Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Insanity of the Past

Once the past is gone and buried, people seem to look on it as quaint. But whenever I look into the past I always end up thinking, 'these people are insane!' Abraham Lincoln grew up in a log cabin and had almost no education, and yet went on to be not just President of the United States, but arguably the best President ever! Where are the Lincolns of today?
As insane as that is, I find insanity of the past strongest in the arts. The level of insanity to even be an artist is pretty high, but these old guys took art to crazy levels of virtuosity. It's hard for me to envision how they kept it up.
I first began to think this way about music. I became very interested in Baroque music around the age of 12. That interest has not wavered since. The commitment and obsession that these Baroque greats had to music is almost incomprehensible. Despite the fact that Bach's toccatas are today heard as Halloween music, the mere sound of the harpsichord conjures up pictures of ridiculous, effeminate antiquity to the casual ear, and Vivaldi is used as elevator music, the fact remains--these guys wrote amazing music. And lots of it. Plus they were alive at a time when many elements of musical thought we take for granted were still new or being developed. So, they were all innovators as well as top notch artists. Most of them were virtuosos on an instrument, too. Bach was a great organist, and harpsichordist and a pretty decent violinist. Vivaldi was one of the greatest violinists of his time. The level of obsession, daring, and formal solidity they possessed made them great artists for all time. If you've ever seen the film Amadeus, one thing I think that is portrayed quite well is the passion and obsession that these composers possessed, which was requisite to their greatness. That film is in many ways a reenactment of this 'insanity of the past' concept.
In visual art, even the most jaded person's jaw drops when they see a Jan Van Eyck. There are a lot of those jaded types in the visual arts. But few people can walk by such a superhuman achievement casually. A little history only adds to the awe. Van Eyck was active in the first half of the 1400's when oil painting was still a toddler. Yet, he has never been equaled as a painter of detailed, hyper-realist textures. His cloth and wood and glass have verisimilitude that is still at the apex of the medium, technically. That's insane.
Fast-forward past many other great achievements to the Hudson river school. Thomas Cole had a student named Fredric Edwin Church. Personally, I'm not his biggest fan--his aesthetic is too maudlin for me, his paintings too clogged with detail. But to look at his paintings is to understand the insanity of the Hudson River School. His finished paintings are huge, caked with an almost blinding amount of detail. His foliage is rendered without editing, every leaf is there and in sharp focus. His only tool to recreate such accurate details from nature were his own observation and his pencil and oil sketches. To today's viewer his sketches may be more appealing than his finished works, which can seem contrived, pretentious and decorative. The sketches have an amazing accuracy to them. Done with great speed, from nature, they take on a visceral quality of that nature. Taking a massive amount of detail, and forming it into a cohesive view of a real location is extremely difficult and Church seems to do it effortlessly. Only seems. He was insane and his effort is a benchmark for any serious artist.
The past is full of this kind of craziness. I don't know if people were more bored back then, art was more valued, or if people were exposed to too much lead and thus insane. Of course history filters out mediocrity, presenting only the great visions. But, I keep finding a brotherhood with these past artists and the level they were willing to take things to. I feel that some of that energy is missing today. At very least people, on average, don't seem to have the respect for the insanity that has occurred in the past and the value it has in the present. The past is not quaint, it's crazy stuff!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Thomas Cole

Thomas Cole is a hard artist to fully understand today. In looking at his work one might be tempted to look past his innovations to a merely scenic or decorative aesthetic. Cole burst out of the Catskill forests in 1826 with a set of paintings that made him a sensation. Although his technique was based along the likes of Lorrian and Rosa, Cole started a new American landscape. Whereas his old world heroes worked strictly in manicured landscape, land heavily controlled by man, as well as the artist, Cole brought wild and pure landscape to the table.
This might sound obvious now, but it was revolutionary and totally American in 1826. More than just innovation to paint wilderness and audaciousness, Cole was also clever enough to wrap his new, wild subjects in a logical style acceptable to the art community. This seemingly small step freed future landscape painters of many limiting obligations. It also made Cole a national celebrity, because his new aesthetic was seen as a visual equivalent of American identity.
Cole was much less impressive as an artist formally. His historical importance, being as huge as it became, cast a large shadow. But he was interesting formally. His passages of think, swirling paint are almost unbeatable in realist painting.
One thing of interest is that he did some pretty bad paintings, especially early on. It is rare that an artist of his reputation has such underachieving works in his main catalogue. Yet he was capable of masterpieces, even early, such as Landscape with Tree Trunks, from 1828.
Later, he would mix his landscape aesthetic with moralizing history painting, to create two great series, Course of Empire and Voyage of Life. These are often seen as the pinnacle of Cole's art. Though ambitious, I'm not drawn to these works compared to his pure landscape. His pure landscape is direct, honest and ambiguous. His true strength and strongest contribution to history were his wild American scenes.
In contemplating the morality of the American wilderness Cole painted The Oxbow, his greatest work. In it he visually discusses the taming of America's land, an issue he was very vocal about, but also the battle between pure landscape and history painting. Even a man as loyal to landscape as Cole seemed to waver under the pressure of man-made narrative. Yet a painting like The Oxbow showcases landscape's conceptual as well as aesthetic and emotional potential.


Every artist faces daunting questions. Not just from their colleagues, but also from people who don't know anything about art. Among the most popular and diabolical are, "Why do you paint?" and "Why do you paint what you paint?"
As a landscape painter in 2007, I feel like the latter question is always floating around my studio, even if no one is saying it out loud. Landscape painting has a long history. It also has a long history of being looked down upon. During most of art history there was a genre totem pole. Every genre had its stringent rules and its place of esteem on the pole. History painting was at the apex, while landscape, though seemingly related, was far below.
In current times the stigma of the past continues. It's no longer the rule, but its prejudices pervade. To make matters worst new prejudices have sprung up everywhere. Ever since Impressionism, (ironically, landscape driven) the art world is always on the look out for the next avant-garde. At first, this adventurous spirit was obviously needed in the art world, in hindsight. Imagine being so uptight as to find Monet offensive and worthless. But after more than a century of racing toward the new, the shocking, and the next revolution, the cycle is getting denigrating to most forms of painting.
To contemporary art, landscape is perhaps the most warn and banal subject. Landscape is seen as scenic, decorative, shallow, simple and done to death. Two insights are laking in this judgment.
First, landscape is pervasive in human experience. In fact, without the land and the resources landscape portrays, people would not exist. Landscape is visually interesting and has endless conceptual possibilities. If you've ever been on the banks of a rushing river or under the canopy of deep forest, you've probably experienced something spiritual. And on the edge of that river it is probable to think how inconsequential and vulnerable you are. This notion of human humility, so rare, and yet so truly our state in the universe, is expressed best by landscape.
Second, what truly makes art great is not the shock, but the subtleties. Don't get me wrong, shock can have value--sometimes a good shock is just what people need. But shock, newness and surprise should not be valued above all else. In fact, shock is not painting's strength. Eventually painting will run out of revolutions, while clever and rich subtleties will remain. One can already feel the friction and heat in the art world over the increasing difficulty in finding something totally new and novel. Landscape is a great forum for the flourishing of subtleties.
But what it ultimately comes down to is I want to paint landscapes, so I'm going to. My friend said this of the issue. When he hears someone look at one of my paintings and say, "Landscape?" he wants the reply, "It's ****ing uncompromising." I couldn't agree more.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

This Blog

The purpose of this blog is to write about art. Specifically, my landscape paintings and the concepts and issues that surround it. I aim to create a hybrid between a journal and a formal paper in the writing. I'd like to discuss opinions, personal experience, and have some formal looseness, like a journal. On the other hand I'd like to critically discuss art, art history, and the current art world in an intellectual manner of a paper. Naturally, everything I discuss will be related to my own art, but the purpose of this writing is not to merely point out or promote my work. More than anything, it serves to improve my work by amplifying and organizing my art thoughts.