25 August 2020

Elsewhere, Paradise: Patricia Chidlaw

The light in southern California - whether direct, diffused, ambient, incandescent, or fluorescent - is different than the light I grew up with in the east. We associate California with intense sunlight and also the artificiality of Hollywood klieg lights so it is not surprising that Patricia Chidlaw's work is replete with flourishes of light, either dramatic (as in Paradise Motel) or subtle (as in Saffron's World). The southern California light seems to vaporize human artifacts as soon as they are built. As an aside, I wonder, does Chidlaw paint with oil rather than acrylic because of the latter's tendency to fade in the light.

Chidlaw is a painterly realist with an urban sensibility,  shaped by the automobile. Her palette contains a symphony of blues that reach from aquamarine to lavender-blue.  Her frequent use of oblique angles and their frontal placement give an automotive  sense of movement to her pictures.

This is a place that erases visual history with glee.  Did the fires and earthquakes give white settlers the idea or did they come  with erasure in mind?  Chidlaw's precisely located paintings are a historian's gold mine of post-war architecture, so the paintings of Nell Brooker Mayhew (1875-1940) captured the Spanish missionary style.

Occasionally a person or a goldfish will appear in a Chidlaw painting but  the unpeopled rooms and streets are saturated with lost dreams. Is the name Paradise Motel  a brave front presented to a jaded world? Mr. Lucky doesn't look as though it has enjoyed good fortune for a long time. To meditate on the foolishness of building a water park in the desert, abandoned now and vandalized, where even the palm trees have been shorn of their glamour is to reckon with how transitory our dreams really are. But if that makes Chidlaw's work sound depressing,in fact  it is something more.  And identifying that something more is why the poets who contributed to Elsewhere, Paradise are so inventive.

Saffron's World is something altogether different, like one of my other favorite Chidlaw paintings Air Dancer (the dancer of the title is a trapeze artist).   "The Story of My Golden Life," a poem by Pamela Davis imagines the quirky interior monologue of Saffron, the goldfish, who confides flirtatiously,  "I try to lift a fin to wave my prettiest when he walks/ through the door."

"Everything went so fast. Once I was going nowhere
 in a dime store aquarium of a dozen common fish
 and he chose me  - lifted in a metal scoop, held high
 plopped in a bag of water shut with a quick twist."

Here at last that elusive paradise is getting closer. 

In 2018 the Poet Laureate of Santa Barbara (yes, the city has a Poet Laureate) invited 32 fellow poets to write poems in response to Chidlaw's paintings. In When I Look at Pictures (1990) Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote poems in response to his favorite paintings but Elsewhere, Paradise is something more unusual. Two years ago the Poet Laureate of Santa Barbara (yes, the city has a Poet Laureate) invited 32 fellow poets to write poems in response to Chidlaw's paintings.

Elsewhere, Paradise: Santa Barbara poets respond to paintings by Patricia Chidlaw, Santa Barbara, Sullivan Goss: An American Gallery: 2020

1. Patricia Chidlaw - Paradise Motel, 2017, oil on canvas, private collection.
2. Patricia Chidlaw - Mr. Lucky, 2017, oil on linen, Sulliivan Goss: An American Gallery, Santa Barbara.
3, Patricia Chidlaw - Abandoned Water Park -Tune Up, 2018, oil on Canvas, private collection
4. Patricia Chidlaw - Saffron's World, 2017, oil on canvas, private collection.

20 August 2020

The Heart of the Matter: Otis Kaye

"Every day I go to earn my bread
In the exchange where lies are marketed,
Hoping my own lies will attract a bid.

It's Hell, It's Heaven: the amount you earn
Determines whether you play the harp or burn."

 - from Hollywood Elegies by Bertold Brecht,
translated by Adam Kirsch in Poetry Magazine, 2011.

A man with a hole in his chest where his heart should be, instead there is a package of dollar bills wrapped as if by a bank clerk. Heart of the Matter is typical of Otis Kaye's favorite painting genre - the money painting. Selling paintings of currency has been illegal since 1909  so Kaye had to give them away. Nevertheless, he was often in trouble with the Bureau of the Treasury; Kaye thought that painting currency no longer in circulation would pass muster but the government begged to differ. 

Kaye's obsession with money is muddied by his idiosyncratic relationship with truth. We know that when the stock market crashed in October 1929, his finances suffered a severe shock and so did his nervous system. The irrationality of the stock market induced in Kaye a grim kind of gallows humor. His works abound with calligrams, rebuses, and visual puns but its closest ancestor is vanitas,  paintings of the transience and futility of life, popular in the 16th and 17th centuires. His engineer's eye was trained for precision; the stock ticker tapes and graphs that appear in his paintings are clearly legible and always headed in one direction - down.

Otis Kaye (1885-1974) was born in Dresden, Germany.  After emigrating to the U.S., his father, who owned a lumber yard died in 1904; with his mother, Frieda Millabeke, Kaye moved to New York for a short time.  He had studied engineering back in Germany; at first art was merely a pastime but after the stock market crash of 1929, Kaye began to make tromp l'oeil paintings in the style made familiar  by William Harnett and John Frederick Peto.

Money problems put a strain on his marriage; in 1937 his wife moved back to Germany with their two children. He also made etchings in the styles of Rembrandt and Whistler; however he sold only two works during his lifetime and there were no public exhibitions, either. Kaye eventually returned to Dresden in 1966, where he died in 1974.  Only after his death did Kaye's works attract attention and then enter public collections.

Otis Kaye would be better known today if, he had been the subject of a book by arts journalist Lawrence Weschler.  In 1999 Weschler published Boggs; A Comedy of Values about the career of  J.S.G. Boggs who, like Kaye, drew pictures of money that he used as performance art pieces.  Again, like Kaye, Boggs was the subject of prosecutions - on three continents. The authorities were not amused.

Image: Otis Kaye - The Heart of the Matter,  1963, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago

09 August 2020

Francis Ponge: Babillage

"The boat pulls up its tether, shifts its body from one foot to the other, restless and stubborn as a colt.
It is however only a rather  crude receptacle, a wooden spoon without a handle: but, dug out and arched to permit a pilot direction, it seems to have a mind of its own, like a hand signaling cosi-cosa.

Mounted, it adopts a passive attitude, slips gently away, is easy to guide. If it kicks up, it has good reasons.

Left alone, it follows the current and goes, like everything in the world, to its destruction like a straw."
 - "The Boat" by Francis Ponge

"Midway between cage and "cachot" (prison) the French language has "Cageot" (crate), a simple small openwork box given over to the transporter of fruits that out of the least suffocation make (you can be sure)  a malady.

Arranged in a way that at the end of its usefulness it could be broken effortlessly, it does not serve twice. So it lasts less than the melting of clouded produce it encloses.

At all the street corners that converge upon the marketplace, it gleams then with the unpretentious luster of white wood. Brand new still, and slightly dumbfounded at being in an awkward pose tossed on the garbage heap beyond return, this object is in sum amongst the most sympathetic, - upon whose fate it is better not to dwell lengthily." 
 - "Le Cageot/ the crate" by Francis Ponge

Babillage is a term coined by Cid Corman to describe the delights of  the poetry of Francis Ponge.  Corman, poet and translator of  Ponge, has described the Frenchman as "the willing spokesman" for the objects he write about. Ponge has been called "the poet of things" for his relation with the world of mute things. His prose poems seem to meander as his imagination takes him but this is a hard won illusion; Ponge is surgically precise in his choice of words.

So what makes a poem a prose poem? Basically,  a poem written without line breaks;  although you could object that all prose is broken up by line breaks but, with most prose, the reader ignores those line breaks as though they weren't there. The first lyrics written in prose form were in  Paris Spleen (1869) by Charles Baudelaire; his influence on Arthur Rimbaud and Stephane Mallarrme should not be underestimated.  So the origins of the prose poem are French. In the Surrealist Manifesto (1924), Andre Breton credited several prose poets with inspiring the surrealists. 

The long-lived Francis Ponge (1899-1988) was himself influenced by Paul Valery, he learned from the surrealists, his work found favor with the postwar existentialists who appreciated what they saw as his phenomenological poetry, and he was then rediscovered by a new generation of writers who found his "scientific" use of language a poetic equivalent of structural anthropology.  When Ponge was good his work revealed new aspects of overlooked things but some of his work has aged badly.  His takes on then contemporary technology such as "The Radio," "The Stoves," and "The Telephone" do not align with our experiences and others (I'm thinking  here of "Young Girl") reduce a human being to appraisable body parts. 

Translations from the French are by Cid Corman, from Things by Francis Ponge, New York, A Mushinsha Book, Grossman Publishers: 1970

Images:oi on canvas, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Valencienes.
1. Pierre Bisiaux - Les Barques (The Boats), 
2. Barabtre a/k/a Francois Aubin  - Still Life with Crate  1979, pastel drawing, Pompidou Center, Paris

03 August 2020

Horace Pippin: Scenes From A Childhood

"Pictures just come to my mind and I tell my heart to go ahead." - Horace Pippin

"Pippin would paint for as long as seventeen hours at a stretch, holding the wrist of his injured right arm in the fist of his left hand..."- Seldon Rodman.

There is so much to see in a Horace Pippin painting. His selection of details is always telling; there may or may not have been other objects in the room but the artist chose those that contributed to the story he wanted to tell.  Especially in intimate domestic scenes recalling his childhood, with affection and a hint of tartness.  Saying Prayers is centered around a mother and two children engaged in a familial ritual. I am drawn to the touch of gaiety in the woman's polka-dotted blouse. The mother sits in a spindle-backed chair while the children kneel on a braided rug where a little rag doll waits to be tucked in bed, perhaps.  They are gathered in front of the coal stove, with a coffee pot warming.  Behind the coal scuttle there are multiple patches of peeling plaster. A black shade is pulled down over the window but not so far that we cannot see snowflakes creased in the mullioned window an the wooden lathe-work revealed by peeling plaster below.  At left we see an umbrella propped against the wall outside a bedroom door.  The little family is bracketed by two shelves nailed to the wall, splashes of red, one holding a kerosene lamp and the other with cooking utensils hanging from it. 

Painted during the same year, Asleep appears to show the same room with the same stove and  green coffee pot. Only now the stool has been moved away from the window to make way for the children's bed. The kerosene lamp has been turned low for the night.  Striped blankets and a patchwork quilt at the foot of the bed are the only touches of decoration, as is the braided rug is in Saying Prayers. My hunch is that the woman created as much beauty as she could manage for her home. Pippin's apparently economical style makes room for these telling details. 

Horace Pippin (1888-1946) was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and grew up in Goshen, a small town in southeastern New York, where he attended segregated schools. The child of a laborer and a domestic worker, both descendants of slaves, his mother. provided a loving home  Horace's interest in art crystallized when he won a set of crayons and a box of watercolors in a contest sponsored by an art supply company.

"(T)he war brought out all the art in me,"" Pippin recalled after he had become an established artist. He enlisted in the New York National Guard in 1917 and was shipped overseas where he was part of the  renowned all-back U.S. 369th Infantry. Shot by a sniper in October, 1918, Pippin's right arm was severely damaged so that he could not lift it above his shoulder. For his valor under fire, Pippin was awarded the Croix de guerre by a grateful French government.  His arm was useless when he returned home but it gradually became stronger; perhaps some of the nerve damage healed with time.  Disability may contributed to the scrupulous attention to small details that characterize Pippin's paintings. 

Pippin began painting  on wooden panels around 1925; canvas was out of his reach because of its expense. Most of his paintings were made between 1930 and 1946. He did not begin painting with oils until he was forty and he never managed to have a proper studio but by the 1940s he was selling more work and so was able to paint more. Whatever his medium, Pippin always had a  strong, personal voice; he copied no one.

The Barnes Foundation  has claimed a major role in promoting Pippin's work but it was his relationship with his dealer Robert Carlen, beginning in 1939, that sustained Pippin's career.  Carlen, who had studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art when Ralston Crawford and Robert Gwathmey were also students, introduced Pippin to Albert Barnes. Barnes wrote an introduction to the catalog for Pippin's exhibition at the Carlen Gallery the next year. 

Dr. Barnes was a complex and quarrelsome man, perennially at war with Philadelphia's conservative art establishment. While Pippin appreciated Barnes' support of his work, he was not awed and certainly not cowed by the millionaire's cantankerousness.  More than once Barnes suggested subjects for Pippin to paint and the reply was invariably, "Do I tell you how to run your foundation? Don't tell me how to paint." Carlen and Barnes were eventually estranged because Barnes did not want to pay more for Pippin's paintings when success resulted in higher prices. 

Alain Locke, the first African American Rhodes scholar, was also a strong advocate of Pippin's work .  Pippin benefited from the mid-century interest in folk art but we can take the measure of this versatile artist, accomplished in portraiture, history painting, landscape, still life,  religious imagery, and the horrors of war.  In the words of Alain Locke, "a real and rare genius, combining folk quality with artistic maturity so unique as almost to defy classification."

1. Horace Pippin - Saying Prayers, 1943, oil on canvas, Brandywine Museum, West Chester.
2. Horace Pippin - Asleep, 1943, oil on canvas board, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.