Raizes Gallery, Lunder Art Center
1801 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge MA 02140
January 5-14, 2019
Group show curated by Andrew Mroczek, along with Cynthia Scott-Johnson, Brian Sage, Marci Spier, Mark Tanous, and Chuck Davis.
I am continuing to work with images of New Orleans, to depict a sense of place. In progress, starting with a pen and ink drawing, a small painting and then a larger one (along with an early version of the larger painting).
In focusing my work on New Orleans, I have been starting with ink drawings, charcoal studies, a small painting, and then moving to a larger canvas.
The progression of steps seems to be working well, helping me to sort out and solve issues prior to working on a larger version, and I am happy with the results of the yellow house ( 20 x 30"), still in progress.
I am just back from New Orleans, so have lots of pictures to sort through.
This summer I've been working on portraying Cape Cod, trying to avoid the tourist version, but rather the Cape as the unique place it is, while mulling and incorporating the suggestions from the June residency.
My mentor suggested looking at William Kentridge and Seurat's charcoal studies, and I find these fascinating. I've been doing charcoal drawings and then following with the painting. In some cases I like the charcoal better than the painting!
This painting of Cahoon Hollow was a couple weeks before the parking lot collapsed!
Is painting simply mark-making, color and texture combined to create elements, shapes and relationships meant to be visually interesting? Is painting for telling the story of now, here it is, this is what is in front of me, this is what I have decided to paint today? Or is it to represent our culture, to answer larger questions of life, like the vanitas paintings in 17th century Dutch painting, ultimately symbolizing inevitable death? (Bryson 115)
Is still life painting depicting the spaces describing the home, the table, our food, “proximal space, the space around the body, that of tables and the things within arm’s reach?” (Bryson 127) Or is it a display of belongings, a show-and-tell of the fruits of our labors – see what I have, look how nice it is? Is it merely representation of daily life? “Rhopography … asserts another view of human life, one that attends to the ordinary business of daily living.” (Bryson 135)
What does a painting represent? Does it represent the people, places or things portrayed or the symbolism imbedded in those objects (by whose definition?)? Or does a painting represent something more? Barthes says “the object speaks, it induces us, vaguely, to think.” (Barthes Camera Lucida 38) Bryson refers to Stephen Bann’s “distinction between representation and presentation. Representation would involve mimesis, the repetition of what is already there…. Presentation, not representation: … what is shown comes into being only inside the picture.” (Bryson 79-82) In painting, the artist is presenting his/her version of what is seen and offering it for inducing thinking, consideration, contemplation, response.
Roland Barthes identified two elements he perceived in photographs that captured his attention, calling them studium and punctum. Studium is the interest in the body of information portrayed, punctum is the element that punctuates the studium: “… it is culturally (this connotation is present in studium) that I participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions. The second element will break (or punctuate) the studium. This time is not I who seek it out… it is this element which arises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me.” (Barthes Camera Lucida 25-27) Barthes, in speaking of photography, says, “The Operator is the Photographer. The Spectator is ourselves, all of us who glance through collections of photographs…. And the person or thing photographed is the target, the referent.…” (Barthes Camera Lucida 9) Caught in the field of view of a photograph is not only the intended target or subject, but what surrounds it by accident. In a painting, the artist chooses all of the elements, not only the target. Barthes said of photography, “Hence the detail which interests me is not, or at least is not strictly, intentional, and probably must not be so; it occurs in the field of the photographed thing like a supplement that is at once inevitable and delightful.” (Barthes Camera Lucida 47) In a painting, this “detail which interests me” may be intentionally or instinctually placed but it is put in the painting only by the choice of the artist, still inevitable and delightful. Punctum appears to be individual – what is punctum for one may not be for another. Why one painting stops me and resonates, pulls me in, goes deep and hits its mark and another does not means I found there the punctum that affects me. In the creation of the painting I choose the punctum that first attracted me to this subject, regardless of whether a viewer perceives and responds to it as I do.
In The Third Meaning, Roland Barthes talks about the levels of meanings portrayed in a picture, “1) An informational level, which gathers together everything I can learn from the setting…. This level is that of communication. 2) A symbolic level” (which he describes can be referential symbolism, diegetic symbolism, historical symbolism) but then there is a third meaning that questions if there is more than the informational and symbolic levels, “Is that all? No, for I am still held by the image. I read, I receive … a third meaning - evident, erratic, obstinate,” which surely must be the punctum he describes in Camera Lucida. (Barthes, The Third Meaning 53)
According to Bryson, still life “needs to look at the overlooked, it has to bring into view objects which perception normally screens out.” (Bryson 87). I concur, and this is not limited to still life; paintings also depict the present, who we are, the world we live in, and the spaces we inhabit, whether it is portraiture, landscape or still life. And what is portrayed by extension must inevitably touch upon larger issues, our culture and our place in the world.
The Museum of Fine Arts Boston website describes what Paul Gauguin had to say about his painting D’Ou Venons Nous/Que Sommes Nous/Ou Allons Nous (1897-98): “… (Gauguin) describes the various figures as pondering the questions of human existence given in the title; the blue idol represents “the Beyond.” The old woman at the far left, “close to death,” accepts her fate with resignation.” (MFA Boston) The words Gauguin put on the canvas, “Where Do We Come From What Are We Where Are We Going” are without punctuation, without question marks, making his inscription on the painting perhaps the ultimate questions we all are trying to answer. Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum says something quite similar about her painting process: “I find it fascinating that the things our ancestors were most obsessed with are the same things we as so-called advanced scientific thinkers are still obsessed with: Who are we? Where do we come from? Why are we here? How was the universe made? The figures in my work operate as carriers of these musings.” (Lesser)
I agree with Phatsimo Sunstrum. My painting starts with my visceral reaction to a visual moment, the punctum. The painting I create is my viewpoint, that which captured my attention in that moment, what I see on my walk through this life, and ultimately what it means to be human, who we are and what we are doing here, defining of what feels important to me to note. In this process, the painting becomes my story, and hopefully a shared story; I was there, I saw it, I chose the marks to make on my canvas to record my impressions, feelings, excitement, awe, distress, so I am in it now. Here I get my say, I tell you what it is I saw that made me stop and choose to paint this.
There is fact imbedded here, cultural and temporal, in what I have chosen to paint: this egg does sit in front of me on a plate, I did buy that tchotchke at a yard sale, I did walk down this street and choose just this view at just this moment in time. Reading the signs in what is depicted may produce greater meaning, the eggs may represent beginning, new life, potential, and we can all discern our own meanings out of the combination of signs – what I define the eggs to be and what you define them to be doesn’t change their depiction in the painting. The painting originates neither as allegorical nor simply the art of description; the painting represents what is, embodying what St. Ignatius termed finding God in all things. It says in the presence of God, we are here, we are human, and this is my view from this perch.
What is presented within the frame of the painting is the telling of the story: “the reality that is shown exists only inside the painting. Its spatial co-ordinates are not the three dimensions that make up the known world, but the two dimensions of the painting’s surface…. The painting shows objects exist there, and only there…. presented, not represented.” (Bryson 80) Speaking of Cezanne’s Still Life with Apples, Bryson reiterates “what is shown comes into being only inside the picture” and talks about the paint application, “the integrity and separate visibility of each dab of paint foregrounds the work of the brush in building the scene.” The painting therefore is about more than what is depicted, also being about the materiality of the paint, its application, the effect of the whole of the parts, “the method of construction” i.e., the act of painting, “the continuous and unwavering exercise of compositional judgement. Each move is the outcome of previous moves, and anticipates those which follow….”. (Bryson 82) This shifts then to a shared presence, from a representation of what is painted to the presence of the artist in the brushstrokes, in the painting. My painting is my interpretation of what is in front of me, a place, an egg, a tchotchke, providing the descriptive and perhaps symbolic information, but it is also importantly the materials, canvas, brushes, some paint with me pushing it around, a tactile and experiential process, perhaps the third meaning described by Barthes. “Rembrandt … settles for the materiality of his medium itself. His paint is something worked as with the bare hands—a material to grasp, perhaps, as much as to see. It, not the world seen, becomes his frame of reference.” (Alpers 225-27)
My paintings are among the signposts along the road, the cultural artifacts of today portrayed from my viewpoint, my piece of the story, revealed in the paint I moved around the canvas, working and reworking until it can speak. “The forms of still life are strong enough to make the difference between brutal existence and human life; without them there is no continuity of generations, no human legacy; … with them, there is cultural memory and family, an authentically civilized world.” (Bryson 138) My painting is my experience that you might share, the quotidian walk or stumble we are all on; this is my world but this is your world too. “…(To find) the truth of human life in those things which greatness overlooks, the ordinariness of daily routine and the anonymous creatural life of the table.” (Bryson 178)
Alpers, Svetlana. The Art of Describing – Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century. The University of Chicago Press, 1983.
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. Hill and Wang, 1980.
Barthes, Roland. “The Rhetoric of the Image.” Image – Music – Text. Translated by Stephen Heath. Fontana Press, 1977.
Barthes, Roland. “The Third Meaning.” Image – Music – Text. Translated by Stephen Heath. Fontana Press, 1977.
Bryson, Norman. Looking at the Overlooked. Four Essays on Still Life Painting. Harvard University Press, 1990.
Lesser, Casey. These 20 Female Artists Are Pushing Figurative Painting Forward. Artsy. June 2016. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-these-20-female-artists-are-pushing-figurative-painting-forward.
MFA Boston. D’Ou Venons Nous/Que Sommes Nous/Ou Allons Nous. Paul Gauguin, 1897-98. http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/where-do-we-come-from-what-are-we-where-are-we-going-32558
 17th century Dutch decorative still life paintings were called vanitas paintings, with a cautionary tale imbedded: “The genre changes at once if we begin with the hypothesis that the vanitas is deliberately built on paradox, and that the conflict between world-rejection and worldly ensnarement is in fact its governing principle.” (Bryson 117)
 Norman Bryson defines rhopography as “dealing with the routines of daily living … the depiction of those things which lack importance, the unassuming material base of life that ‘importance’ constantly overlooks as opposed to megalography, which he defines as “dealing with the exceptional … and the unique, with the narrative and drama of ‘greatness’.” (Bryson 15 and 61)
 St. Ignatius believed we are able to find God in all things, in every aspect of our life, and developed the Spiritual Exercises to focus on developing our ability to do so. Bryson says, “For Ignatius, the image is the crucial instrument for galvanizing the soul’s force; the Spiritual Exercises have as their aim the slow building up of images that will focus subjectivity entirely.” (Bryson 117)
This blog began around my journey through the wonderful MFA program at Lesley University College of Art and Design; I graduated in 2019. My work interrogates ideas around place: what makes a place feel like home, what gives comfort or discomfort. I am intrigued by long history of a place and questions of whose footsteps we follow and what can be learned from a place.