Saturday, April 28, 2018

Entry - 4.28.18

Georg Emanuel Opiz - Der Saufer - 1804

Yes, it’s been a while since I’ve last posted a blog entry.  If you follow my blog, you probably know that I retired at the end of last year and you might have been expecting the pace of entry postings to accelerate, seeing that once out of the workforce I’d be enjoying the rare luxury of free time for the first time in many years and would consequently blossom forth into the embodiment of productivity and industry.  My expectations were much lower.  I anticipated an initial period of lethargy and idleness – a kind of emotional and intellectual collapse after my long stint of toeing the line.  Well, after several months of retirement, I can state that my prediction was fairly accurate.  Not that my collapse was absolutely complete.  There have been a few occasions when I’ve sobered up, took a bath, changed my clothes and thumbed through the mail.  I’ve even shaved once or twice.  Okay, perhaps I’m exaggerating just a bit.  In truth, I continue to rise early (usually around 6AM), take long hikes when conditions permit (with a slew of nor’easters hitting NY in recent weeks conditions haven’t been doing a lot of permitting), study my German and apply myself to a number of art projects.

At present, I’m working to become proficient in the use of gouache, a kind of opaque watercolor, which I haven’t used much, if at all, in the past and thought might be an ideal medium to encourage me to be more spontaneous in the execution of my work.  I’ve also been constructing a frame for a portrait I completed about two years ago and always thought would be enhanced if set within a border of gold leaf.  Thus far my efforts to construct the frame have been pretty successful, but I dread the thought of using fragile gold leaf, so delicate that a slight puff of breath will send it flailing like a flag in a hurricane.

For the most part, my efforts have been focused on finishing up a large-scale painting that’s been my primary occupation for quite a while.  I must confess that I started work on this project about a year and a half ago, hoping, as usual, to realize during its execution a method of accelerating my process but recognizing right from the get-go that my unintentional tendency to work ever slower, to seek out more subtle nuances and to layer paint more densely would most likely prevail. On occasion, I talk of revamping my approach to painting completely, causing my wife to shudder and remind me as gently as possible that I’m nearly 60 and may not have all the time in the world to reinvent myself.  Hey, Grandma Moses didn’t start painting in earnest until she was 78 years old!  All the same, I’m kind of coming to terms with my deliberate technique.  Although I believe more spontaneous and intuitive painting would be a far more enjoyable experience for me, I can’t deny that the results of my arduous efforts are satisfying.  Most of this piece was conceived and executed while I was still employed, and, though I tried to get up to my studio both days of my weekends, my intentions were often derailed by familial and household responsibilities or on occasion I simply succumbed to mental exhaustion and diddled away a day or two.  Upon retirement, I began withdrawing to my studio for one or two sessions on a daily basis, and the painting progressed more rapidly.  In two and a half months I wrapped up work on the painting, an achievement that most likely would have cost me close to a year if still employed.  After devoting two sessions to touch-up work and corrections, I left the work on my easel to dry for a few weeks before documenting it in digital photographs.

Gerard Wickham - The Card Trick - 2018

I guess to discuss this work it would be best to start at the beginning.

A few years ago my youngest son became interested in developing sleight of hand skills, focusing predominantly on card tricks.  He would read literature and watch videos which provided instruction on executing magic tricks and then practice in his room behind closed doors before surprising me unawares by demonstrating a couple of his recent acquisitions.  He was really quite good, and I would usually have no idea how he pulled off these astonishing tricks even though I stared directly at his hands not daring to blink.  Of course, like a true magician, he refused to share with me the secrets of the tricks, though he would often consent to perform a trick one more time, instructing me, “This time look very closely, Dad.”

Caravaggio -The Cardsharps - 1594
Eventually, this interest waned for him, but not before his activities had sparked in me some thoughts about “magic”.  When a trick is performed, those who are watching are at cross-purposes with themselves.  The audience is present to be amazed, to transcend the ordinary and to surrender to the illusion that the supernatural exists.  It’s what we expect for the price of admission.  At the same time, everyone in the audience is trying mightily to detect how the trick is performed, to expose the deception and to prove the magician a swindler and a cheat.  It seems to me that these opposing inclinations represent two essential impulses in humans: 1) to seek guidance and solace in the spiritual and supernatural, and 2) to apply the intellect to challenge superstitions and achieve a concrete understanding of our world.  Though it was never my intention to present these specific ideas in a pictorial format, I did think that the theme of a card trick was rich enough to merit exploration in a major work at some point in the future.

Because my larger oil paintings require so much time and effort to execute, I usually hesitate before undertaking a new major project.  Since finishing my last large work in 2014, I had painted a number of portraits, executed several woodcuts, watercolors and drawings and spent quite a while locating, organizing and photographing my entire graphic output going back to the 1970s.  But I was essentially resting, biding my time before settling down and tackling a more challenging project.  By the summer of 2016, my “batteries” had been recharged and I was ready to get started.

The larger works always begin with a photo shoot, usually lasting several hours, but even before getting to this stage I’ll devote weeks or even months to kicking around ideas in my head (some visual, some conceptual) and considering who might be available to model and what location would best suit the theme of my painting.  Early on in this process, the thought of addressing a card trick took hold, and it naturally followed that I would use my two youngest sons as models – after all they were the right builds, had the appropriate looks for my conception and were readily available to pose.  As the day of the photo shoot approached I knew what role each of my models would play, had a general idea of how I wanted them to pose and had selected our dining room as the location for the shoot.

So on a gloriously bright Sunday morning, July 10, 2016, my models and I gathered in our dining room from which I had removed all of the regular furnishings, replacing them with a small number of pieces essential to my composition.  I set up two spotlights in the room: one to serve as my primary source of illumination, the other to bounce off the ceiling and wall to provide a subdued reflected light.  Additionally, indirect natural sunlight streamed in though a nearby window.  The room was bathed fairly evenly in a warm, golden light which pleased me greatly since I wasn’t looking for moody, dark shadows or sinister obscured depths.  I described to my sons how I wanted them to pose and the emotional attitude I wanted them to project, and they were able to effectively carry out my instructions.  I took a reasonable number of overall compositional shots, followed up with a great many detail shots.  When we were finished I was very excited about this prospective work.  The photographs were very solid, the lighting was distinctive and the composition was interesting, imposing a strong overall vertical structure partitioned with a multitude of horizontal and vertical repetitions.

With the photos as my guide, I made a number of compositional sketches, arriving incrementally at something satisfactory to me.  I was then able to determine the dimensions of the painting, purchase oversized stretcher strips in Manhattan and in August prepared my canvas.

By November, I had transferred my composition to the canvas, completed my underpainting and was ready to begin painting in earnest.  At this time I was satisfied with the direction the work was taking and the pace at which I was achieving goals.

Wood surfaces of various tonalities, grains and finishes dominate the composition, the faceted panels of the door being the most commanding.  I recognized that how I addressed the door would determine everything else in the painting – flesh tones, contrast, the “temperature” of the work, the scale of illusion desired…everything; therefore I, of course, began my painting by tackling the door.  I spent several weeks depicting the door “illusionistically”, attempting to capture the fine grain and intense coloration of the wood and the obscuring reflections of the powerful lighting I used during my photo shoot.  I ended up with a very convincing door that didn’t contain the hues I wanted and would distract from the essential elements in the work.  I then attempted to tone down the coloration and contrast a bit, repainting several panels in the door, but again was dissatisfied with the results.  With several months of work under my belt, I had little to show for my efforts and had reached a technical impasse.  I’m not sure for how long I stalled, but I eventually determined that it would be best to ignore my photos and simply study wood.  After examining a variety of woods, both raw and stained, I went back to the painting once more, this time selecting the tonalities which made sense to me, envisioning an even, overall lighting that defined form consistently and inventing stylized wood grains for the various panels.  The result was exactly what I was seeking.  I have said over the years that I don’t seek the illusion of reality in my work.  Perhaps if the camera had never been invented that might appeal to me (probably not).  Instead, I hope to achieve a “hyper-realism” that surpasses visual reality and aspires to intensify the viewer’s comprehension of light and substance.

Another deliberate misrepresentation that I fostered in this work was the elimination of the effect that one point perspective would have had on my horizontals and verticals; instead I adhered consistently to a regular grid established for the purpose of transferring my composition to the canvas.  For instance, a low focal point would have caused a tapering of the door’s width as it neared the top of the canvas.  I did not demonstrate this “distortion” and insisted that verticals and horizontals remain parallel.  Contrary to what would be expected, this approach, I believe, asserts a more convincing reality than had I used perspective correctly.

Additionally, because the horizon line is fairly low in the painting, a compression of space results, which gives the composition a slightly dioramic effect, the figures and furniture occupying distinct planes.  In this regard, perspective is somewhat exaggerated with objects closer to the viewer becoming magnified oddly.  This effect contributes to the painting’s suggestion of an “other-reality”.

One of my major interests during my undergraduate years was portraiture, and through regular application I developed the ability to quickly capture a sitter’s likeness with just a few essential lines.  I would sketch my fellow students in my studio art classes and impose on friends and family to pose whenever they were available.  I would even capture accurate likenesses of the models during figure drawing sessions and was often approached by a model between poses with a request for a particularly successful sketch.  I remember with some amusement an incident that occurred during grad school.  At one point, several successive classes were to be devoted to making a figure study of a model in oils.  As was my habit, I labored to accurately record the model’s facial features as well as her body.  During a break while I continued to roughly scrub in the background, the model came up behind me and let out a gasp.  She was shocked at how perfectly I had documented her features.  She requested with some embarrassment that I not include the painting in my semester-end review during which a student had to present a body of work to both the professors and the student body.  She explained that she had promised her boyfriend, a fellow art student, that she would no longer pose nude and knew that if he saw my study the jig would be up.  Of course, I assured her that I would comply with her request.  I never lost this skill, and to this day it’s still important to me to realize a convincing portrait in my figurative compositions.  I am definitely pleased with how well I captured my sons’ features in this painting.

Gerard Wickham - The Card Trick (Detail) - 2018

Gerard Wickham - The Card Trick (Detail) - 2018
Hands are extremely complex and challenging to depict but are also visually fascinating, often resembling distinct organisms with unique personalities and physiques.  I’ve always loved drawing and painting hands, an interest in which this image gave me ample opportunity to indulge myself.  Painting feet is another passion of mine, and, if my intended tableau will rationally allow it, I will always request that my models remove their footwear when posing.

Gerard Wickham - The Card Trick (Detail) - 2018

Gerard Wickham - The Card Trick (Detail) -2018

Gerard Wickham - The Card Trick (Detail) - 2018
During our photo shoot, my son was seated at an inexpensive folding card table that I was just using as a prop, fully intending to replace it in the painting with something more visually interesting later on.  While searching the internet for a suitable prototype, I came across the single image of a substantial and ornate mahogany table.  Even though I understood that recreating the complex design of the legs would be torture, I knew immediately that this was the table I would use in my painting.  I changed its dimensions a bit and redefined its structure to compensate for the image’s lower vantage point.  Then I applied logically the lighting described in the painting, inventing reflections and primary and secondary light sources.  The results are fairly convincing, and the paint handling is consistent with that of the remainder of the work.

My wife made one of her rare visits up to my studio when the painting was about half complete and commented that this work was a companion piece to another painting I executed about eight years ago: Three Tangerines.  Her observations are usually pretty astute, and in this instance she was right on target.  I had been thinking the same thing for some time.  Both paintings describe the subtle interaction of two individuals and explore themes of domination and suspicion.  There is a quiet tension in both works that remains unclarified but suggests a larger narrative.  

Gerard Wickham - Three Tangerines - 2010
Ambiguity is an essential element in my work, but it must be administered at the right dosage.  Too much ambiguity and the painting becomes nonsensical and irrelevant.  Too little and it loses all poetry and becomes illustration.  (By the way, I really do enjoy good illustration, but its most common purpose is to make tangible those images which the word has conjured up yet the mind is incapable of grasping.  Sometimes the reader needs to actually see the bilge of a pirate ship, Martians invading Los Angeles or fur-clad troglodytes fending off a T-Rex with sharpened sticks.  Most often, the illustrator’s job is to make concrete that which is merely evoked, the opposite of what the best fine art strives to accomplish.)  I addressed in an earlier blog entry that as I’ve grown older I have become more interested in presenting subtle nuance and suggestion in my work rather than overtly explicit or disturbing imagery.  At this point ambiguity has become an essential doorway to entice the viewer to engage with my work.  I use the word “doorway” to mean a lure or an incentive to perform further visual or mental exploration of a work and, hopefully, an invitation to extend the experience into the realm of personal invention.

Perhaps I can further demonstrate how ambiguity enhances art by providing an example from literature.  Two authors who address ambiguity in very different ways are Ayn Rand and Dostoyevsky.  Rand abhors ambiguity.  Her characters and plotlines are contrived with the sole purpose of convincing an audience of her personal philosophy, and her novels are therefore illustrative.  Dostoyevsky embraces ambiguity.  He allows his characters to function independently of his own intentions.  I’ve often felt when reading Dostoyevsky that I’m joining the author in studying live organisms under a microscope.  Dostoyevsky provides the sample, the slide and the microscope, but he doesn’t rigidly ordain how those organisms will perform.  Often characters who embrace philosophies contradictory to the author’s own beliefs are extremely sympathetic and assert their viewpoints quite convincingly.  Dostoyevsky creates the paradigm from which he and his readers can examine the human condition in 19th century Russia and draw independent conclusions from that examination.  His novels are all the richer for this approach.

Certainly there are many hooks to pull a viewer into a painting.  Paint handling is a big one for me.  Technical virtuosity will always entice me to study a painting more carefully.  I especially admire artists who apply paint intuitively and impulsively, leaving the process of an image’s construction visible.  An innovative compositional structure will often encourage more thorough consideration from an audience.  Unquestionably, when looking at representational art, subject matter and content will play a key role in determining if a work piques a viewer’s interest.  Perhaps it is ambiguity which sustains that interest.

At any rate, I hope that my seemingly simple image of two young men engaged in some harmless entertainment will inspire some serious consideration and sustained reflection from viewers.  I must admit that I’m relieved to have this work completed.  In my first four months of retired life, it’s important to have gained something… well, at least in addition to the nearly ten pounds which apparently have established residence at my gut.  Big lunches are evidently a very dangerous commodity.

As always, I encourage readers to comment here.  If you would prefer to comment privately, you can email me at

Please note: I had collected a good number of images and a lot of material with the intention of exploring how ambiguity functions in the work of a selection of well-known artists.  But as I was writing this blog entry, I realized it was running a bit long and needed to come to a merciful conclusion.  So you can anticipate a Part II to this entry topic in the near future.

No comments: