Art is not eternal

Tin Foil Hat, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 includes shipping in continental US.

“Art is eternal,” read yet another meme on Facebook. Not surprisingly, artists like to repeat this. But art is no more eternal than any other handiwork of man.

History is replete with examples of art that is gone. The Colossus of Rhodes. The Great Library of Alexandria and all it contained. The Great Hypostyle Hall of the Temple of Karnak. The 69 ancient Greek bronze statues of Olympic victors that once graced the sanctuary of Olympia. The menorah from the Second Temple, which was stolen when the Romans sacked Jerusalem; then it disappeared from Rome. The Imperial Seal of China.

Pinkie, pastel, ~6X8, $435 includes shipping and handling in continental US.

Whole cities have been sacked, like Athens, Constantinople, or Kaifeng. Their art was destroyed with them. Insurgency and war destroy art, as in the French Revolution. Conquerors loot and lose it; Napoleon and the Nazis are just two examples.

This fall we had a massive fire in Port Clyde, ME. It destroyed several historic buildings and paintings by Jamie Wyeth and Kevin Beers. They were gone with sudden finality, and we were shocked and grieved.

There are spasms of iconoclastic fury that convulse humankind. The Beeldenstorm of the 16th century is the most well-known. The Reformation wanted to purge Northern Europe of Catholic ideology. What better way to attack it than through art? In England, 90% of religious art was destroyed. The percentages were probably similar in Germany and the Low Countries.

The Late Bus, oil on archival canvasboard, 6X8, $435.00 framed, includes shipping and handling in continental US.

Occasionally, great works are saved from iconoclasm by very brave people. The Van Eycks‘ Ghent Altarpiece, is an outstanding example of Early Netherlandish painting. It was already famous in August of 1556 when the Beeldenstorm hit Ghent. The first attack on the Cathedral was repelled by guards. On the second try, the rioters used a tree trunk to batter through the doors. But by then the panels and the guards had been hidden on a narrow spiral staircase within the tower. They were eventually moved to a new hiding spot in the town hall, but the original frame, itself a work of art, was destroyed.

To put that in context, imagine trying to stop the Taliban as they blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyam.

Art isn’t even above fickle fashion. It’s easy to date paintings because every era has its tropes. Right now, we’re in a long period where color is ascendent over detail. To the next generation, that will look as old-fashioned as leg o’ mutton sleeves look to us.

Hiking, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 includes shipping in continental US.

I told my daughter that when I die, AI should be able to reproduce me well enough to go on teaching my classes without me. “I won’t do that,” she said. “Your paintings will go up in value when you’re dead.” That is probably, true, but I’m not painting to impress people after I’m gone. Nor should you.

Our job as artists is to speak to the living. The Beeldenstorm happened because Protestants knew how powerful art is. The Nazis destroyed ‘degenerate’ art for the same reason. That’s what motivated the Taliban.

Of course, art can reach across the centuries to speak to us. Consider paleolithic cave art and its makers. We know almost nothing of their culture: we have no dishes, spears, firepits, foods, dwellings or traces of language. All we have is art: figurines, bone carvings, a few decorated tools and lots of cave paintings from all over the world. These speak to us powerfully but wordlessly. I don’t care if my own painting lasts 500 years, let alone 35,000 years, but I’m sure glad their art has.

Until the first of the year, you can use the discount code THANKYOUPAINTING10 to get 10% off these or any other painting on my website. Shipping and handling are always included within the continental US, but I’m afraid I’ll no longer be able to get them to you by Christmas.

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: don’t worry about AI just yet

Gathering Storm, Ivan Ayvazovsky, 1899, courtesy Sothebys

The sublime

The 18th century brought the concept of the sublime into our consciousness. That means a quality of greatness beyond counting-what the religious might call the presence of God. It is harmony and horror in equal measure, and it’s meant to apply to every sphere of human endeavor and experience. You might experience the sublime standing on the lip of the Grand Canyon, where your appreciation of the sunrise is informed by your awe in realizing that there’s no barrier between you and that huge hole. It is a meeting of our emotional selves with the wonders of creation.

In painting, that experience is articulated in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. It has its parallels in every art form. In the 20th century, the advent of unparalleled efficient death-in-warfare made it appear in poetry, like Wilfred Owen’s tragic, beautiful Dulce et Decorum Est.

“Art is for seeing evil,” writes philosopher Agnes Callard. “Evil’ in this sense includes: hunger, fear, injury, pain, anxiety, injustice, loss, catastrophe, misunderstanding, failure, betrayal, cruelty, boredom, frustration, loneliness, despair, downfall, annihilation.” In short, she’s talking about whatever is the opposite of goodness, beauty, and virtue.

I think that art is for more than that, but it’s a component.

My first attempt to replicate the theme of Gathering Storm with an AI image generator.

AI generated art

A reader asked me my thoughts about Artificial Intelligence (AI)-generated art. I have little experience with it; I’ve tinkered with ChatGPT. It creates a facsimile of human writing, strings of language that are fundamentally meaningless. It’s perfect, then for advertising copy.

What can an equivalent image generator make? If recent news is to be believed, very brilliant facsimiles of artwork. But can this work make intelligent paintings? I decided to try my hand with an easily-available online generator.

My second attempt looks like an evening sail in Penobscot Bay. No drama whatsoever.

I used as a reference, Ivan Ayvazovsky‘s Gathering Storm, above. This painting operates at two levels-first, our sheer terror at the beauty and violence of the sea. Then we notice that the boat appears to be floating rudderless within the storm. It’s both a beautiful painting and a perfect metaphor for aspects of our human existence-the epitome of the sublime in painting.

I thought up a set of descriptors for Aivazovsky’s painting: evening ocean storm squarerigger. The app came up with the image above. Cute, but cartoonish.

On the surface, perhaps, it would make a decent painting, but there’s nothing terrifying or profound about it. I refined that by changing keywords, ending up by adding “bleak,” which just gave me a low-chroma version of the prior iteration. My succession of images are as they appear in this post.

Upping the ‘wild sea’ adjectives just made me lose the boat. And the composition is nothing to write home about.

Tinkering might lead me to much better apps online. But while these images are good, they’re devoid of human emotion or ideas. Yes, they can occasionally get lucky and come up with an image that ‘means’ something, but that requires a human curator to discern. They’re just like Google Image Search with filters.

Adding ‘bleak’ just made me lose the chroma.

The greatest ability we have in painting isn’t our technical skill (as important as that is) but our human intellect, both rational and emotional. The 20th century movement towards content-free art is over, because it can be done better and faster by machines. It doesn’t matter if you’re painting abstraction or landscape; start thinking about what the higher meaning of your work is. If it’s not there, you can be replaced by a computer.

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The little things in life

Stuffed animal in a bowl, with Saran Wrap. 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

Most artists will tell you they love working big. We love making statement pieces that grab all eyes when people enter the room. These feel ‘important.’ The bigger you go, the easier it is to keep the brushwork free. Yet, practically speaking, we paint many smaller pieces.

I’ve been updating my website by adding still lives from a 6x8 show I did many years ago. My kids were of an age to chase the moment’s crazes, like Baby Monkey Riding on a Pig. Whatever idiotic thing they chattered about, I painted.

Some are dated, like the woman who fell into the fountain texting. The shoes could pass, but the cell phone is so 2011. In some cases, I can’t even remember the meme. What prompted me to paint a stuffed animal in a bowl, wrapped in plastic?

Falling into a Fountain While Texting, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

The power of small paintings

Today I almost never paint this small. I’m not alone in that; it’s tough to love a tiny canvas. But by always going bigger, we ignore the power of small paintings. How many times are we in a museum and gallery and grabbed by a little gem in a corner? A small painting, artfully placed, can have the same impact as a monumental painting above the mantel.

Crista Pisano has made a career of painting jewel-like plein air miniatures, which is practical as well as aesthetically-pleasing. She doesn’t have to carry big, bulky frames to events.

From the consumer’s side, small paintings are a practical way to ease into art-buying. They seldom run more than a few hundred dollars.

Back It Up, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

Why don’t painters tell more jokes in their work?

Painting can take itself way too seriously. I was reminded of this recently as I flipped through one of my sketchbooks with another small being—my grandson Jake. At eight, he’s unimpressed that I can model rocks and sea accurately. What he’s interested in is Action! Humor! Dragons!

“What have you painted recently that tells a story?” I asked myself. Well, Ravening Wolves, and In Control (Grace and her Unicorn). But for the last decade or so, it’s been mostly straight-up landscape with the occasional figure or portrait commission thrown in. Recently, as I’ve written, I’ve realized this isn’t enough.

Baby Monkey Riding on a Pig, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

I’ll never be another Francisco Goya (whose Disasters of War should be required viewing for every voter) or Käthe Kollwitz. I’ve been spared firsthand experience with war, thank God. As a result, I’m simply not that deep, or that dark.

I’m sort of the Bertie Wooster of oil painting—trivial, amiable, wooly-headed, and somehow always bobbing along into events that are bigger than me. That realization is what got me thinking about these old still lives. There’s something about the triviality of modern internet culture being taken as seriously as a portrait of the president that still makes me laugh.

Small paintings are a place to explore our odd ideas. I need more of that.

Does surrealism work in painting?

Winter Lambing, 48X36, oil on linen, $6231 framed.

I slept through most of Halloween, meaning I missed one of America’s key spending holidays. My fellow citizens were expected to lay out more than $10 billion on—what, exactly? Candy? Fake spider webs?

“When you think of it, all the world's great stories have an element of the supernatural,” my student Mark Gale told me recently.

Ravening Wolves, oil on canvas, 24X30, $3478

It’s a thesis I’ve tested against my own taste in literature. It’s there in the Homeric epics, where the gods intervene in human affairs in very human ways. All the books of the Bible are about relationship between God and man. Dante’s Divine Comedy is a fantasy about cosmic justice. Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope wrote within the Victorian understanding that God is ever-present. Kurt Vonnegut (if you didn’t read him at 20, you had no heart) was an atheist, but wrote in the supernatural. Haruki Murakami is a modern-day shaman. Even dystopian novels like Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World are about malign power beyond the merely human.

Apparently, contemporary readers feel the same about magical realism. Fantasy literature is one of the great successes of modern bookselling.

The Harvest is Plenty, 30X40, oil on linen, $6231 framed.

The supernatural, in the form of religious painting, is the foundation of western art. We invented painting largely to explain the Bible. Now that almost everyone reads, religious art no longer serves that purpose. But we can see its power in works like the Ghent Altarpiece.

However, magical realism never made the leap to modern painting. Surrealism was a minor mid-century phenomenon that was rendered superfluous by moving pictures. Giorgio de Chirico and Salvador Dali were probably its greatest practitioners, but neither had any profound impact on art history. Surrealism lives on in the work of Frida Kahlo, but Fridamania is probably more a cult than an art movement.

This is a disconnect I feel strongly. I’ve been a Christian convert for about thirty years. You’d think I could express that through art. However, I’ve had little success. The exception was a series of paintings I did for a solo show called God+Man at Roberts Wesleyan’s Davison Gallery in 2014. It was hardly a cutting-edge idea or treatment, even if the paintings themselves are good.

All flesh is as grass, 30X40, oil on linen, $6231 framed.

Part of that is the crushing weight of sixteen centuries of great religious art. There is nothing that I can say about the stories of the Bible that hasn’t already been said by hands and minds trained to the task.

I’ve argued that this is enough; that in Creation we see God. But that’s starting to feel like an insufficient argument. Is landscape enough? If not, how does an artist start insinuating his or her higher thoughts into the work?

Slipping the bonds of mere technique

This painting of the VIC's Barnum Brook Trail was purchased by a gentleman from Vermont several years ago. He surprised me by taking my workshop this year.

I drove from Paul Smiths to Saranac Lake, NY, in a morose mood. Here is the gulch where Kari Ganoung Ruiz parked and painted; here is the cemetery where Laura Martinez-Bianco and Crista Pisano clowned around; if Chrissy Pahucki were in town, we could go to Donnelly’s for ice cream. I was on my way to a meet-and-greet for Saranac Lake ArtWorks’ 14th annual Adirondacks Plein Air Festival at the Hotel Saranac. I’m don’t enjoy large parties; feeling sorry for myself wasn’t helping.

That was absurd, of course. I ran into Kathleen Gray Farthing, Patrick McPhee and Tarryl Gabel as soon as I walked in. Lisa BurgerLenz and I reminisced about contracting giardiasis together back in the bad old days; there’s nothing like diarrhea to bond friends for life.

The Dugs was painted in Speculator, NY, in the lower Adirondacks.

I’ve promised organizer Sandra Hildreth that I can remain objective in the jurying, and I’m fairly certain I can do that with personalities. With artistic style, it will be more difficult. We all fit somewhere on the continuum between abstraction and realism. We tend to respond to paintings with a similar outlook. I must look past my stylistic prejudices to see more universal qualities. This is where a rubric for formal criticism is helpful.

As much as I stress design and execution, there ought to be something in painting that transcends mere technique. We may have said otherwise in the crazy days of the twentieth century, but a painting really ought to mean something. Otherwise, it’s no more important than a square of designer fabric.

Whiteface makes its own weather is one of several paintings I've made of the clouds that hang around this peak.

I’m intimately familiar with the Adirondack Preserve. I know its history, the terrain, and the people who live and work here. I am grounded in the spirit of the place. That makes it easy to assess these painters’ core message. But what if I were jurying in, say, Florida, where I have no affinities? I’d be thinking in stereotypes, which raises the risk of missing deeper insights altogether.

That’s the conundrum for event organizers. They want jurors from away, so that they’re not swayed by friendship. At the same time, these same jurors must judge not only the formal qualities of paintings, but their inner spark of meaning.

One of the best contemporary paintings I’ve seen of the Adirondacks was a nocturne by Sandra Hildreth. She painted it at a campfire at a lean-to on Black Lake. It had a strong, simple design and captured an experience most back-country people have shared. A few years later, Chrissy Pahucki and I attempted the same idea by renting a campsite and painting by firelight. I have Chrissy’s version hanging in my kitchen. It is powerfully evocative.

Adirondack Spring was painting in Piseco, NY, in a light snowsquall. The colors of spring and fall in the mountains are sometimes indistinguishable.

I’m a strong proponent of process. I don’t think you should be teaching or critiquing unless you can break your technique into discrete steps. As much as I strive to be objective, however, painting is ultimately communication, and that’s one of the great mysteries of human life.

Done well, painting slips the bonds of mere technique and enters another realm altogether. On Friday, when I’m jurying this show, I’ll be focusing on the technical side of painting, but I pray that I’m never so earthbound that I fail to see what’s transcendent.

What’s a poor artist to do?

Perhaps my dream is telling me I ought to paint about something more serious than the beauty of nature.

The Third of May, 1808, 1814, Francisco Goya, courtesy the Prado.

I am seldom engaged by the news, but the death of 51 smuggled illegal migrants in a tractor-trailer in Texas has shattered my calm. It’s not just the absolute horror of the end of their lives, or the inhumanity of whatever monster left them to die. I subscribe to three different news feeds. In each of them, the story was buried somewhere below Ghislaine Maxwell’s sentence, SCOTUS protests, and the trial in Washington. That’s callous.

There was a time when this story would have resulted in a national soul-searching. In a nation where mass murder is no longer remarkable, I guess it no longer matters. I’m not interested in casting blame for it, by the way, but I sure wish there was a way we could guarantee it won’t happen again.

Charles IV of Spain and His Family, 1800–01, Francisco Goya, courtesy the Prado.

Last night I dreamed about that most remarkable and revolutionary painter, Francisco Goya. He was a professional success, being named Primer Pintor de Cámara to the Spanish court. That was the very top of the heap for Spanish painters. His reputation was based on royal portraits and Rococo decorative arts. Had he stopped there, he would have probably been remembered as a second-rate Diego Velázquez, because, frankly, there’s nothing unique about his court painting.

And then came the Peninsular War, with Spain, Portugal and Britain attempting to stymie Napoleon’s imperial ambitions in the Iberian Peninsula. It was seven years long, it was bitter and bloody, and it was the first war in which guerrilla warfare played a major role. It left Spain and its institutions in ruin. The violence and instability didn’t stop with the end of the war, either. A long-running civil skirmish then erupted.

Plate 47 from The Disasters of WarAsí sucedió (This is how it happened). Murdered monks lie by French soldiers looting church treasures, Francisco Goya, courtesy the Prado.

Goya remained in Madrid during the war, which affected him profoundly. He never wrote or spoke of his feelings; instead, he produced the shocking Disasters of War series. It was so explosive that it wasn’t published until 35 years after his death. He also painted two paintings about the invasion, The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808 (at top). The latter is one of the most famous canvases ever painted on the impact of war.

He didn’t reserve his criticism for the French, either. The Caprichos and Los Disparates etching series are about the superstition and folly of his fellow Spaniards. In fact, his entire output from this period is troubled and desperate, heavy on metaphor and allusion.

The Dog, c. 1819-23, Francisco Goya, oil mural on plaster transferred to canvas, courtesy the Prado.

At the age of 72, Goya moved into a two-story house outside Madrid called Quinta del Sordo. Here he painted a series of murals on the walls, now known as the Black Paintings. These include The Dog, now considered the precursor of modern art. Goya never meant for anyone to see these paintings; he lived in total isolation and they weren’t removed from the walls and exhibited until 50 years after his death.

I’m no Goya—for one thing, I’m an irrepressible optimist. (That’s easier when you live in the fat and sassy United States instead of troubled 19th century Spain.) So why did I dream about him? Perhaps my reverie is telling me I ought to paint about something more serious than the beauty of nature. I shrink from examining the pain of those poor sufferers in Texas too closely, but, for heaven’s sake, someone needs to.