Friday, August 31, 2012

At the Edge

Donato Giancola
The Hobbit:  The Expulsion (2001)

Several years ago, Brooks Joyner, CEO of The Allentown Art Museum of the Lehigh Valley, was invited on a journey, one sure to have pitfalls and perils and the certainty of encounters with dragons.  It began with a chance encounter with a young fantasy artist by the name of Jeremy Caniglia, who must have spoken passionately about his chosen genre to the museum director.  By the time their conversation was over, Joyner had heard the artists' perspective on the history of fantasy art, its connections with the art of the late 19th century and with the artists of the Golden Age of Illustration, its marginalization with the rise of Modern Art, and the weird dichotomy in which the field finds itself today, where it is still not awarded the respect it deserves in the fine art world, yet its images are extremely popular with the public and regularly form the basis of every new Hollywood blockbuster.  With this, the seed of an idea was planted in Joyner's head.

N.C. Wyeth
The King's Henchman (1927)

Robh Ruppel
Harbinger House (1996)

Shortly thereafter, Joyner was invited to judge artworks at Illuxcon, a symposium for fantasy artists held in the nearby city of Altoona, Pennsylvania.  While there, with his conversation with Caniglia still on his mind, Joyner saw the brilliant works being created by contemporary fantasy artists (some right before his eyes), and he decided that his museum would be the perfect venue for "officially" honoring this artwork and bringing it to the general public.  Enlisting the aid of Patrick and Jeannie Wilshire - the founders of Illuxcon, the Illustration Exchange, and the Association of Fantasy Art - plans were laid to organize a groundbreaking new show.

The result, after three years of hard work and planning, is At the Edge, currently on view at The Allentown Art Museum.  With 165 pieces of art on display, it is, to date, the largest show of its kind, and by placing modern fantasy illustration alongside the genre's precursors, it may be the first show to ever present fantasy art in its historical context.  Artworks range from William Blake's 1797 book illustrations for Night Thoughts through Julie Bell's A Dream About a Dragon and a Tree, created in 2012, specifically for this exhibit.

Though other museums have deemed such fantastical and illustrative art as "low-brow," and refused to "legitimize" it by putting it on display, The Allentown Art Museum took a chance by forecasting the public's tastes, and the risk has paid off.   The show itself has been a great success, opening with a strong attendance, and continuing with a steady stream of visitors throughout its run.  According to Chris Potash, the Manager of Marketing and Public relations for the museum, what has been a great surprise has been the number of young people and families coming in to see the show, the unexpected benefit of which is the new generation of museum-goers making their first trip to the facility.  And rather than presenting a show which could be easily dismissed, the museum has instead created an exhibit which has drawn significant attention, from newspaper and radio interviews, to television spotlights.

Justin Sweet
Elf Princess (2009)

Franklin Booth
In the Golden Land of Dreams (1913)

Michael C. Hayes
Procession (2012)

And what of Mr. Joyner and his journey?  Well, like characters of a fantasy novel who leave the comfortable world, jump the garden gate, and seek adventure, it is never possible to travel "there and back again" without bringing a little of that other world back with you.  Dedicated as he now is to the promotion of this "fantastical realism," he has now offered the Allentown Art Museum of the Lehigh Valley as the home for next year's Illuxcon symposium. 

Allen Williams
Love Lost (2010)

J.C. Leyendecker
Woman Kissing Cupid (1923)

Matthew Stewart
Battle Under the Mountain (2010)

Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting the At the Edge exhibition, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.  Had it been just a show of contemporary fantasy illustration, I would have enjoyed it, but with the addition of works by Edmund Blair Leighton, Dean Cornwell, N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle, Franklin Booth, Joseph Clement Coll, Howard Chandler Christy, Edmund Dulac, J.C. Leyendecker, Willy Pogany, Arthur Rackham, and Frank Schoonover, I was blown away.  

Michael Whelan
Weird of the White Wolf (1976)

Organized in such a way as to not group the works by time period (with the exception of a small wall dedicated to 1950s pulp illustration), it was a treat to see the works intermingled.  Some works, like Iain McCaig's Alice (2001) blended  in timelessly with other watercolors from a hundred years earlier, while Edmund Blair Leighton's Footsteps (1915) could have easily been attributed to one of the modern masters.

Edmund Blair Leighton
Footsteps (1915)

James Gurney
Garden of Hope (1992)

Many familiar artworks are there, including several from icon Frank Frazetta, who lived much of his life in the nearby Poconos.  My personal favorites, however, which I was glad to finally see in person, were the aforementioned Footsteps by Blair Leighton, The Garden of Hope (1992) by James Gurney, and two sculptures by Thomas Kuebler: The Mythical Menagerie of Doctor Baltus Bagoon (2010) and Cletus & Shorty Hunt Snipe (2011).

Thomas Kuebler
Doctor Bagoon (detail)

Thomas Kuebler
The Mythical Menagerie of Doctor Baltus Bagoon (2010)

If you are close enough to visit the exhibit, I encourage you to do so.  There are only a few week left before the show closes on September 9th.  Let's show our support for the artists involved, the Wilshires, Brooks Joyner, and the rest of the staff at the Allentown Art Museum of the Lehigh Valley by making the remaining days of At the Edge as popular as the first.

The Allentown Art Museum of the Lehigh Valley is located at 31 North Fifth Street in Allentown, Pennsylvania, just a short distance from Interstate 78.  It is open from 11 AM to 5 PM Tuesday through  Saturday, and from 12 PM to 5 PM on Sunday.  For directions, please visit the museum website.

Mark Zug
Sands of Gorgoroth (2011)

Scott Gustafson
Pegasus and the Muses (2007)

Darrell K. Sweet
The Slaying of Glaurung (1982)

For those unable to attend the exhibit, there is a catalog available for At the Edge, available in limited quantities.  For those who attended the show already, but were unable to purchase the previously sold-out catalog, the catalog currently available is from the second printing.  Contact the museum store for ordering information.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Art is Hard

Horace Vernet
l'Atelier (1822)

In 1822, French artist Horace Vernet painted l'Atelier, a picture which, through the many engravings made of it, was to become an extremely popular image with the public.  In it, Vernet, who stands just off center with his back to the viewer, is fencing with his pupil Ledieu, in what can only be a brief distraction from painting, as the two men still hold their palettes and brushes in their left hands as they trade blows with the foils in their right hands.  Duchesne, another of Vernet's students, rests nearby against a chair, casually holding a rifle.  Artist Robert Fleury sits at an easel in the left hand of the image while Monsieur de Forbin, Director of Museums for France, closely observes.  Just behind de Forbin, painter and engraver Eugène Lami leans on a piano, played by the composer Amédée de Beauplan, and blows a horn while another man, Montcarville, accompanies him on the drum.  Among the remaining inhabitants of the room, there are soldiers (in fact, almost every man in the painting was at one time a soldier), a man reading a newspaper (Colonel Jean-Charles Langlois), two resting boxers (Monfort and Lehoux, two more of Vernet's students), a dog barking at a deer, a monkey sitting upon the shoulder of Vernet's pupil Ladurner, and last, but not least, Le Régent, the not-so-inconspicuos white horse in the back corner of the room.   Though in actuality a radical political image with thinly veiled allusions to Bonapartist loyalties, most saw it as one in a long-line of pictures of artists in their studios, especially in later years, when items within the work, such as the outlawed black hat hanging on the wall, had lost their significance.

Though friends did confirm that the actual attic studio which Vernet depicted was often a real-life scene of crowds and rowdiness, it is unlikely that the chaos he portrayed was anything but fictional.  Vernet's friend, Charlet, in reaction to the public's belief in the veracity of the scene, commented:  "People imagine him all the time fencing with one hand and painting with the other :  horn-playing here, boxing there.  Rubbish!  He knows well enough how to shut himself away when he writes his letters and only addresses the envelopes when in company."¹  In other words, Vernet knew when to buckle down and paint, and knew also when to put on a show for the public.  Yet the populace believed that this scene was typical of the working habits of artists.

Why was it so easy for the public to believe that this was the life of the artist?  Certainly artists contributed to the idea;  many artists in the 19th century relished portraying themselves as eccentric outsiders, and would have themselves photographed in staged poses, wearing such items as velvet smoking jackets and fezzes while painting.  But what seems more likely as a contributing factor to the view that an artist's life was filled with frivolity and ease is a miscomprehension on the part of the public as to the idea of talent, and what role talent plays in making a painting.

For many, talent among artists is considered purely an intrinsic trait - either one has it, or one does not - and everything comes easily for the talented because they were born with their skill.  Unfortunately, it follows that with this view of talent, effort is not required to make a work of art, and therefore, as David Bayles and Ted Orland said in their book Art & Fear, "the better the artwork, the easier it would have been to make."²  (see Underpaintings: Words of Wisdom, June 15, 2009).

The United States in particular, views talent this way.  Psychologists Harold Stevenson and James Stigler discovered this in a study they conducted in 1986, in which they compared mathematical achievements between Chinese, Japanese, and American students.  American children, Stevenson and Stigler discovered, were taught to believe that math was a talent;  Chinese and Japanese students on the other hand, were raised with the idea that math was a skill which could be improved upon with practice.  In a study in which 8 year old American and Asian students were given a really difficult math problem, and a time limit of 15 minutes in which to solve it, American students gave up after 30 or 40 seconds;  meanwhile, the Asian students typically continued working past the 15 minute mark.  What this reveals is that the American students, believing they did not have the natural aptitude for the subject, gave up easily - working harder was not even considered.  A person with a talent for math, therefore, could be expected to solve the problem in a fraction of the time without much effort;  a person without math talent would be wasting their time putting effort into something for which they had no skill.

Perhaps a  better way to view talent is put forth by Malcolm Gladwell, a writer for The New Yorker and author of the book Outliers:  The Story of Success.  Gladwell, who has devoted many hours of research to examining how one's culture affects their approach to achieving success, believes that talent is nothing more than a willingness to work hard.  He subscribes to the "10,000 hour rule," which argues that a person cannot be truly good at any cognitively complex field without first putting in 10,000 hours of practice, or roughly, four hours of practice per day for ten years.³ "Practice," says Gladwell, "isn't the thing you do once you're good.  It's the thing you do that makes you good."⁴

This is not to say that some people are not born with natural aptitude - certainly some people exhibit unusually high skills at an early age - but talent is not in and of itself, success.  As Bayles and Orland have indicated, "talent may get someone off the starting blocks faster,"⁵ but it is hard work and effort that win the race.

According to Gladwell, Bayles, and Orland, therefore, talent among artists makes up only a portion of what is needed to create a piece of art; effort is the more significant component.

Of course, Americans do value hard work, and talent, but their view of talent is often in direct opposition to the idea of "working hard."  Visual artists, more than any other group for whom the word "talented" applies, seem to suffer from the public's misguided idea that what artists do is easy.  And since what they do is considered easy, and just a simple product of innate skill, it is not as valued as something which is perceived to require much effort.  (unfortunately, this is but one of many reasons why art is undervalued in America).

This idea of art being easy is then perpetuated in American public schools, where children are not taught about the difficulties inherent in making art.  Art classes are not highly regarded within school curriculums.  In my personal life, I was saddened to learn that this was not just the attitude of parents, but of the academic teachers as well.  When I obtained my certificate of eligibility to teach art in the state of New Jersey, two non-art teachers whom I respect greatly, said to me, "It must be great to teach art, where there is no pressure, and the kids can just come in, have a good time, and feel good about themselves."  And these were two well-educated people who love art.  What happened to the idea that students were there to learn?  That a skill could be transmitted to the students?  Sure, the students should enjoy the class, but it is not meant to be a free period within their school day.  And in an age where anything can be art, and all taste in art is subjective, how are students to be taught objective skills?  In most cases, students are then not graded on ability, but on attendance and attentiveness.  At best, they graduate having experienced many mediums, but very few exit the school system respecting the labor required to create a work of art.  

This translates to a society where artists are often considered lazy, and where a work of art is not prized for the effort that went into making it, in addition to the value it is assigned based of its aesthetic appearance.  Where this becomes shockingly apparent is in again comparing America to China, and the varying way the two nations value representational art in particular.  Recently, Paul McCormack, president of the America China Oil Painting Artists League (ACOPAL), brought the difference to light when he related a story about meeting a young Chinese portraitist who had just completed a commission for a price of over one million US dollars - an amount an American artist is never likely to see.  Is it perhaps the respect the Chinese have for hard work, rather than talent, which has led to such high prices?  McCormack does not yet know, but he hopes that through an exchange of ideas with China, ACOPAL can bring the Chinese appreciation for representational art to back to America.

What artists do is far from being easy, no matter how much talent they possess.  If ever it appears to be effortless, it is because they are well-practiced, and have put in the effort to be good at their profession (10,000 hours and enough yards of canvas to outfit a sailing fleet, or enough clay to fill in the Grand Canyon).  Any work of art is therefore never a creation of a few hours of labor, but of a lifetime of observing and creating culminating in the work at hand.

Vernet's Studio may appear wild and fun, but it masks the true work being done, and only mirrors to the public their own view of the Bohemian artist's lifestyle.  If the same public were to read the letters written home by 19th century art students (those in the midst of their 10,000 hours), they would understand the true experience of these young artists.  Most letters said something to the effect that what these students were doing, their chosen profession, was the hardest thing they had ever done, but that the more they did it, the better they wanted to be at it, and the more satisfaction they received from their effort.

Art is hard - it requires a significant amount of work - but in that also lies its reward.

¹ Letheve, Jacques, Daily Life of French Artists in the Nineteenth Century, (George Allen and Unwin Ltd., London, 1972), p. 91.
² Bayles, David and Ted Orland, Art & Fear:  Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, (Image Continuum Press, Santa Cruz, 2001), p. 27.
³ Reingold, Jennifer, "Secrets of their Success," Fortune Magazine, November, 2008, retrieved August 26, 2012 from [http//].
⁴ Gladwell, Malcolm, Outliers:  The Story of Success, (Little, Brown and Co., New York, 2008), p. 42.
⁵ Bayles and Orland, p. 27.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Incognito Project

Two years ago, Alabama artist Terry Strickland invited a group of friends over to her house for a special party.  When the guests arrived, they were asked some questions, which can be assumed to have been something like, "What do you want to be when you grow up?  Who are you when the lights go out, when no one is looking?  Are you wearing a disguise right now?  If not, what disguise would you most like to wear;  if yes, then who's hiding in there?  Who do you want to be?"  Strickland then directed the group to a pile of costumes, and what resulted was an all-day photo-shoot in which Strickland collected images of her friends dressed as their alter egos.  These reference photos became the basis for The Incognito Project, a series of paintings which Strickland will debut later this year at the Art Folk Gallery in Birmingham, Alabama.

To commemorate the Incognito exhibition, Strickland has decided to print an accompanying book featuring the twenty-five paintings in the show.  Written from the perspective of Strickland's own alter ego, a film-noir style detective, the book will be organized like a police case file, and cover the individuals participating in the masquerade from the initial photo-shoot through the completion of each of the portraits.  Every painting is to be presented in a high resolution image, accompanied by close-up details, with commentary on the work written by the creative team at Matter Deep Publishing (the  Strickland family's own small and independent publishing house). Graham Boettcher, PhD Yale University and Curator of American Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art  has written the introduction to the collection.

The Incognito Project book has been designed and is ready to go, but has not yet been printed - there is still a shortage in the funds needed to finance this undertaking.  This is where Terry Strickland can use your help.  

Strickland and her daughter-in-law Amy (the art director of Matter Deep Publishing) have started a Kickstarter pledge page to generate the remaining amount needed to publish the book.  If this is something you would like to see come to fruition, then help a fellow-artist out and donate to the book's production.  Any amount is helpful - a single dollar will even earn you your mention in the book's credits.  For $50, you can also pre-order the limited-edition book signed and hand numbered by Strickland from the Kickstarter page, and save 33% off the projected retail price.  

Please visit The Incognito Project pledge page to see the full list of Thank You gifts available at the different donation levels.

Strickland's exhibition of The Incognito Project will take place at the Art Folk Gallery, Young & Vann Building, 1731 First Avenue North, in Birmingham, Alabama.  The show opens November third.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sneak Peek: Michael Klein Solo Show

In the Studio, oil on linen, 10 X 15½ in.

"There was a time when I thought I would spend my life trying to paint something beautiful.
Now, I would change that, and say instead - 
I will spend my life painting what is already beautiful."  

~  Michael Klein

Corner of the Studio, oil on linen, 11¼ X 18¾ in.

Earlier this year, Bronx artist Michael Klein returned to Buenos Aires, where he keeps a studio that he and his father-in-law built several years ago.  As much as he loves the feeling of connectedness he experiences in New York City, there is quietness in his surroundings and in himself which he seems to find only in Argentina.  The paintings which he produces there reflect the bittersweet introspection he faces every time he sits down to closely observe and record his subject, and they are as much self-portraits, as they are beautiful renditions of the natural world in and about his studio.

Opening this week at Collins Galleries in Massachusetts is a solo show of Klein's paintings, most of which he created during his recent trip to South America.  The show, which opens August 24th, primarily focuses on the artist's still life paintings, with a special concentration on his floral paintings, for which Klein is quite well-known (his DVD, Flower Painting, was reviewed on Underpaintings in 2009).  The exhibition begins with a reception from 5:00 - 8:00 PM next Friday, and runs through September 12.

Collins Galleries is located in Orleans, Massachusetts.  It specializes in American, traditional, realist paintings from the 20th and 21st centuries, with a special interest in works created directly from life. During the summer, it is open from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM, Tuesday through Thursday, and from 10:00 AM through 8:00 PM Fridays and Saturdays.  To schedule an appointment to visit the gallery on a Sunday or Monday, please call 508.255.1266.

If you scroll to the middle of the post, there is a You Tube video created by American Painting Video Magazine for the use of Artists on Art Magazine.  It shows Klein working in his New York studio, creating one of the paintings in the show.  The video was shot as part of an interactive feature which accompanied an article by Klein in the second issue of Artists on Art.

Diana Resting, oil on panel, 6 X 10 in.

Antique Sofa, oil on linen, 9¾ X 15½ in.

Studio Lunch, oil on paper, 9¼ X 12¼ in.

Spring (Studio Bench), oil on panel, 8 X 14 in.

Garden Pots, oil on linen, 10 X 16 in.

First Fruit (Peaches and Grapes), oil on linen, 11¾ X 15½ in.

Potted Plants and Plums, oil on linen, 13½ X 15¾ in.

Bouquet, oil on paper, 22 X 25 in.

Michael Klein painting Bouquet, as featured in Artists on Art Magazine

Bouquet demo

Las Flores, oil on panel, 24 X 36¼ in.

Rose Bouquet, oil on linen, 10¾ X 13½ in.

Two White Roses in a Glass Vase, oil on linen, 16 X 14 in.

Red and White Roses

Peonies, oil on panel, 8 X 12 in.

Spring Floral II, oil on linen, 8 X 12 in.

Spring Floral, oil on panel, 8 X 12 in.

Pink Rose and Purple Iris, oil on panel, 12 X 16 in.

White Roses, oil on panel, 12 X 16 in.

A Moment in Time, oil on panel, 20 X 24 in.

Arrangement on a Wooden Crate, oil on paper, 30 X 21½ in.

Silver Vase with Roses, oil on linen, 15 X 9¾ in.

Yellow Rose, oil on panel, 23¼ X 16½ in.

Wash Bowl, oil on panel, 20 X 24 in.

Karina Esperando
oil on linen, 48 X 24 in.

A Quiet Moment, oil on linen, 35 X 53 in.

Artist's Studio, Buenos Aires, oil on linen, 12½ X 12¾ in.

Daybreak, oil on panel, 4½ X 7½ in.

End of Day (Drying Sheets), oil on panel, 4½ X 7½ in.

Sliced Pineapple and Plums, oil on panel, 18 X 30 in.

Berries, oil on panel, 8 X 14 in.

Visual Music, oil on panel, 18 X 30 in.