Saturday, September 13, 2014

Entry - 9.13.14

Gerard Wickham - Cat's Cradle - 2014
Finishing a painting these days always generates conflicting emotions in me.  Of course, there is a sense of satisfaction, relief that the project undertaken is complete.  And it is always interesting to see the finished work (when the last stone is set, so to speak), and I can evaluate how far from my initial concept I have strayed.   On the other hand, there are a number of formidable negatives too.  At this stage in my career, I tend to work on my larger paintings for quite a few months, so, upon nearing completion, I get somewhat weary of the image.  At some point, I usually become inured to the emotional content of the work and concern myself primarily with tackling technical issues.  So when I step back from a newly finished work, I have trouble experiencing it fully.  Often it can take years from completion before I can really “see” one of my paintings.  Also, finishing a work always brings up the discomforting question of what to do next.  Even if I have a firm concept in my mind of my next image (which commonly is not the case), I must still address the issues of locating models, purchasing and hauling supplies and preparing a canvas.  And although the initial phases of creating a work (making preparatory sketches, determining the composition, transferring my drawings to the canvas and blocking in the underpainting) are stimulating, the experience can also be intense and stressful.  Hence, finishing a painting does not represent a fulfilling climax for me… most probably, simply a resigned moving-on.

My latest work, Cat’s Cradle, took nearly two years to complete, longer by far than any previous work.  I experienced a couple of major disruptions during the painting of this work but nothing so cataclysmic as to justify the time spent in its execution.  Life does seem to be incredibly complex these days, often exigent demands imposing restrictions on the amount of time I get to spend in my studio.  And I don’t possess the stamina that I used to.  Regularly I could feel “maxed out” after a three hour painting session.  As I appreciated that I was approaching the two year mark on this work, I recognized I had to kick up my performance a notch or two and began adding after work sessions to my schedule.  Lastly, I can assuage my conscience a bit with the consideration that this composition was extremely complex and presented a number of unique technical difficulties for me.  But, all said, I do recognize that I must organize my days more effectively and push myself to extend the length of my studio sessions beyond my current norm.

Every painting presents its unique challenges.  Though I try to control most aspects of my paintings, I find that unexpected circumstances often lead to unplanned results.  Once a woman who was to model for me asked me the day before what she should wear to our session.  I replied that she could wear anything except black.  Of course, she came the following day in a pitch black, long-sleeved top.  Another time I asked a model not to wear anything patterned, and he arrived in an intricately patterned, plaid flannel shirt.  I’ve arrived at locations to find that the available space will not allow me to position myself at the anticipated angle in relation to the scene, requiring ad hoc compositional adjustments.  Or I discover that my model simply cannot strike the pose or express the emotions I desire.  Sometimes the unpredictable actually enhances a painting, forcing me out of my comfort zone and challenging me to develop innovative solutions.  At other times, these irregularities can detract from the final image.

I always come to a modeling session with a pretty firm concept in mind.  I know the role each model will play and the specific pose I will ask him or her to take.  I possess a fairly detailed concept of the layout of the surroundings, the placement of any props to be used and my positioning in relation to the models.  When I arrived at the location at which I was to shoot my “source photographs” for Cat’s Cradle, the models were dressed appropriately and were fully capable of holding the poses and expressing the emotions I requested of them.  The space was sufficient to permit me to light my subjects correctly and take my pictures from the angle that I had anticipated.  What did surprise me was finding a colorful and intricately patterned quilt draped over the sofa on which my models were to be posed.  At first, I thought of removing it but then reconsidered.  I realized that the quilt could play a pivotal role in the painting, that my challenge would be to depict the quilt convincingly without permitting it to overwhelm the composition.  I generally like to position my figures within austere spaces (in front of a bare, white wall, seated on a solid toned chair or sofa, enveloped in darkness, etc.), so addressing a composition that would be active all over and brightly colored incited me to employ new solutions.

I immediately thought of works executed in the international style during the late gothic period – paintings, in particular, that captured the cosmopolitan pageantry of European courtly life.  Commonly, these paintings and murals were large in scale, crowded with activity and executed in great detail.  The costumes of the individuals portrayed in these works were sophisticated and richly patterned.  Every inch of these images was infused with energy, often even the sky being occupied with colorful flags and banners or a mesh of jumbled lances.  Figures, all evenly lit and carefully delineated, are gathered in massive clots that fill vast expanses of the picture plane.  A good many of the paintings I’ve seen that were executed in this style strike me as awkward, having no discernible focus point or unified composition.  Complex patterns clash and overlap arbitrarily.  But I don’t believe that these works are necessarily unsuccessful; the intentions of the artists differed from those of post-renaissance artists.  Rather than seek to develop a unified composition with organized movement within areas of non-activity, these artists sought to provide persistent overall detail that would impress and delight an audience regardless of viewing angle.  These paintings were public declarations of the wealthy and powerful patrons who commissioned them.  It was critical that they confirm the status and sophistication of their owners.  And wherever you were seated in a banqueting room or at what point you stood in a reception hall, upon turning to examine the mural beside you, you should find within the larger composition a charming vignette to captivate and entertain you.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti - Allegory of Good and Bad Government - 1337

Paolo Uccello - The Battle of San Romano - 1438 to 40

Pisanello - The Vision of St. Eustace -1438 to 42

Simone Martini - Maestra - 1315

By the way, the onset of the renaissance did not bring about the complete demise of the overall composition.  Particularly within the modern and postmodern modes, artists, breaking away from long established conventions, have successfully utilized overall compositions.

Max Beckmann - Die Nacht - 1918 to 19

Jackson Pollock - Number 1, 1949 - 1949

Janet Fish - Green Glass from Alexis - 2001
So, my challenge was to embrace an overall composition, one that convincingly represented the form and patterning of the sofa and quilt, without interfering with the primacy of the figures or obscuring the thrusts of movement their forms suggest.  I accomplished this by pushing the tones in the quilt slightly to the blue and diminishing (again just slightly) contrast in the background elements, while emphasizing contrast and warm tones in the figures.  This may sound fairly elemental, but it took me some time and a couple of sessions of repainting to work out.  Contrary to my usual practices, I also elected to use a heightened palette with Cat’s Cradle.  This was determined, to some degree arbitrarily, by the chance circumstances of what I found upon arriving for my shoot.  But once I determined that I would be addressing an overall composition, it seemed natural to permit the work to drift a bit to the decorative.  And it certainly felt right to portray two lovely, adolescent girls using a cheerful array of pigments.  I think that the final work arrived at a satisfying balance between overall activity and traditional composition… between the decorative and the austere… between the attractive and the profound.

Gerard Wickham - Cat's Cradle (detail) - 2014

Gerard Wickham - Cat's Cradle (detail) - 2014

Gerard Wickham - Cat's Cradle (detail) - 2014

Gerard Wickham - Cat's Cradle (detail) - 2014

Gerard Wickham - Cat's Cradle (detail) - 2014

Gerard Wickham - Cat's Cradle (detail) - 2014

Gerard Wickham - Cat's Cradle (detail) - 2014

Gerard Wickham - Cat's Cradle (detail) - 2014
I’m not going to analyze the painting here, touching on how it functions and suggesting possible interpretations of the imagery.  Having tried this many times in the past, I’ve learned that any attempt to guide a viewer to a more thorough grasp of one of my works only leads to misunderstanding and obfuscation, whatever observations I provide becoming gospel and the artwork being transformed into an illustration of my words.  I will only say that in creating this work my intention was to please and delight the eye; I hope that in doing so I haven’t trespassed into the saccharine.

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