reader is constantly drawn forward into events, which reach a kind of soft resolution but then transform into the next phase. As we know, the full impact of an artist’s work cannot really be estimated until his death. Fischl remains very much alive and has a new show in London (October 2014), depicting sardonically the contemporary art “scene”. To read this book is to enter into a dialogue with art and life in contemporary America and beyond. It is also a philosophical and theoretical thriller, conveyed through wonderfully expressive writing and a sense of ethical engagement. It offers a treatise on the art world today, but more compelling is the sense of the person behind the art and the writing, a person struggling always with a level of truth even when it is distinctly uncomfortable and unflattering.   It would be hard not to admire and enjoy the company of this person.

 

 

 

Juliette Aristides. Classical Drawing Atelier.

Juliette Aristides.  Classical Drawing Atelier. A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice.  Watson-Guptill Publications, New York. 2006.

I had noticed this book several times on Amazon, while searching for works which addressed certain key technical issues which I felt were sorely missing in my own work. Drawing the figure is principle among them. Having had only the most rudimentary training in classical drawing, the idea of approaching it through a well-illustrated book written from the traditional perspective seemed very attractive. The reader reviews for the book ranged from quite enthusiastic to lukewarm. Coming across the work in a library gave an opportunity for a closer look, to assess whether it would be a useful manual or source of on-going training and study.

Aristides 1

This book is nicely produced and feels good in the hand. There is a great deal of text, many more or less compelling illustrations, and singularly little actual “training” detail. I have found the same with many other art books. It is often the case that a high proportion of the illustrative material is the work of the author, or of close associates, while outstanding famous examples which one would want to study closely are seldom included. Books with many drawings and colour plates are incredibly expensive to produce and it is understandable that publishers are reluctant to invest in these costs without being sure of recouping them. Since classical drawing and painting techniques more-or-less disappeared in the mid to late twentieth century it is only in a few circles that such works would appeal. However, when looking in more detail at the publishing history and availability of this work, it seems to be one which has been published in several variants and editions, sometimes with a slightly different title, and is now available on Kindle at less than $20. So there is a significant market for it.

The book describes itself as arising specifically from the Atelier context. Many today use this just as another fancy term for a studio. However Atelier refers to a distinct mode of art training, one which was more or less universal up until the twentieth century. Atelier training is rare today. There are some ateliers in the US, one of which is associated with Aristides, and many more in Europe. Atelier training involves not just a technical approach towards realist/representational art, but arises from a philosophy and aesthetic practice, even though this is not often articulated. There are hints of it in Aristides’ book, but no more than that. Her engagement with the deeper aspects of the “break” between classical and modern art is limited to an historical overview approach.

There are some reasons why this book could benefit would-be representational artists. Figuration has been undergoing a significant revival; and while many contemporary artists are perfectly happy to treat their figures with casual gestures, much recent work is moving towards a higher level of anatomical and visual complexity which might suggest that a knowledge of drawing is imperative for the complex large-scale figurative compositions which they are producing. Of course painting is not drawing, and the example of Lucian Freud suggests that the figure can be constructed in paint with no more than a few charcoal lines on the canvas for a drawing. The relation between drawing and figurative painting is an interesting subject for another time.

Aristides’ book begins by offering an historical perspective on artists’ training in recent times, where the idea of an established artistic heritage has been broken. Contemporary artists frequently repudiate any links to the art of the past, while education and formal training are considered “antithetical to genius” (p. xi). Aristides argues for the mastery of craft, and a focus on technical achievement, as precursor to individual self-expression. It is clear that for atelier-trained artists the knowledge and stylistic expression of art in the classical style, dating back to the ancient Greeks, is the bedrock of their art practice. That knowledge in turn was based on other ancient civilizations including Egyptian, Near Eastern and Aegean cultures. Ancient Greece became the standard-bearer for the highest levels of artistic expression, rediscovered in the Italian renaissance, where the humanistic perspective and the idea that man is the measure of all things flourished. Leonardo and Michelangelo remain the measure of great art of earlier times, although the idea of emulating or imitating their artistic practice might seem an anachronistic absurdity. Aristides rejects such a view, and focuses on elements of draftsmanship, for example the use of line in the expression of form. There are a number of useful diagrams and discussions, which lead to an understanding of the way lines are positioned in the earliest stage of a drawing, from which the key elements of composition and the visual hierarchy of various parts arise. The use of block-in in first stage drawing is clearly explained, which leads on to the examination of measuring to determine distances and relationships. The differences between sight measurement and relational measuring are explained.

The book goes on to examine other elements of drawing, including figure drawing from life, portrait drawing, and related matters. All of these discussions warrant close examination and a careful student would take the time to undertake sketches and copies of many of these, so as to get a sense of how the written text and illustrative examples “work” when being duplicated in real time.

Part Four promises to “put theory into practice” and unfortunately this is the weakest element of the work.   A very brief discussion of materials precedes some elementary notes on drawing spheres, for instance. The reader who has bothered to come this far is already likely to be very familiar both with materials and the drawing of spheres. A lesson on “Master Copy Drawing” again offers the barest account of how to go about copying from Master drawings, with only the slightest amount of detail at a most elementary level. Other “lessons” include “reductive figure drawing” in charcoal, and a simple approach to portrait drawing.

The book ends very abruptly, and there is no conclusion or any effort to link the practical elements to a broader consideration of how a revived interest and skill in classical drawing techniques is or might be playing a significant role in the emergence of new figurative/narrative drawing and/or painting. The very slight and elementary information contained in the “lessons” is so far from the aims and expectations of the kind of art student who is likely to be reading it that one wonders about the motivation for the project as a whole.

On balance, this is not a work which needs to be in one’s library. It would be good to ponder, and copy, many of the illustrations, and to be able to apply principles of measurement and ratio as they are explained here, but the ardent art student would be just as well-served by the purchase of less expensive drawing manuals, even if they are nowhere near as informative or well-written regarding the background of classical drawing. Finally, the availability of the book on Kindle may make it more attractive to those who want an introduction to some of the matters raised above. But the limitations of art books in electronic form are notable, especially if you want to use illustrations as a source of study and copy material. This is one of the best arguments for the value of the traditional artist’s library, although other kinds of art books especially biographies and memoirs may be preferable in e-form. This goes especially for the blockbuster biographies which are so thick as to be hard to open and so heavy that you can’t read them in bed. More on these later.