Friday, February 25, 2011

Old Friends and the influence of Cronos

Yesterday, I visited my parents, who came out to Pittsburgh from the Susquehanna Valley, where I was born and raised. With foam sheets, brown paper, and white packing twine, my father had carefully wrapped the three paintings you see below.

There is a fourth painting, which belongs to the first image you see below, but it's not appropriate for all audiences...if you know what I mean. This, folks, is a family-friendly blog. *snort* Well, it is!

Savannah Schroll Guz, "Wounded" from the Cadaver Series (2002)
acrylic, paper, book pages, turquoise glitter
Where does this blue-veined nakedness come from you ask? Back in college, I saw a Mexican horror film called Cronos (1993). I didn't realize it until recently, but it was done by Guillermo del Toros. (To see a New Yorker-produced video exploring more of his monsters, click on his name). In Cronos, once the scarab watch inserts its hidden and scorpion-style brass stinger into the elderly man's body, he begins to change physiologically. He grows perceptibly younger, becomes incredibly pale. His blue veins show beneath his skin. He develops a taste for blood. So, in effect, he becomes a vampire. The vampire part, I'm not so enraptured by, but the physical changes were fascinating to me. I still remember them to this day. And in 2002, this continued to show up in my art. 
Savannah Schroll Guz, "Hangman II (Pierrot)" (2002)
acrylic, paper, black glitter

(detail) "Hangman II (Pierrot)"
(detail) "Hangman II (Pierrot)"
I was so excited to see that the background of "Hangman" actually contains a web of gorgeous black glitter, which apparently wasn't part of the first image of the painting I posted here on the blog. It looks beautiful in ambient light in the evenings...well, the black glitter does. The drooling dude with the orange head covering, well, not so much. 
Savannah Schroll Guz, "Hangman"
from the Cadaver Series (2002)
acrylic, paper, black glitter

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Bird Man is complete...and other stories

Savannah Schroll Guz, "Bird Man" (2011)
pen and printer ink on archival paper
 So, my dear Bird Man (not Icarus only because it's night when he falls from the sky), was completed night before last in between bouts of paper grading. Remember when he was nothing but a Peep Boy (or should I say Little Boy Peep?)
On another note, I'll be bringing old paintings back from the city today, along with my old Julian easel, which will be immensely helpful. Pictures of the new older paintings to come. I can't wait to see them. I almost feel like I'm being reuinted with old friends. Weird, I know.

Canvases in progress
Remember this painting? (click on "this painting" to see what the heck I'm talking about). A new pic of the progress appears at right. Did I mention that we're going to beekeepers this summer? Well, this is part of the inspiration. You can still see some of the underlying bones from the skeletal foot beneath the center bee on the right hand canvas, but it's heading in a different, much brighter direction now (i.e. no more dead stuff). 'Bout time it was completed, too. I've had that unfinished skeletal foot since at least early 2002.

"From Flannery's Flock" -- in progress
(Savannah is building tail feathers, slowly, layer by layer)

Also, I continue to work on the peacock painting, although it's in a slightly unsightly mess right now (see the pic at left). I'm building up color and detail in those extravagant tail feathers, so it looks a little wonky, flat, and unfinished right now. But good things take time...and effort.

Eventually, too, I plan to place them among poppies, and have two small glittery flies buzzing above their heads. Soon to come...soon to come.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Fascination with Robert Wilson

Robert Wilson
(photo credit)
Let's talk about the artist Robert Wilson. When I first saw Wilson's work--some theatrical installations of German Symbolist painter Franz von Stuck's works at the Villa Stuck in Munich back in 1997--I was completely smitten. At the same time, a collection of his drawings appeared on one of the top floors of The Residenz. They lay on felt in gleaming glass vitrines within a room whose wide windows offered both brilliant sunshine and the faint outline of the Alps (and realizing this inevitably increased my level of awe).

Granted, at Villa Stuck, he had some amazing paintings to reproduce in three-dimensions...take this one by Stuck, of the very un-feline looking Sphinx. Or this one, also by Stuck, depicting the face of Medusa.) Sadly, I can't find image records of the Villa Stuck exhibition online, but in Pittsburgh, I have a soft cover book detailing all the installations in bled-to-the-edges full-color. The book's title is the equally slick sounding, Steel Velvet.

Largely, Wilson is known for his theater and opera set designs, his lighting and costumes. Lately, however, he has been using stars (Brad Pitt, Robert Downey, Jr., Johnny know, the in Hollywood crowd) to create video portraits. These I'm less enthusiastic about because, in looking at them, I feel yanked back into the top-loading hopper of Hollywood's endlessly running publicity machine. It's a machine I try to escape from whenever possible. Aren't there other, lesser known figures you can use to create arresting images? Enough with these people. I see them all the time. Tell me a new story with new characters.

Show me a world I haven't seen before. A world as fabulous as this one....
Robert Wilson, still from "Fables de la Fontaine"
Photo Credit

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Process: Building Up Color

In the video below, I'm working on the peacock painting, which I've tentatively given the title: "From Flannery's Flock." I'm slowly building up layers of color. It's a relatively tedious process to get the birds to look three-dimensional, but one I enjoy.

Just below the video is a photograph of the progress so's not a fantastically lit picture and doesn't reveal the detail as well as it might. However, it does show the progress related to building color and detail, layer by layer. Incidentally, the "canvas" is textured upholstery fabric, so the ripples you see are not an illusion.

Savannah Schroll Guz, "From Flannery's Flock"
(detail of painting in progress)

Artists' Studios and Francis Bacon's Reece Mews Excavation

Artists in their studios.
(Photos by Joe Fig/specific photo credit)
Let's talk about studio spaces again. Specifically, let's talk about the studio spaces at left. I tend towards the chaos and plunder of the upper image.

Throughout college, although I had to be relatively neat because I shared studio space with other students, I pretty much wore my creative inclinations everywhere I went. There was no mistaking my academic major. My daily outfit consisted of a gray rag wool sweater (which, at one point, turned the sudsy water in my mother's washer a light brown because it was so dirty), some sort of T-shirt, jeans covered with acrylic smudges, and a pair of disintegrating, paint-covered construction boots sewn together with gleaming fishing wire in places where it had become necessary. Once, someone even stopped me in the dining hall to ask if I knew that I had paint all over my right ear lobe (not in my hair, but only because my hair at the time was buzzed short). Paint on the ear lobe likely happened because I used to keep the smaller paint brush I wasn't using--but might soon need--behind my ear like a pencil.

So, yes, throughout college, I was pretty much an ambulatory mess. But at the time, painting was such a part of my identity, I didn't care if I looked like a reprobate. To me, dressing like that meant that I could always sneak into the studio and work whenever I wanted. And because I had keys, I often did. I remember my junior and senior years of college being some of the happiest times of my life because my creativity was encouraged, especially by Sandy. (Sandy sometimes created in the studio while I was there, and often, after he made gestural paintings, he'd let the acrylic dry and then use the sink's vegetable sprayer to wash away the paint that had not congealed. This made haunting residual shapes, leaving the contour of puddled pigment. If you click on his name above, it will take you to a gallery of his paintings. "Approaching Storm," "The Gift", and "Center Holds," all pictured on the site, are paintings he started while I was still a student at Juniata. Each is dated to the late 90s and early 00s, so he likely worked on them more after I graduated in 1997. In fact, "The Gift" may have previously been called "Origin of the Milky Way", but I can't be 100% sure of that. I just remember associating the painting with the birth of star systems.)

Part of Francis Bacon's Reece Mews Studio.
Moved for display to Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin
c. 2005. (Photo credit)

Anyway, a few years ago, right around the time I moved to, end of 2005, maybe...I reviewed a book for Library Journal that discussed the movement of Francis Bacon's Reece Mews studio into a Dublin Gallery, called Hugh Lane. It was a gargantuan task...more like an excavation, since the curators recovered some 2,000 examples of Bacon's detritus. I'm talking sand, cotton, wool, discarded pastel crayons, and dust. Based on the photographs, Bacon mixed colors directly on the wall, and used that as his palette. The curators also indicated that he apparently applied paint with the plastic lids of his paint tubes because they were encrusted with pigments and discarded in strange places. Moreover, the man held on to corduroy pants and cut them into pieces so that he could press them into his paint to pattern it. Now, this is my kind of painter, although I would eventually find the piles of paper, empty paint tubes, and landslide of junk creatively debilitating. There has to be some kind of order to the chaos. But then again, maybe there was an idiosyncratic kind of order for him. 

Francis Bacon in his Reece Mews studio.
Check out the's covered with paint.
Was someone cleaning their brush or fooling around?
(photo credit)
Anyway, the curators at Hugh Lane put Bacon's studio back together just the way they found it, which had to be an incredible task for those mapping the location of detritus. I wonder how many notebooks were filled with graphed entries like: "yellow ochre paint tube, A-2.5." Ay!

In the picture of Bacon's studio above, look at the fantastic 1920s/30s mirror, whose silver is flaking away. I suspect it originally went to a waterfall-style vanity, with the gorgeous curved veneer so characteristic of that period. Around the mirror, Bacon cleaned his paint brushes. How do I know this is "cleaning" and not an attempt mixing paint? Based on the repetition of strokes, it looks like he was trying to modulate the liquidity on the brush, to get the brush the right consistency for the work he was doing. Just a guess...maybe he was actually just fooling around, painting around the mirror...a gesture that began with one color and something he simply continued in the moments he was trying to figure out what to do with the rest of what he was working on. Like taking a Twix break, you know?

The same can be said of his studio door. Look at this amazing business he's standing beside. It's a delicious kind of painted a big, functional Howard Hodgkin painting.

Monday, February 21, 2011


Ink drawing on monoprint in progress...
First, before I go any further, some huge, long overdue thanks go to my studio arts professor, Sandy (Alexander) McBride. I miss your classes very much, Sandy. Check out his beautiful paintings here.

Last night, while watching Part 2 of Any Human Heart, I began working in ballpoint on a monotype (a single ink impression on paper). Slowly, slowly, my bird man is taking shape.

The painting, below right, is actually on textured upholstery fabric that I stretched onto a painting frame. It still needs to be removed and stretched more tightly, but I can't find my staple gun, so I started to paint on it anyway. What's under the dioxizine purple and ultramarine blue beginnings of the sky? A gorgeous cadmium red. The gold will be the base of two peacocks. Just building up color, slowly, to create depth.
My parents are coming out to visit this week, and they are bringing with them four other paintings, one of which is the brother painting to "Hangman" and "Strung" (forgot what they look like? See them here).
Painting in progress: the gold segments will be peacocks;
the sky is just beginning to develop. Under the blue and purple
is cadmium red.

The final image here depicts that skeletal foot painting, which was originally part of the 'brother' painting that's coming from central-PA this week. Because my D.C. studio was pretty much wherever I could find space in my apartment, I sometimes did larger works as a series of canvases. Therefore, the foot and thigh bone of the 'brother' painting (I don't remember what I titled it) are what were originally on these canvases. I tried to turn them into something I could work with, some abstraction, but I now put a white glaze over each, so I can make another image emerge without losing the depth offered by the underlying shading.
Paintings in progress:
white glaze over original images

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Shivani's American Fiction in a Dismal State

Anis Shivani wrote the very astute essay, "American Fiction in Dismal State", which originally appeared in the magazine Pleiades. His main idea makes incredible sense. It made my heart beat faster to read it. Why? Because he has put into words all the inchoate thoughts I've had about the state of writing now. Specifically, why is American fiction so obsessed with microcosms, with the largely inconsequential. Write about anything broader, more political, anything that lacks sexual content or personal degradation, and you are likely to be marginalized or ignored entirely.

Just below, read the first paragraph of Shivani's essay and be sure to read the whole essay by clicking here:

"Contemporary American fiction has become cheap counseling to the bereaved bourgeois. Its scope is restricted too much to the trivial domestic sphere. It promotes grief, paralysis, inaction: a determinism for the post-politics society, where ideology has no place. Mired in appreciation of beautiful (or rather prettified) language for its own sake, without connection to ideology – although that is an ideology of its own, and perhaps the most corrosive and debilitating ideology of all – serious fiction writing today has lost any connection with a wide, appreciative readership. There are no more writer-oracles in America, nor even writer-visionaries, or writer-sages. There is only small writing, with small concerns, and small ambitions. Very little fiction today aims for a universal audience: the market segmentation of specific niches of writing forces writers to address discrete audiences, those who already read their particular brand of writing, while great possibilities of disrupting the fixed manners of reading go ignored."
                                                                           -- Anis Shivani, from "American Fiction in Dismal State"

Yes, yes, yes!!!!!! Why do we not hear more about this man's criticism?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Painting in Progress

So, between grading papers and working on our taxes (Michael's is easy-peasy--I'm done with his part already...but mine, mine is incredibly complicated. There are post office receipts, gas receipts, parking receipts, auction receipts for our vintage goods inventory, and--happily--income from, like, seven different sources. This involves a great deal of coffee, patience, and a level of organization and attention to detail that I frankly lack. )...anyway, between grading, finding receipts, and (ugh!) doing math, I'm taking canvas breaks. Here's yesterday's offering. Please note, this is far from done. I'm building up images, one layer at a time. After I finish the tree branches, it will get a white wash. And then the image building will start again.

Painting in progress.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Setting Up Studio Space

Savannah's 'new' studio space.
Q: Does that Glennfiddich cannister still have a bottle?
A: Sadly, kids, no it doesn't.  
It's gorgeous here in the panhandle. The birds are singing. They have completely mugged our bird feeder. There's cracked corn all over the front porch. But there is a scent in the air that tells me it won't be long before I'll be playing in the dirt again. It's a beautiful thing.

So...what are these photos of, you ask? Studio space, kids. We're back in the painting business. Maybe the painting will re-ignite my desire to write fiction, which, right now, feels deader than two-day-old roadkill. My teeth have been kicked in with my fiction so often now, I feel them somewhere down in my lower intestinal tract, clacking. (Incidentally, since I couldn't find it a home elsewhere, I posted a story at Fictionaut that I've been sitting on. You can read "Quid Pro Quo" here. It involves a steel mill, a casino, and a beautiful albino dear, with eyes like shimmering cataracts, that--hint, hint--symbolizes death.) I've got plenty of other 'homeless' stories, but they're still out in slush piles near and far, so I'll wait until they're formally rejected to post more at F'naut.) Anyway, it's high time for a switch up. Let's see what other realities we can make with pigment and line.

'New' studio space.
Q: Are you standing by the furnace, Savannah?
A: Why, yes I am.

So, the drawing/monoprint that I included in my last post sold on Etsy on Wednesday night, and I was (and still am) really excited about this. I did interpretive dance in the living room, when I got home from work and realized it had sold.

This morning, I set up studio space (pictured here...rough, I know, but it's a start....and yes, I really do know know that the hanging canvas needs to be re-stretched before I can actually start painting on it).

Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo, from the movie Frida
(photo credit)

I started thinking very seriously about painting again at Christmas, when they re-ran the movie Frida on cable. It was a visually opulent movie that glamorized just about everything, even Frida's physical and emotional pain (then again, don't most biographies offer a retrospective gilding, when the historical figure is celebrated?). Still, the movie made me see a studio again and remember the creative process, which is a kind of high all on its own...that is, when you're painting well. Also, Michael and I were back at my Mom and Dad's, where I got to see some of my old paintings, which put a little tickle in my brain--that sensation I get when I see something can be improved and that I am capable of doing it. When I look at Modernist works, I can sometimes feel the brush between my fingers and how I might move the paint to achieve a particular effect. Sometimes, I know the consistency needed to achieve a wash or a contour that is pale and finely limned.

The real Frida Kahlo in her studio.
(photo credit)

Okay, so enough talking, and a little more doing. We'll see what I can accomplish today, tomorrow, next week....In the meantime, enjoy a gallery of images by artist Meagan Donegan, who stains her pages with Blue Bottle espresso....look at the detail. Every whisker on the cow's face is evident, every dred-locked knot on the sheep's body is practically tangible.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Making stuff Again

The girl, she is back in the game, making things...and talking about herself in the third person. *tsk, tsk, tsk*   C'est ca, built from an old etching:

"Conjugal Lizard" 2011
Music for this moment? Try this:

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Bringing my past life as a painter into the present

"Hangman"from the Cadavers series
 Savannah Schroll, circa 2002
For as long as I can remember, I intended to be an artist. I drew pictures of princesses in ballpoint pen on promotional tablets sent by my father's plywood and Formica suppliers. I hammered together little wooden sculptures of flakeboard and screws (poor things, wham! wham! wham!) on Saturday mornings, while my father worked on cabinet orders.

Art was, you see, the only thing I ever stuck with. I was not graceful enough for ballet (I preferred to play in the rosin box, which completely ticked off my aging Hungarian ballet mistress). And because I could play by ear, I never learned how to read music, and so I was very gently "fired" from both piano and violin lessons. My devotion to horses similarly waned in fifth grade, after I was thrown from one that spooked. And, while lying on the ground trying to breathe, I realized their size in relation to my own. I subsequently didn't get back on one for many years. Finally, although I may have looked athletic, I had absolutely no interest in sports. Instead, I drew and eventually, I painted...not very well at first. My efforts were confined to still lives of flowers and subjects that ran somewhere along the lines of the commerical "Starving Artist" shows that set up shop on the outskirts of Pittsburgh and sell palette knife paintings and bland landscapes intended to hang above sofas. No offense starving artists, but ugh. Can we get more visceral perhaps? No? Well, okay. I tried.

I'll skip over all the intermediary steps. There were many. I made art throughout college and was even granted an office in Shoemaker Galleries by my studio art professor (something for which I was very grateful). But what eventually happened to me was that instead of going to art school (believe me, I tried, and was roundly rejected by every program I applied to), I went to Germany. Specifically (and happily), in the same month I was turned down by RISD and Cranbrook, I got the Fulbright. This, along with graduate school, into which I was routed right after I got back from Germany, changed the way I approached my career and my future. I started to fall in love with ideas and slowly (very slowly) pulled away from interest in process and product.

"Munich, Christmas Day"
Savannah Schroll, 1997
 Still, I continued to paint while I was in Germany. I had devoted a corner of my small apartment to painting. Here, I propped 8" x 10"-sized canvases against the baseboard, and I hunkered down to paint on them (because there was absolutely no nailing anything to the wall in a Studentenwerk building. Das war unglaublich und verboten). I had little pots of acrylic paint, plastic containers filled with colored water, half-stiffened paint brushes lay on newspapers spread across the floor. I distinctly remember on Christmas Day of 1997, I sat in that corner with a desk lamp and worked on an abstract portrait of my conception of Munich, which hangs in my kitchen to this day (it's there at right)--a small jumble of onion domes, little goats, and Georgia O'Keeffe-style ethereal approaches to nature. Okay, there's a little Franz Marc in there, too. But I'd been to Murnau to see Kandinsky and Muenther's house, so that's to be expected, I guess.

I was actually pretty productive throughout graduate school, although I don't have those paintings in image form to post here. They still hang in the Pittsburgh apartment. Right before I moved to Washington in the summer of 2000, I was even involved in a group show on the Northside, called "Pilot One", which we held in the old Pittsburgh Public Theater prop shop (whose inside rooms we demolished for the owner as payment for use of the space...that, friends, was a dirty job that left us entirely soot covered, so that nothing but the pinks of our inner lips and the whites of our eyes showed. Really. It was that dirty.)

Shortly after I got to D.C., I took the slides from my college painting portfolio, sent them off by mail, and scored my very first appearance in a literary journal: I became the featured artist in the fall 2000 issue of Folio, American University's literary magazine. I was completely over the moon, convinced this was just the beginning of a painting career. I actually wrote an artist's statement that was, more or less, my first foray into real writing, a real hitching of my emotions to language.

"Strung" from the Cadavers series
Savannah Schroll, circa 2002

Not long after that, I was part of a group show in New York City, in a gallery on the Avenue of the Americas, just a short walk to Times Square. It was August, which I've been told is the worst time to show and was just an opportunity for the gallery to fill open wall space until the real exhibition season began in September.  But I didn't care about this nay-saying. I had two paintings in a New York City gallery, and what more could a young artist ask for? I was thrilled, too, because when I got into the space, I saw that the larger painting (which I later donated to the Harrisburg public television station for an art auction, where it sold--I hope it has a good home!) was behind the bar, where everyone got to see it while they were waiting for drinks. Somewhere, I have pictures. I have to find the pictures of me, standing with my drink, looking slightly overwhelmed because there were a lot of people--a crush of humanity in that August heat. But I was also completely excited, thinking this was the beginning of something.

Later, I was involved in Artists' Space's Night of 1,000 Drawings, a benefit for the organization. One of my drawings sold for fifty bucks, and again, I was so excited that my work might hang on someone's wall--a complete stranger would like something I made enough to buy it. Even if the good cause helped the transaction along, they had chosen my work over the 999 others that were available. And certainly that was something amazing. I know a woman bought it because Artists' Space provided me with her name and address (I suppose to encourage contact for future sales), although I lost the sheet with the name long ago.

Ha! Ha! Look what I found!
My Smithsonian Libraries staff picture,
winter/spring 2002.

So I painted in D.C., and was involved in the inaugural year of Art-o-matic, where I did an installation in the basement of the old Lowe's building near the Tenleytown Metro Station (it had the hardest concrete walls I have ever encountered, and I, at once point, had a hammered finger to prove it). At the time, I also started some critical essays, and I tried a little fiction, which was totally horrible. Yet, in the evenings, after work, I remember using the dim hallway leading to my bathroom as a place to hang my larger works, but I couldn't back up to get perspective, and so I gave those up and worked instead on what I could lay on the floor or put on my easel. One night, on a tip, I ran out to Tacoma Park, Maryland just off the red line. There, I looked at studio space, but it was small, divided by walls on wheels. It lacked a direct water source, was well over an hour from my place by subway and then bus, and it required a $200 per month rental fee. I kept working in my apartment. 

Throughout this period, I searched for gallery representation, intermittently but not very seriously, and I did not find it. September 11 happened, and my works got considerably darker (see the one above). I didn't even register this darkness was happening, but the evidence is pretty plain to me now.

When I moved back to Pennsylvania, I painted less often because I was no longer living in my own space. I could not be as messy. Moreover, I had much less privacy to try out ideas that might have been unpleasant for a parent to look at. My mother saw works from my "cadaver series," and she began to ask if I wanted to talk with a counselor.

My Dad liked having my paintings around, regardless of the subject (one of what I consider to be one of my more terrible works from high school still hangs, unframed, in the hallway outside their breakfast area...he also has some of my artistic disasters hanging on the walls in his basement workshop, and I'm very glad for this). Anyway, I distinctly remember that a nude of a former boyfriend was temporarily stored upside down in my parents' living room (I had intended to auction this work off at another public television fundraiser, but following the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction nonsense, my painting of a naked male didn't even make it on camera. Instead, it came back, unsold). While this painting was in the living room, temporarily forgotten, I had some friends over, one of whom was very religious. I told the two who arrived first to make themselves comfortable, and I would bring in snacks. Standing at the top of the stairs leading into the living room, I saw, in one glance, that I had made a mistake in not turning the painting around. There the two girls sat, having turned their chairs 180-degrees so they did not have to confront genitals. I honestly had not done that on purpose. The painting had become white noise to me, and I didn't think about it still being there until I saw Heidi and Audrey sitting squarely in front of it, Heidi's mouth, one tightly closed, horizontal line. At first, I didn't know whether to apologize or say nothing. I chose to apologize and turned the painting around to face the wall. It's still somewhere at my parents' house, although I don't know where Dad has stashed it.

Sadly, almost nothing of my public identity as a painter exists anymore, except (to my delight), I found that I am still listed in the Washington Artists' Directory. Of course, this is outdated news, since I left D.C. in 2002, but there is my old phone number, my old email address, and a painting that hung over my dining room table. (Scary, that, yes? Really, girl? Over the dining room table? Did you not have many people to dinner? I can't imagine why.) Wait, which painting? The one that opens this post. Absolutely cadaverous.

Tonight, there is canvas stretched over a frame in the basement, waiting for me. I pulled out my vat of gesso, which I sniffed to determine freshness. There's no mold, so that's hopeful...even though I know it's nearly a decade old. I sensed that, with all this fiction-related rejection nonsense, my creative fire was going dim. And creative fire is, in part, what gives Savannah her go. I want to feel that creative glow again, since it radiates in all directions and sheds warm light on everything. It's something I will never be finished with, something I don't ever want to be finished with. So now, I expand my horizon in another direction and point both feet that way for a little while. I don't even really know how I ever got off that path in the first place.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Artists in Their Studios

Mmmmm....the beauty of painting studios. Scrumptiousness.

Here's a shout out to a fantastic blog, dedicated to artists in their studios. Check it out here.

"The artist's studio is, at various times and in equal parts, a laboratory, workshop, playground, refuge, battleground, arena, testing ground, and hiding place."
                                                        -- Thomas Ganzevoort, artist and academic librarian

An artist I've been thinking about a lot lately is Cecily Brown. I remember, back in 2000, just before I got my master's degree, I was on a stationary gym bike with a Vanity Fair magazine, which considerably brightened my hour-long, pedaling-to-nowhere insanity: it profiled a number of New York artists, many of them under 40. Cecily Brown was one of them. To me, she is equal parts Willem de Kooning and Francis Bacon, with a liberal dash of Jackson Pollock. Brown, who was born in London, came to New York and had a 1997 show at Deitch Projects that, from all accounts, blew the lid off the art world in NYC....or so the story goes. I've been interested in Brown's work, and will continue to follow what she's up to. But more on that later....

Friday, February 11, 2011

How to be a Domestic Goddess

Cream Cheese Frosting and Frozen Carrots
Q: Is that powdered sugar all over the place?
A: Indeed it is.

I am a fully domesticated female. This was not always the case. And no, this does not mean that I wet myself in the house or have failed repeated paper training attempts. No, no, no. It means that I used to be a complete rube in the kitchen.

Years ago, I remember standing in front of my two miniature burners set in the small stainless steel countertop of my Munich apartment, trying to figure out what had made the gorgeous pool of translucent blue goo near the burners. Well, I had made myself pancakes that evening, and I had gotten the burners pretty hot in the process. Months before, at the department store Hertie, I had purchased very cheap silverware, forks and spoons with pretty plastic handles. This, friends, was what had melted and was re-coagulating on my stainless steel cooktop.

A few months later, I was standing in front of those same gas ring-sized electric burners, and I was complaining about the watery consistency of my sundried tomato cream sauce. Believe me, this may sound like a particularly advanced culinary project for one so admittedly incapable, but I was not being an adventurous cook. I was merely copying a receipe my Mom often made when I was home. I stirred. I stirred some more. It simply would not thicken. My boyfriend at the time, a linguist for whom I was cooking, came up to the stove, looked into the pot, pulled at his goatee and said casually, "Maybe you can make a roux?"

"A what?" I asked, still looking down at this runny salmon-colored offering. Momentarily, my brain answered, you'll rue the day you suggested this.

"You know, a little flour in water?" He looked amused, twisting his whiskers between his thumb and forefinger.

"How do you know this?" I asked. This was early1998, the era before total Food Network domination.

He shrugged, "I learned to cook for myself in college."

Yeah, but a roux? Who makes a roux in college? I spent my college years heating up Ramen noodles and eating Pop Tarts, for pete's sake.

Fast forward to 2000, when I was dating this man. He had cooked for me, so I decided to cook something for him...bake something, actually. At the time, I did not understand the intricate chemistry of baking. Me, read cook books? Surely you jest. I played with acrylic paint and polymer clay, not sugar and flour. Consequently, I had no idea that too much liquid and too much baking powder meant a small culinary catastrophe. Soon, the cute little cupcakes I intended for said boyfriend were running over the sides of the muffin tin and sizzling on the bottom of the oven. But this was not the nightmare part. No, the nightmare began as my oven began emitting thin ribbons of gray smoke from its vents. This eventually turned into giant plumes of black smoke.

Sadly, I had a very touchy fire alarm. It often went off when I blew out a candle in my bedroom. And while I knew the damn thing would likely begin its piercing squeal, I did not have the sense to take the cupcakes out of the oven. (It should be noted this extraorindarily delightful auditory device was not wired to the fire department, so no clanging red engine ever arrived, much to my relief).

No, Poindexter here opened every window and stood flapping a wet tea towel for all she was worth in the direction of these windows, hoping to usher out the plume of noxious odor (look at that carmelization!) that was issuing like a forest fire from my range. When I finally got things under control, I cracked the hall door, and realized that someone had placed the floor's giant chrome-plated fire exstinguisher on my threshhold. Har, har, neighbors. Har, har, har.

Yeah...looking back on it now, I think I was pretty stupid, too. I will tell you, though, that the part of the cupcakes that baked around the edges were actually pretty good, although they formed one solid semi-leaden mass across the top of the muffin tin. Hard to get out, that.

My mother, by comparison, is a fantastic cook, and even though I remember her having lit up her oven mits several times when I was in high school (I'm serious...once, I heard her calling "help!" from the kitchen while I was reading a Rolling Stone article on, of all people, John Holmes.) I often wondered where that culinary genius had gone and why it had passed me over. Certainly my great grandmother, a farm woman, had been locally famous for her pies, a bit of useful knowledge spread about by eager farmhands who liked to work on the Leib dairy because of the lunches she served.

So, based on my track record, I began to think that perhaps the "cooks well" gene was actually a recessive trait, and I got the "makes a mean cheese egg" gene from my Papa. However, things are getting better.

Around the time I attempted to make cupcakes for B. Stanley, I read an article in the New York Review of Books (maybe it was The New Republic...I don't remember exactly) about Nigella Lawson's How to Be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking. The reviewer claimed that she had roomed with Lawson in college, and that the woman (now married to Charles Saatchi, last time I checked) was absolutely incapable of baking or cooking anything. I immediately thought: "Thank goodness, there's hope for me yet."

Savannah's new dragon dress from a 1960s pattern
(still, of course, under construction)
And despite a mishap yesterday with my new pressure cooker (nothing serious, I assure you) and fun with powdered sugar today (see picture above), I have been doing fairly well. And I can say with confidence that I have made the transition from feral female, given to painting, writing and drinking, to, well I won't say 'goddess' because there is a helluva lot of dust in this living room and sometimes, I get bleach marks on things and I have absolutely no idea how it happens (what, are there bleach gnomes that just run around sprinkling laundry piles with Clorox? And are they the same ones that steal mine and Michael's socks? Really, inquiring minds want to know).

Anyway, let's just say I've become relatively domestic, and I have to say, it's pretty nice. And while we're on this topic, check out the dress I'm making from a 1960s pattern (yes, I know, it doesn't look like a dress yet, but it will...last night, I put the darts in.)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Guillermo del Toro Codices

The New Yorker (my issue hasn't come yet....where are you, dear magazine? You are always late to my mailbox. Do you hesitate each week because you fear coming into West Virginia, lest you be beaten up? Understand, dear magazine, we are an open-minded people here) has apparently done a story on the artwork of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, whose monsters first take shape in elaborately decorated journals. Watch the New Yorker-produced video above, and you'll get to see the amazing detail of these works.

One of my favorite characters--and the best part, in my opinion, of Hellboy-- is the Angel of Death, whose eyes reside in her wings. I wrote the story, "North American Twilight", which also features the Angel of Death, before I saw del Toro's version in Hellboy, but I envision a similar creature, just one more cadaverous, growing ever more skeletal as she walks the earth, her skin hanging on her bones like old fabric. With del Toro's figure,  making the eyes inhabit the ridgy wing bones is genius (so much like the eyes of Argus that were later set, like gems, into peacock feathers by Hera.) The fact that they all blink at various intervals with a nearly audible click, sounding more physiological than mechanical, is totally arresting. I was smitten as soon as I saw it. I'm less sanguine about the bony crown, which looks somewhat like a flattened hip socket. Of course, this is only because I understand its function less. Why this shape? What purpose does such a calcification serve--is it a plate that protects a functioning brain? And then I think, *tsk-ing* Savannah, monsters don't need to have a form comprehensible to humans. It might have been a shape that arose fully formed in the filmmaker's mind, rather than being put together slowly, by a mental cutting-and-pasting of parts.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On the painter Suzanne Valadon...

First, some recommended listening: One Day International's "Sleeping on Trains" and "Miss Your Mouth". Listen, listen, listen here.

And now, in the spirit of celebrating under-recognized female painters,  immortalized in oil by the artists for whom they modeled, let's talk about the lovely Suzanne Valadon. She, like Victorine Meurent (whom we talked about last week), modeled for Renoir, Degas, pretty Berthe Morisot, and Toulouse-Lautrec.

The child of a laundress, Valadon began working as a circus acrobat at the age of 15. But when a fall from a trapeze ended her career two years later, she was forced to turn to modeling for money. Of course, modeling for artists usually led to more intimate relationships, and apparently, it was not long before she was pregnant. According to a bawdy joke later told by Diego Rivera, she first went to Renoir, but he disavowed paternity, indicating the color was all wrong. Next, she went to Degas, who indicated the form was all wrong for the baby to be his. Finally, after she belched her tale of woe to a Spanish painter named Miguel Utrillo y Molins, he declared, "I would be glad to put my name to the work of either Renoir or Degas!" And so, Maurice Valadon (the baby in question) was officially (if not accurately) legitimized and became Maurice Utrillo. Thanks to Valadon's training and encouragement, Utrillo, who long suffered from emotional difficulties and alcoholism, became a successful artist in his own right. But that's another story for another time.

Suzanne Valadon. Reclining Nude, 1928.
Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Valadon, unlike Victorine Meurent, enjoyed professional esteem in her lifetime.  Her earlier work, in collections as prestitgious as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, seems influenced by Pierre Bonnard, while her later creations...say, from the mid- to late 1920s, seem flavored by the robust line and geometric contours of Cezanne. Dig Reclining Nude, 1928 (at right) for example. I see Cezanne's fruit there, don't you? Well...come on now. I didn't mean it that way. Seriously, there's Post-Impressionism all over the place in this painting, no?

Suzanne Valadon,
Portrait of Erik Satie.
 Apparently, Suzanne Valadon also completely bewitched the composer Erik Satie, whom she met while he played piano in a raucous bar with the refined name, Auberge du Clou. An eccentric bohemian, the penniless composer (who had a strong affinity for medieval plainsong and was soon to be associated with Rosicrucianism) carried on a six-month affair with Valadon, while they lived in adjacent rooms at 6 Rue Cortot. Satie, whose room held two pianos (one atop the other, with connected foot pedals) and a rather strange collection of 100 umbrellas, proposed to Valadon after their first night together. He soon nicknamed her "Biqui", and wrote her voluminous love letters. The couple even made portraits of one another, and while she gave her portrait to Satie, he kept the portrait he made of her. These were found together in his room, after his death.

But this is Suzanne's story, not Satie's, so back to it: Valadon was a perfectionist, reportedly working for well over a decade on her paintings before ever showing them. And it was not until 1909, when Valadon was 44, that she began painting full-time. By 1911, she had her first solo show, where she earned significant critical acclaim and garnered the patronage that allowed her to sustain herself for her remaining years. She reached the apex of her fame in the 1920s and enjoyed four retrospective exhibitions in her lifetime. She was held in such high esteem within the art world that Picasso and Braque even attended her funeral.

So what separates her fate from Victorine's? How is it that she has left her mark on art history (although, of course, it is a significantly more shallow a mark than that made by any of her male contemporaries thanks to traditional art historical narratives)? Persistance, I suppose. Where Victorine destroyed some of her paintings and fell into alcoholic obscurity, choosing instead to tell stories about her time with Manet for the price of a drink, Suzanne Valadon was creating, quietly, in relative sobriety, all along. She may have been no less promiscuous than Victorine, but she was productive and persistent, applying the kind of sustained concentration that earned her respect.

Interesting is that one of Valadon's most famous works, The Blue Room, seems to reference Victorine, since it bears a strong resemblance to Manet's Olympia. 
Suzanne Valadon, The Blue Room
Just as with Manet's work, Valadon's woman remains solid, significant, a different kind of female figure. She is not merely on display, but herself holding court to an unseen audience and completely at home with herself. Moreoever, she is wearing pants...presumably pajama pants, but pants nonetheless. Perhaps this is a reference to the Orientalism of the harem, but a pants-wearing female from the time of George Sand onward indicated the wearer's economic and emotional independence. This notion seems underscored by the books on the bed and the cigarette in her mouth, symbolic of independent thought and action during a period when  intellectual pursuits and public smoking were still considered inappropriate activities for women.

Perhaps then, this is a perfect portrait of Valadon herself, who achieved what Victorine did not: fame that extended beyond her physical attributes and into a fourth dimension, a kind of creative immortality.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Contemporary Puppeteer Geahk Burchill

The Etsy Blog again brings some amazing things to light. This time, it's a contemporary Oregon-based puppetmaker, Geahk Burchill, making an Appalachian witch. But the opening scene, involving a wolf with a steampunk leg? Awesome. Watch him make a puppet in the video below.

Take a look at his shop here.
And visit The Cast Iron Carousel here.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Funerals, Polish Hymns, and Back to Charlotte's Nexus

Yesterday was a sad day, a funeral day, a day of hymns sung in Polish. One of Michael's aunts, a twin, lay inside a pewter colored casket on whose convex lid a crucifix and a Book of Gospels balanced. Direct relatives filled six wide pews on either side. The pallbearers, Michael among them, wore pink carnations instead of golden angel pins.

Hymns in Polish, I have decided, are ten times sadder than hymns in English. For me, they dredge up all the historical sorrow from central Europe.

I am back to working on the story of Charlotte, the Polish girl killed at Auschwitz. It's fiction that I've not worked on since 2008, largely because I felt I didn't have the right thing yet to say. It is a delicate matter that must be expressed carefully because it is a story of revenge. I'd split the story off from a longer work, The Davidian Odyssey (TDO), about human experiments and cloning. And I did this because I felt TDO lacks the solemnity and grace of Charlotte's Nexus (CN). While there is horror in TDO, it is not the same kind that appears if CN. Moreover, CN has deeper, more significant implications about life, about the afterlife, and about why some incredibly cruel people seemed to escape justice for so long after WWII. Justice came. Just not in a traditionally recognizable form.

One flash piece (really more like a tiny excerpt), called "The Doctor Dreams," appears in American Soma and was part of an issue of JMWW in 2007. I also read more of the story at the 5:10 Reading Series in Baltimore in August 2008, where it met with praise. In fact, one person eagerly asked what publisher had picked it up because they wanted to watch for its release. Still another person in the audience said that it would make a good movie. I hope someday that it will. But first, I have to get it right and then find it a home. This could take awhile.

I've sent excerpts from Charlotte's Nexus for publication elsewhere, but geneally, I've not had very good results. One editor seemed appalled, I suppose because I sent the death scene. And in her fairly frosty email, she said it was definitely not for them. And so I left it for while, this story that needs to be told carefully. Understand, this is not a girl without power.

Here, have a slice of the story:
"At their next meeting, a nurse delivered the child to the doctor’s office, where he appeared to be poring over books. Music issued from a phonograph, which he asked the nurse to crank before leaving. What played was something the girl did not recognize, something scratched but sweet and repetitive. It was like no music she’d heard before. She looked around the room, careful not to move her head too dramatically. She flinched when she saw what protruded from one wall: four sets of eyes, yellowed, shrunken. They had been speared by pins. She took a step backward, pulled into herself. The doctor followed her gaze to see what it was she was responding to.

Tush. These are specimens, he said, moving a hand as if to wave them away. These are things I look at for my work. Come now, sit, he said, patting the arm rest of a wooden chair beside his desk.

He paused for a moment, considering her. Now, I want to know where it is that you get this beautiful hair. You look like a German, a real German girl. A milk maid’s daughter. And I can’t explain it.

He continued regarding her and then reached over and took her small chin between his thumb and forefinger, pulling her face up towards the light, so he could examine it more carefully. And these eyes! So clear and blue. He let her face go and she looked down into her lap, twisting her small hands in the fabric of her pinny.

He sat back in his chair, which issued a long creak, and tapped his index finger against his lips in time with the music. I wonder, he said. Were your parents actually Germans?

She did not answer, but she looked up at him. She had stopped moving her hands and was as still as a rabbit caught in open space.

From one drawer of his desk, the doctor pulled a small, glass-lidded compote of wrapped chocolates. Here now, he said, pushing the dish towards her.

At first, she only looked at them.

Go on, he said, pointing to them with a flick of his index finger. They won’t bite you if you take one.

He watched her take a chocolate, put it into her mouth with an almost guilty expression. So, little duckling. I know you can speak. Can you tell me, what did you mother look like? Your father? What was your last name?

Charlotte looked at him. He mouth was full of chocolate now. She hesitated, chewing. She looked at the floor in front of her, swallowed. Two giant tears suddenly came down both cheeks at the same time, one more slowly than the other. She looked back at him, shaking her head.

The doctor banged shut a book that lay on his desk. He put the candy away and slammed the desk drawer, rattling the compote and the glass in the picture frames above his desk. Family name! What is your family name? Everyone has a family name!

“I don’t know it!” she howled. Even she was shocked by the force and decibel of the noise that had come out. It was louder than anything she could remember ever having said or done.
He looked at her and then got up, gently taking her small head in one palm and pushing her face against his abdomen. He continued to stand, looking towards the door as he felt her tears saturate the fabric of his shirt. Shhh…shhh, he said, stroking her hair mechanically, it’s all right.

From his pocket, he pulled a piece of hard candy and dropped it into her lap. She stopped crying to look at it.

Before she was sent back to the block, a nurse took her blood: seven little glass vials of it."
                                               -- from my novella, Charlotte's Nexus

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Whatever Happened to Victorine Meurent?

A page from the amazing
"Whatever Happened to Victorine Meurent?"
Read about the comic's artist, Victoria Morris,
at her blog here.
So, I am more or less fully recovered from my bout with the flu, and apart from a terrible coughing fit I experienced while teaching last night, I am again a fully functioning human being. And I have to say: what a delightful thing that is.

Until you're sick, you forget how fantastic it is to breathe through your nose. No, don't laugh. I'm very serious about that. I really dislike being a mouth-breather. It's behavior *affecting a British accent* unbecoming a lady. Ha!

What's this on the left, you ask? Only something totally awesome I found here: Whatever Happened to Victorine Meurent? It's a comic (this is page three, on the left, which details Victorine's early life).

Who is Victorine Meurent, you ask? Only Manet's most enchanting model. And I say enchanting because the girl had some incredible self-possession.

Whether art history likes it or not, Victorine Meurent has become one of Western art's most iconic female figures, despite the fact that this same figure was ridiculed by critics in the worst possible terms when it went on display (in painted form) in the 1870s. But who hasn't somewhere seen Le dejeuner sur l'herbe, where Victorine levels her gaze at the viewer in a way that indicates--even if she were there in person--she would neither blink nor avert her eyes. And surely you've seen Olympia, where she poses as a naked courtesan presented with a gift of flowers from a customer by her maid. These are essential works in any survey of Western art, and sadly, Victorine has likely never gotten to appreciate one iota of her fame.

In fact, Victorine was a painter herself, one who was extremely talented. She exhibited repeatedly in the Paris Salon before even Manet enjoyed acceptance there. But her work was marginalized, perhaps because she was a woman or perhaps because recognition of her face and figure in Manet's paintings created a stir that eclipsed her own professional efforts. By 1879, she had been shut out of Manet's circle because her tendency towards free love incited violent jealousies among the men (I'm sure retrospective telling has toned down the scandal, and at the time, the gossip and examples of wounded pride were much more dramatic).

The comic (again, whose page three is visible above) gives a visual history of Victorine's life, and the author (whose name I haven't been able to find...Who are you? I'd love to give you credit because what you've done is totally wonderful!) has done some amazing excavations to fill in the long informational gaps that exist in Victorine's biography.

Victorine's GLBTQ encyclopedia entry, which I also gleaned from the comic's bibliographic page, indicates that in the early 1890s, she was the "intimate friend" of a courtesan named Marie Pellegrin, but had also turned to alcoholism. Yet, she continued to paint into the early 1900s and was still listed among professional artists. Then, she lived in the suburbs of Paris with a woman named Marie Dufour, a secretary and piano teacher.

Really, period critics, even many art historians have consistently given Victorine a raw deal. I am glad to see that she is not forgotten. She is a kind of hero to me, in the same way that my favorite chain-smoking, baggy-eyed male intellectuals are. She simply was, and although I'm absolutely certain I don't know the whole story behind Victorine's emotional life, she never apologized for being Victorine that I know of. And this is something to celebrate. It really is, since pretty often, life can be tough.

When I was in graduate school, I focused on the German Modernists and my boy George Grosz (whom I realized, sort of looks like Michael...hmmm...coincidence? I don't know.), but I was also lured by the Impressionists....not so much by their painting, but by their milieu: the theater crowds; the demimonde; the horse races, the absinthe, the flamboyant and disgusting beauty of the prostitutes. All of this fascinated me. Still, the frothy atmosphere Monet offered and the ballerina tulle Degas often choked me with made Impressionism somehow less potent than the angry absurdism of the Dadaists or the outright emotionalism of the Expressionists (okay and I dug the Post-Impressionists, too, but I won't get all the swank terms out of my tackle box right now *closing the lid*).

Alias Olympia: A Woman's Search for Manet's Notorious Model & Her Own DesireAnyway, anyway, this, this is a really good book. I read it in graduate school: Alias Olympia: A Woman's Search for Manet's Notorious Model & Her Own Desire. Eunice Lipton goes over to Europe and finds primary source documents in her atttempt to trace the path of Victorine. There's some self-revelation there and some "navel-gazing", but most importantly, Victorine begins to come to life again. 
It is sad that so little information still exists on Victorine. Even her paintings are largely lost, with the exception of one that sold for around $5,000 in the 1930s. Not a bad price, given that it was the beginning of the Depression. Still, no one can account for her work now, at least to my knowledge. I hope very much that a few of these paintings still exist and are just quietly waiting to re-emerge somewhere on one side of the big pond or the other.