A Fresh Look at History

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“Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp” by Thomas Moran

A friend wanted to see “Civil War and American Art” at the Metropolitan Museum. This is why we have friends. To get us to do things we might not otherwise do.  (Peer pressure at age 53?) Being a painter interested in landscape, color, and issues of representation, I wasn’t sure that an afternoon of looking at b/w photos and battlefield paintings  was going to be my cup of tea.

HOWEVER, it turned  out that “The Civil War and American Art” was actually all about landscape, color, and issues of representation. It is a very lively exhibit of interesting paintings and yes, some exquisite early black and white photography mostly of piles of dead bodies in culverts and ditches. Including a final room of massive Frederich Church fantasy landscape paintings, there were many painting surprises in this exhibit. “Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp” pictured above by Thomas Moran stopped me in my tracks with it’s exquisite color. A black couple carrying an infant are pictured in an almost psychedelic dismal swamp environment that dwarfs the struggling family and brings to vivid life what it must have been like to try to struggle through the vast unchartered natural environment with little more than the clothes on your back. The painting of the undergrowth, the savage tree stumps rearing high overhead, and the dense jungle-like environment stretching back into obscure darkness prevented me from even noticing in the museum that a slave hunting party is visible way off in the distance beyond a pack of leaping wolf-like creatures that pose a closer and more immediate threat to the struggling family. The slaves and the creatures are not what is great is about this painting. Close inspection of the figures proved slightly disappointing, but the tangle of natural shapes painted in critical spots to contrast across the color wheel from each other was really something. A jagged tree stump is edged in an electric light green so as to really stand out against the darker background. Being shockingly unschooled in art history for someone with not only a BFA, but also an MFA in Fine Art, I couldn’t recall having any knowledge of Thomas Moran. It turns out that he  is considered to be one of the Hudson River School Painters and also a “Rocky Mountain School Painter” as his landscape work included many western landscapes.

Equally attention-grabbing were the paintings of Eastman Johnson. These paintings caught my attention less for his actual painting technique, though that was extremely competent, but more for his consistent acumen with selection of subject matter. “A Ride For Liberty _ The Fugitive Slaves” portrays an entire slave family (parents and two small children) astride a magnificent dark horse galloping through a somewhat vague eerily lit landscape. He had a knack for finding the iconic view of the issues of his time, even when they were rather complex. Take for example, “Negro Life and the South” painted in 1859. It is a complex view of the back yard of slaves quarters positioned right up against the masters’ house. A dozen or so black and mulatto figures of various ages (but mostly young) are pictured idling  and “hanging out”. A white-appearing woman is slipping out of the wealthier quarters to join the scene. The curatorial line of the Museum was that various elements of the painting were symbols of the real intent of the painting. A  white cat is slipping throug an open window into an open upstairs window of the slave quarters. A ladder is positioned from the roof of the slave quarters to the upstairs window of the master’s house.  The painting portrays the illicit “intercourse” between slave and master…the evidence visible in the light brown skin of many of the children.

The exhibition affirms the power of art, and painting,not only to portray with drama and empathy what is going on in a culture, but to ask important ethical and political questions in a fun and colorful way that people can get seduced into wanting to answer.

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Detritus Defined

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sunglasses, violin CD, historic bit of hardware, flashlight lens, battery, lens cap, and tracked-in bits….

Every time I bend over to pick up strange objects from the floor of my home, I wonder if other people are picking up similarly disparate objects off their floors. Or is it just me?

We are all surrounded by the detritus of our lives…but some of us manage it with more ease than  others. I am aware of waging a constant war on the stuff…it comes in the mailbox, it comes in with the groceries. It can be found spilling out of soccer bags and second hand bags of clothes that well-meaning friends drop off. I have actually purchased it, and I have also relegated it to the attic. Someone in the house has got it out to use it and not put it back, someone else has misplaced  it and never found it again.  It gets kicked under the sofa and it lines the edges of the porch. I notice it finally and try to assign it a place, either the garbage bin, or a storage unit of some kind. If it can’t simply go in the garbage bin, I am forced to categorize the object in question: is it food? clothing? sports equipment? craft material? toy? gardening tool? mine? somebody else’s?

Second Reflection (Visual version of a Canon)

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“Second Reflection”, oil on linen, 2013

Pachebel’s Canon and Handel kept me company through hours and hours of work on this. The canon is “a polyphonic device in which several voices play the same music, entering in sequence.” How apt for what I was painting. My immersion in this polyphonic aural and visual experience for days on end in my studio has reinvigorated my faith in art. It does prey on our emotions. It is not an intellectual exercise, but rather the sensitivescience of aural and visual orchestration that sends us to our knees when we allow ourselves to really feel the music. (or the paint?)

Sisyphian Satisfaction

That's the root...crossing over the in front of the shovel....

That’s the root…crossing over the in front of the shovel….

I will make no bones about it. I am struggling with a lot of emotional detritus whirling around like tornadoes with only 5 minutes of warning to announce them. So, knowing myself as I do after over half a century, I was not surprised to find myself out on my hands and knees dealing with one of the more challenging “gardening” tasks today. I put “gardening” in quotes there, because it is possible that what I am calling “gardening” would not qualify as such in most people’s worlds. If “gardening” conjures up images of flowered gloves and little hand tools and sun hats, then we are not talking about the same thing. The “gardening” that I threw myself into today was the kind of thing that some people might hire a “Mexican” to do or a machine. I got to work taking away a section of stone garden wall in order to turn that section into a bottom step of a new path running up through a former flower bed. I moved the allium bulbs, now that they are done blooming. I pulled out some expendable flowers also. But it was at the bottom of the walkway, where I turned my attention to a wild rose bush just at the end of bloom that I really expended some energy. I had let it flourish for two summers there in the grass below the garden, but now it was starting to truly get out of control. It was encouraging other plants to go crazy too, because who could mow anywhere near the prickly rose bush? I admired it for a minute, and then got to work lopping off all its branches and then next digging out its root system. After some shovel jumping, and worry about breaking the shovel as I used it to pry the roots up, I ended up down on hands and knees pulling with all my remaining might to get the root system free of the earth. You may be able to see above the 3 foot long root that slowly came away from the ground. I felt triumphant. A good feeling on a day that otherwise seemed to have no clear path or accountability.