Am I part of the problem?

Beauchamp Point in Autumn, oil on canvasboard, available.

I’m no fan of the Guardian, but this recent (unsigned) piece is one more argument about a well-known problem in the art world. Women’s art sells at a shocking 10-to-1 markdown from men’s work—"for every £1 a male artist earns for his work, a woman earns a mere 10p.” That should come as no surprise to readers of this blog; I’ve written about it here, here and here, among other places.

Women artists earn less than their male counterparts; they are collected less by institutions, and—this is something that surprised me—if they sign their work, the value goes down.

Autumn farm, evening blues, oil on canvasboard, $1449 framed.

Meanwhile, in blind tests, viewers can’t tell the gender of painters by the work alone. My pal Chrissy Pahucki was so taken by that question that she replicated the blind study using plein air paintings by artists she knew. Her results came in about the same as the original study; i.e., the same as guessing.

Gender disparity is something I track as I watched the prizes being given in juried shows. So how did I fare as a juror at Adirondack Plein Air? I’d promised organizer Sandra Hildreth I’d set my own biases aside. With few exceptions I did not know who the work was by. (Although artists are told to not sign their work in advance, that’s difficult to enforce.)

Of the nine prizes I gave, overall, three were to women. The top three all went to men. Ouch. That’s hardly a large-enough sample to convict myself over, but it is cause for reflection.

Blueberry Barrens, Clary Hill, 24X36, oil on canvas, $3985.

I stress the formal elements of design over mood and evocativeness. (I scarcely know how one would judge those subjective values.) Perhaps that gave the edge to men. Does that mean that quantification, classification, and structure are somehow male thinking? That’s an argument that troglodytes on both sides of the culture wars might happily embrace. I reject it myself; I have the brain that God gave me, and he made me female.

This concept of a male-female divide is in some ways stronger than it was in the benighted 1950s and 1960s. Back then, nobody went on about some inner standard of male and female that our outer bodies might be in misalignment with. In fact, nobody spent a great deal of time analyzing our minds unless there was something starkly wrong with us.

Clary Hill Blueberry Barrens, approx. 24X36, watercolor on Yupo, available

I may not have been allowed to wear trousers to school until the seventh grade, but there was no pink-and-blue differentiation in kids’ clothing in my youth. Outside of school, we all wore the same mud-stained shorts and shirts. We had the same toys. We played sandlot baseball together.

At the same time, artists like Lois Dodd struggled mightily against a system that denigrated her work in comparison to her peers. While I wish I could stuff Barbie-culture back in the hole it came from, I never want to go back to the days of ignoring women artists.

That ship has started to turn. “Even though prices for work by female artists are starting from a far lower base, they are currently rising 29% faster than for art by men,” said the Guardian. “For canny investors who want a bargain and a higher return, it’s a no-brainer.”

Memory and judgment

Midsummer along the Bay of Fundy, 24×36, $3188 unframed, available.

“Sometimes I just have such a wonderful, fulfilling time painting a certain place, I conclude it must be my best painting ever, because I had such a good time,” a reader wrote. “Then when nobody seems interested in it, I realize I was just getting all those good vibes from the painting but other people didn’t, because it actually wasn’t such a good painting. I have been trying to still keep my focus on making a painting a ‘good’ painting, and not just a record of my fun. Just because I had a good time doesn’t mean I produced a good painting; that still requires work.”

I have a related problem: the more a painting or situation challenges me, the better I believe the painting to be. Thus, a painting that I had to hike for, or one where the subject refused to compose itself are the ones that continue to fascinate me.

Viewers seldom agree, because I haven’t necessarily defeated the challenge; often it has defeated me.

My own experience painting with Sandra Hildreth and Nancy Brossard at Madawaska Pond bears out the idea that memory colors our critical judgment: my painting skips right over its putative focal point so the composition is awkward. The treeline is disjointed. However, it’s a recording of a lovely day, far from the madding crowd. There’s a wee little figure (Nancy) in it, so I like it. I won’t pitch it or sand it out just yet.

Fog over Whiteface Mountain, 11×14, $1087, available.

Meanwhile, Sandy’s painting of the same subject (which you can see here), was right on the money: it accurately depicted the open sky, the enormity of the watershed, and the mood of the place. The public agreed; she sold it before the evening was out.

By and large, painting is not performance art. We hope to bring a whiff of mountain air into our work, or the raking light of evening, but these are illusions and memory.

Yet I still can’t bring myself to believe that the ancillary experiences that went into a painting’s making do not somehow inform the final result. Nor do I think that we or the immediate public are always the best judges of whether a painting is good or not. Had Vincent van Gogh relied on contemporary public opinion to judge his work, he’d have been dead wrong.

Quebec Brook, 12×16, oil on canvasboard, $1449 available.

I did another painting with Sandra Hildreth years ago. This one was of Quebec Brook, on the same watershed as Madawaska Pond but many miles away by road or canoe. It was a sunny summer day and I again had a lovely time. I was relaxed enough that I didn’t worry that my focal point-the beaver dam-was at the very bottom. Being chill allowed me to take a compositional risk.

The painting at the top of this post, Midsummer, was done from the edge of a cliff in Port Greville, Nova Scotia, over two days. The soil being soft, I managed to slide over the edge with my easel, landing in a patch of alders about ten feet from the rim. Had nature not put that ledge near the top of the ridge, I’d have splatted on the road below me. Yes, that experience has changed my view of the painting, but for good or ill, I cannot say.

Obsessed by baby trees

Herdsmaid, 1908, Anders Zorn, courtesy Zornsamlingarna

There were three titans of fin de siècle realism: the Spaniard Joaquín Sorolla, American ex-pat John Singer Sargent, and Swedish Anders Zorn. They were almost exact contemporaries and all three mined the same material—figure and landscape, heavily larded with the society portraits that paid the bills. Each was known for the assurance of his brushwork and for capturing light with a minimum of fuss. With our bias toward Anglo-American culture, we know Sargent best, but all were deservedly famous in their day. Do I have a favorite among them? Whichever one I’m looking at, at the moment.

Baby Spruce and Pine, 6X8, oil on canvasboard, private collection.

Ever since I first saw Herdsmaid, above, I have been obsessed. Zorn’s handling of the lass is wonderful, but it’s the baby pine that haunts me. It’s a dead ringer for the young Eastern White Pine that’s Maine’s state tree and blankets so much of the Adirondacks and northern New England. Zorn manages to convey the soft bristles with a single brushstroke that connects both light and dark. I’ve never even come close.

Jack Pine, 8x10, oil on canvasboard, private collection.

Most painters are entranced by mature evergreens. Their angular, buffeted forms stand tall and dark against the horizon, making them a naturally-pleasing compositional form. Perversely, I love their fluffy babies. They cluster in little nurseries at their parents’ feet, fifty or so at a time. They cast no shadows, so ephemeral is their foliage. The teenagers are gawky, with long slender stems and curious tufts of needles. Zorn caught that perfectly.

The pine nursery (Madawaska Pond), 12X16, oil on canvasboard, available.

I tried again on Wednesday. Sandra Hildreth took me for a long ride into the forest—north from Paul Smiths and then eight miles down a logging track. From there we shouldered our backpacks and hiked a scant eighth of a mile to a point overlooking Madawaska Pond. The money shot (of course) was a view of Buck Mountain in the distance. But what interested me most was the tree nursery in the foreground.

I tried to include both, and it was an error. The tree nursery on the left had no shadows, no distinct colors, and no interstices between the crowded trees, so it melted into nothingness against the big picture. It can’t stand up against the contrast of the mature pines that shelter it. No, it’s not a failure as a painting, but it didn’t meet my goal. I’d like to go back. Alas, there isn’t time.

St. Gabriel's Church, 12X16, oil on canvasboard.

There’s another tree nursery in Paul Smiths that I’ve painted before. It sits by a ramshackle old church called St. Gabriel’s. The church is in no better shape than last time I visited, but someone has wisely yanked the baby pines away from the foundation. Those in the nearby woods have grown taller than me. Sadly, they will now begin a fight to the death, for only some can survive. It’s the sad side of natural selection.

Sentinel pines, 11X14, oil on canvasboard, available.

There are always little pines along the roadside, where they’re regularly mowed down by road crews. Perhaps I’ll take my safety cones and paint some on my way to Saranac Lake this afternoon. Today is the day I jury the 14th annual Adirondack Plein Air Festival. If I give up any hope of being elegant for the reception tonight, I can sneak in a painting on my way to town. Really, which is more important?

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.