16 March 2012

Gremlins In The Studio

In case you have trouble seeing this picture at this scale, there is a little gremlin dancing under the painting of the Newbury marshes.  He smirks as water drips off the painting and onto the floor. The naughty little guy pulled on the canvas and now the floor of the studio is getting wet.  Trompe l'oeil or trick of the eye is a genre in painting with its own story and people who write about art like to worry the subject of the artifice in art. 

It is easy to forget that humor is not a recent invention in art.  Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904)certainly was aware of the serious debates among other artists of the Hudson River School about the merits of naturalism versus artifice.  With one (actually, there are two versions of Gremlins in The Studio) work the size of an  ordinary book page, Heade winked it all away. 

Of course, Heade was a serious artist and the marshlands were his chosen subject.  Out of six hundred paintings, fully a fifth were  images of of a landscape subject to the constant movement of the tides, its moist air fragmenting the light and changing colors before his eye.  To create works of evanescent beauty on canvas requires many skills.  It turns out that one of Heade's was a sense of humor.

And then there is Charles Jones (1866-1959) a British gardener and amateur photographer, forgotten by the world until Sean Sexton discovered a cache of his work when he purchased an old trunk at a London bazaar in 1981.

Plant Kingdoms (1998), the resulting book, is impressive in every respect, from Jones's photographs to Sexton's text, full of poetry and insight, to the appreciation penned by Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley, California.

Jones usually photographed his fruits and vegetables in front of flat, blank backdrops. We seldom see them this way now, gleaming with moisture, dug from the ground or plucked from the vine, found works of art. It was Jones' wit to see that what he had made was worthy of recording.

Garden Scene with Photographer's Cloth Backdrop (c. 1900) is a premature example of modern irony. We realize that the backdrop is a photographer's studio cloth when we notice a crooked elbow and part of an apron peeking out from behind the scrim.  Jones, who liked to move in on his subjects for close-ups, here backs off the camera to show truly giant-sized flowers.  That crooked arm resting on hip telegraphs the joke: wow!

1. Martin Johnson Heade - Gremlin In The Studio II, c.1865-1875, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT. 
2. Martin Johnson Heade - Salt Marsh Hay, c.1864-1876, Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH.
2. Charles Jones - Garden Scene With Photographer's Backdrop, c. 1900, courtesy Plant Kingdoms by Sean Sexton.

You may also be interested in these posts:
Alongshore With Martin Johnson Heade - April 23, 2008.
By Salt Marshes: Everett Stanly Hubbard & Arthur Wesley Dow - May 14, 2008.
Plum Island - July 12, 2010.
Waders - May 29, 2010.


Rouchswalwe said...

Wow indeed! Serious art with subtle humour. And what a story, finding the treasure inside the chest.

Jane said...

R, Charles Jones was amazing. Maybe I should feature more of hsi photographs Marsh haystacks are funny all on their own. Looking at "Salt Marsh Haystack" here, the stack appears to float but it's actually perched on a stadle. To keep hay from rotting after it's been cut, the stack is placed on stilts of a sort, to elevate it from the high tide. Walking haystacks!