Winter. I’m slowly exploring my natural eb and flow in art making. I get frustrated about the lacklustre light in my studio and feel totally unable to see what color I’m mixing. I do have a special daylight light system, but blah, it’s not at all the same as getting up in the morning with a clear sky and natural light present and waiting for me and my clean brushes. I find myself reading a lot, pondering on how to finish paintings I started during a Zoey Frank course, juggling new ideas in my mind, thinking about new painting approaches for me while looking and listening to other artists talking about theirs. For instance it can be a formal approach, a challenge to do a painting that answers a certain formal, maybe compositional question, like ‘can I make a painting where the viewer’s eye can freely travel around the surface of the painting?’ Or, ‘can I do a high chroma painting and how would I create space?’ And all the while always dialoging with art history. Or more conceptually, cerebral perhaps, paint about sociologically inspired stuff, the what versus how to make the painting.
In winter I guess I’ll wait for my seeds to come up in spring and then I’ll say, like Matt Damon in The Marsman, when a potato shoot springs, he cups the tiny leafs in his hand and says ‘Hi there,’ to it. The challenge is how can I be patient and trust the process. I actually tend to use a lot of my own ‘sh*t’ too, metaphorically that is.
Anyway. Last month I got some books from the second hand bookstore on art history, Taschen’s 'Women Artists in the 20th and 21st century', 2002, Whitney Chadwick’s 'Women, Art and Society', the 1990 ed. Thames and Hudson (I had an issue with it, but can’t remember where now), Germaine Greer’s 'The Obstacle Course, The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work', Farrar Straus Giroux, NY, 1979 and ordered a copy of ‘Mix and Stir, New Outlooks on Contemporary Art from global Perspectives', edited by Kitty Zijlmans and Helen Westgeest, Plural Series Valiz, Amsterdam, 2021. I started with Kitty Zijlmans’ book Kunstgeschiedenis (Art History) from the Elementaire Deeltjes series (Amsterdam University Press, 2018) I took out at the library. Insanely interesting it hints at alternatives to study art beyond national constraints and cultural dominances and hierarchies and how to braden the approach of art to its global dimensions, as opposed to the Eurocentric approach that ran galore in my schooling. And white, patriarchal and capitalist I might add. In her book, she refers to US art historian James Elkins who had the most wonderful course of short video’s on Youtube “Concepts and Problems in Visual Art.” *Look up his channel ‘James Elkins’. In lecture H2 How does Art History appear to you?, he invites his students to do an intuitive drawing of art history. Do a drawing of everything you think about in art, arranged in the way you feel about the topics or items you include. WOW?! What an eye opener! I wish I had a professor like that in my art classes. But I’m not complaining, I’ll do a drawing myself here and plant another seedling. I'll use my fave painter's fav painting: Velázquez' 'Las Meninas' and organise my stuff around it.
Collage writing, that’s what this looks like, as my eye goes around and adds stuff in my sketch of art history, memories float up and then my mind jumps onto something else I want to add. Or is that just how the mind works, is that the way we tell the story of our life to ourselves? Mind you there are infinite variations on the elements I added. And maybe there’s no ONE painting that could come out of this. A puzzle technique. Weaving together. Now I’m thinking of Lidia Yuknavitch's book 'Thrust', I still didn’t finish and that addresses just that.
Who am I? What do I stand for? What are my beliefs? WHY do I make art? What do I want to leave in the world, how would I want my work impact the world? *Ego-Inflation red flag? Naivety red flag?* What is my purpose?
The artist statement seems to want me to know answers to all those questions and write it in a compact concise two paragraph text. All it does though is bring me into an existential cramp, trying to figure out the response to age old philosophical, spiritual, religious questions.
I’m very aligned with a Buddhist take on that. Usually “I am” a little self, made up of wants, fears, successes and failures. That’s sort of limiting and scanty, almost a logical precursor of the commodification of my work.
When asked this question about who we are, a teacher responded by holding up a really large sheet of white paper and he drew a small V-shape on it. Then he asked the students what it was a picture of and most responded that it was a flying bird. “No,” he said, “it’s a picture of the sky with a bird flying through it.” He showed that what you pay attention to about yourself, about life, determines your experience. Focusing on the bird is like paying attention to what’s most obvious in the foreground of your mind, thoughts, sensations, feelings. Shifting to seeing the sky is like opening to the context that’s holding those experiences, the ocean of awareness, an alert openness from which you perceive all that is happening.
It seems to me to paint is holding that question “who am I?”, holding the space in which the answer to that question ‘floats’ through me, it’s taking the step back and let the work reveal answers I am this now, I am that, now I am this etc. It is an ongoing process. The answer is not a stable thing. I live and paint ‘inside’ of a question, how we live our daily lives every single day, a question that doesn’t have any single resolution, a question I am in active dialogue with in my life and in my relationships to other people. And so, I’ll probably die painting.
What is my belief about life? What makes a life, what makes a life worthwhile? And who decides that? Life should not be a pool of misery, we work to pay our taxes and then die. I see it more as a quest for joy and artistry (at life). I also believe that the space where my self is formed is where the hope lies. I think my art is about hope, and wonderment and joy, curiosity also, about life, my own and that of others, about our vulnerabilities, the innocence, the courage, about how we find/create meaning. Everybody/Every Body counts and Every Day matters/Everyday matters. Puns all intended.
I’m feeling connected in my painting. I paint what I feel, the story I tell myself about what happened, what I’ve seen, what I’ve experienced. As I paint, I figure out what (my idea of) the world is about underneath the chaos, the noise. I figure out what I’m about, what my art is about, what I value-A Still Life-which is infinitely more interesting than one would think if you look more closely. I am working now on a series of still life's, I titled ‘A Still Life.’ To me, attention to nature, to small things, mundane things can bring me great joy. In portraying trees or these humble objects, everyday matters that will remain after I’m gone, that are imbued with memories of belonging, I feel great joy and authentic, simple, pure happiness I suppose, vs the small self above, the ego self that may be driven by struggle and suffering.
What is my purpose? Is that a Western question? I’m inclined not to look for purpose externally, something I have to find. Like for instance to protest violence, to make political art, to address injustice. I have done bodies of work on women’s issues, I still feel quite powerless over injustices that occur. Not so much explicit activism anymore, now I’m older. But rather as intrinsic to who I am as a person. I believe those interests will show through even if I don’t address them explicitly. Picasso-Guernica-said it well: “An artist is constantly aware of the heartbreaking, passionate, delightful things that happen in the world.”
I believe in “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” as in Dylan Thomas’ poem. I am no different than nature, rather I am a part of nature. A view so under stress by patriarchal capitalism, we are separate from/have to control nature etc. I am more like the bee that transfers pollen from one flower to another and keeps our environment going, and doesn’t just collect its own resources for living its bee-life. By its nature, it’s naturally serving a massive ecological purpose, probably totally unaware of that, but who knows. Nature works in cycles that way, in flow, it’s gift economy principles, not capitalist market principles. Artists make work and people receive it as we share it with the world, whether the viewers buy a work or not. Brandi Stanley makes a great conclusion from that: if I tap into what makes me feel alive-painting-then by nature, even if I’m not aware of the collective implication of what I’m doing, and may not see it in my lifetime, I may serve a deep purpose in community through my work.
To finish, let me quote David Bowie, he formulates it so much better: “The reason that you initially started working was that there was something inside yourself that you felt that if you could manifest it in some way, that you could understand more about yourself and how you co-exist with the rest of society.” There it is, an artist statement. One paragraph.
*Here’s Dylan Thomas’ poem:
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.
The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman's lime.
The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather's wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.
And I am dumb to tell the lover's tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.
Another one of my paintings for the book cover design series? This is from 'The Dying of the Light' series, which was inspired by a Hannah Arendt quote: “That even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination might well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given to them....” (from Men in Dark Times).
Yesterday I got Rebecca Solnit's 2016 book "Hope in the Dark," and thought of my painting. That's how my brain works. Does yours too or is that just me?
In her book, she makes a radical case for hope as a commitment to act in a world whose future remains uncertain and unknowable. Solnit argues that radicals have a long, neglected history of transformative victories, that the positive consequences of our acts are not always immediately seen, directly knowable, or even measurable, and that pessimism and despair rest on an unwarranted confidence about what is going to happen next.
I've been wondering about this issue, art and society, and whether art can bring hope, as a motor for societal channeling of hope into action?
Solnit writes: "It is important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and destruction. The hope I am interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It is also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse one. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings. 'Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naivety,' the Bulgarian writer Maria Popova recently remarked." Inspiring.
More 'book cover visons' are in my earlier blog post .
Yesterday I got '140 Artists' Ideas for Planet Earth,' at the bookstore. On my way home, I could see how the drought and heat affected the nature in our own City Park. The ducks that are usually actively toddling towards by-passers now swim in a green mucky pond. The note on the cover of the book says 'Remember Nature.' I made me think of this small mini painting 'Dry Land,' as a record so we can remember nature.
These days it seems like I'm all over the place, a mind buzzing with ideas, from still life to landscape to figurative. But there you go, 'it's all in me.' Paraphrasing Kiki Smith, 'Some people think or expect that you should make the same kinds of art forever because it creates a convenient narrative-or a coherent IG feed- ... I want my work to embody my inherent divergent interests.'
'Dry Land' is oil on canvas-board, 18 by 24 cm.
During Summer Holidays, after feeling frustration with the way the world is spiralling off, I decided to start a new series titled 'A Still Life.' A play of words, since the paintings will be still lifes and they will reflect my personal still life. The idea sort of occurred to me after reading Sarah Stillman's novel 'Still Life,' the reason why I love doing still life paintings. She has some awesome writing on art braided into the story, what art does, what it means.
I loved these lines in it. Like this one: "Art versus humanity is not the question, Ulysses. One doesn’t exist without the other. Art is the antidote. Is that enough to make it important? Well, yes, I think it is.”
So, I'm returning to my painter self, anchoring my 'still life' in a world that seems to spin more out of control as we go. It feels almost subversive to spend hours quietly observing and rendering an object. I added Deborah Boe's poem as statement, as I often find it difficult to write about what I'm doing; I mean, who said 'if I could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint'? All that emphasis on wording for artist painters ... I wonder? Maybe I'm not that kind of artist? Too many words can kill a piece. Why not be still and behold? I'm returning to read poems for that reason, their 'language' can make entering into paintings easier.
While archiving and storing my works, something I like to keep on top of, I get to see some of my older works again and came to think of them as book cover illustrations. I love books and their covers .... if they suck me in, if they invite me to pick up a book and leaf through it .... I feel that some of my works might be quite inviting as book covers, like these I posted below?
Hello World, a project organised during the pandemic by TransCultural Exchange is having an event in Boston this weekend. 'The Female,' one of my paintings of The Anatomy Lesson body of work is included in the projection. The event is dedicated to the artists from Ukraine who are included in this project and all of the Ukrainian people suffering from the war.
I got a request from a high school student to write a bit more on my ‘The Anatomy Lesson Triptych, panel 3’. As an artist I love the viewer to make their own associations and have them allow their own questions to rise as their eye moves across the canvas. That would be my default artist answer. But I’ve also taught high school students (math and science) and I also wrote student essays and I rarely get to see what viewers of my artwork think or notice, let alone it’d be the subject matter of an essay. Wow! *Basically I’d like to cultivate my image for being a generous, approachable feminist artist-woman. It’s a win-win ;)
So, I don’t mind answering in a #tbt blogpost and share on IG. That maybe might get more comments from other viewers for her to use? Cool idea?
Here’s a non exhaustive list of my own thoughts and themes that came up for me as I did my research and while I did the work on that piece. Important turn of phrases being ‘as I did…,’ and ‘while…’
-The inspiration that sparked the idea of making the work is, as I describe on my site in the anatomy lesson viewing room, the cover of the anatomy book written in 1543 by Andreas Vesalius, an anatomy student and teacher at my Alma Mater, the KULeuven. I always loved etchings illustrations of the figure in such old books, it’s how I first started to draw, and I started to read about his work and how he found the bodies to section etc. I wrote a bit on that also somewhere on here.
-And then there is the feminist in me who was shocked that anatomical knowledge about the human body historically got based on the male body. That made me decide to address this incomplete way women’s bodies were approached in science, due to traditional, religious beliefs, preconceptions or stereotyping, often serving to legitimise women’s ‘inferior’ social status leaving women vulnerable in health issues. Aspects which today continue to have their effects on how women’s health issues are approached in medicine.
-The woman body in the piece is directly taken from an illustration from that anatomy book. In it Vesalius discusses the female reproductive system and uses the same terminology as for the male organs. Back then they believed the female sexual organs to be the same as the male’s ‘turned outside-in, towards the inside of the body’, *putting it somewhat simplistically. That illustration shows the torso of a woman, no head, no arms, no legs. And that has a rich interpretational value when you take it out of the medical handbook’s context. Are women denied agency, are they allowed to have arms and hands? Are women allowed the same passage rights into the public sphere? Do they have legs? And who decides in a patriarchal society? (*consider that a rhetorical question)
-As I start working on the painting, I start getting associations myself, not sure about what comes first though, the act of painting or maybe the thoughts are already present somewhere hidden in the folds of my mind as I design the composition … Not sure that today high school students are old enough to remember Boxing Helena, a 1993 movie in which a surgeon becomes obsessed with a woman (Twin Peaks’ Sherilyn Fenn) he once was in an affair with. Refusing to accept that she has moved on, he amputates her limbs and holds her captive. In other words, she is reduced to a torso…
-It felt important to me to have the woman figure painted larger and looking back at the male figures who come to (male gaze) view and study the ‘anatomical model’.
-I placed the whole composition into the universe, as I also did in panel 1 where I left the aula ceiling open revealing a starry sky. What’s that about? It wasn’t preconceived, it happened intuitively, would be an answer… bodies are made of starry dust? Dust specks in an infinite universe, limited and finite surely.… Also to me the cyclical pattern of the disk the scene is placed on, the placement in an infinite universe has spiritual connotations: in the Ancient European Prehistoric context, women were seen as the bearers of life. They were the givers of life and mourners of life gone by, in a cyclical conception of time. The Venus figurines (Willendorf) testify of that.
These are just some of MY personal associations, and they surely are colored by my context and life history as a Western European woman. I hope that's helpful ..
I'm going back to my roots, painting 'the body, nothing else.' I've always been fascinated with the way the body stands, moves, 'speaks,' 'expresses' different emotional states. I'm starting these miniature studies of a woman dancer's body in motion, and will search ways to bring the duration of the movement into the work vs the painting as a container of time in which the choreography of movement is usually stilled.
I'm using video stills of dancers, performers like Valeska Gert and the clay torsos I made for the anatomy lesson body of work I did last year as models. I'm also getting the catalog of 'Danser Brut,' a show in BOZAR. Later I'll be able to get a large sized painting with multiple figures in a 'choreography' of protest of sorts, a theme in brooding on for a while now.
These miniature studies are research for my next series, which is only gradually taking form in my mind. I'm thinking of doing a series of women 'movements'. There's no shortage of material, historical and current. There's the stories of the Trojan women mulling in the back of my mind, the French Revolution 'poissardes'. There's the Polish women protesting the new abortion laws, the women who are protesting the Belarusian presidency of Loekasjenko, the metoo movement, the women's march, 'ni una menos' in Mexico.
For a starting point, I worked on a painting I made as the women were marching on Washington in 2017. I reworked it a couple of weeks ago, trying to make it more painterly and less activist posterlike illustrative and disconnect it somewhat to that specific movement at that specific moment in time but rather capture women's movements, women who take to the street to protest to claim their rights. I like the way it hangs next to my monochromatic painting 'pre existing condition,' as I want to bring those painting styles together in trying to capture the movement, the choreography of the figures protesting. Preparing, to see how the literature on choreography can inform my painting practice, I'm also reading 'Choreographies of Protest,' by Susan Leigh Foster and Susan Foellmer's article 'Choreography as a medium of protest.'