Human Measures

Essay for Human Measures exhibit at Indiana University 
by Tim Kennedy
Part of the beauty of living in the present age artistically is that the viewer approaches the gallery space with no fixed idea of what he or she will encounter there. Any form or experience is available or permitted. Part of our task as viewers is to engage whatever we encounter with strangeness and new eyes. In one way the experience of the gallery space is like the experience of the world – we are constantly called upon to place experience into a context where what we encounter has meaning. In helping Betsy Stirratt to put together Human Measures, my hope was that viewers would continue to impose this willed strangeness onto what they may think they are already familiar with – the painted image of a human figure.

One of the possible advantages of the experience of painting is its simplicity and directness. It is easy to forget in our present environment – one in which we are constantly bombarded with images electronic and otherwise – that this was not always the case. But I believe that with a little effort, it is possible to imagine the state of mind before the flood – so to speak – a kind of visual age of innocence. Regarded in this context a flat, painted image is nothing short of a miracle. So it must have seemed to the first artists in the modern western tradition to attempt it and to their audience. I believe that this accounts for the quality of rawness and realness that comes across in paintings from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The shock of reality that we encounter in Giotto and Duccio springs from their belief that the act of producing an illusion bordered on the magical. I believe that it is possible for artists and viewers to recover this sense of wonder and, for me, the work of the artists included in Human Measures holds this magic.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the faith necessary to imbue illusion with magical quality was shaken. There were many reasons why this happened. One of them was the development of photography but another was the conclusion that as observers we influence the outcome of what we observe. These circumstances led some artists to ever greater expressions of subjectivity and the plumbing of emotion. It led other artists, since they concluded that they knew very little about the world without making assumptions, to believe they could take only the circumscribed actions that they were sure of. An attitude like this accounts for the late work of an artist like Cézanne that is built from multiple sense impressions from ever shifting viewpoints. We prize Cézanne’s method because it reveals the artist – his doubts, his anxieties; it tells us as much what he did not know as what he did. After an early career as a surrealist sculptor, Giacometti mined a similar vein in his late paintings. He expresses similar doubts to James Lord as he paints Lord’s portrait: “I’ve been wasting my time for thirty years. The root of the nose is more than I can hope to manage.”
For artists working figuratively now three artists have special significance in relation to these issues. They are William Coldstream, Euan Uglow and Antonio Lopez Garcia. Coldstream was born in 1908 and died in 1987. In the mid 1930’s he painted under the influence of Matisse, but Coldstream eventually rejected this approach as being too full of generalization. He made it his goal to embrace the specific and went about doing this in a very practical, concrete way; he suspended a mason’s plumb bob between himself and his subject to establish a true vertical and he used this tool to view and measure his subject against. One of the primal qualities that distinguish us as human beings is our upright posture; we innately feel a relationship with Coldstream’s approach simply through our ability to stand. The paintings had an architectural feel and included work marks used to construct the painting in the completed image. Euan Uglow (1932 – 2000) was a Coldstream student at the Slade School of Art in the 1950’s. He adopted Coldstream’s methods and was, if anything, more rigorous in their application. The foreshortenings and color choices Uglow adopts are extreme, but always beautiful and have a ring of truth about them. Uglow is more widely know than Coldstream today. The third artist in this group is Antonio Lopez Garcia, a Spanish artist who works in and around Madrid. After early work in a fantastic, magic realist vein, Lopez Garcia turned to precise methods of sighting his subject in paintings of the figure, cityscapes and domestic scenes. His endeavor as an artist is beautifully recorded with great empathy and humor in Victor Erice’s 1990 film Dream of Light. The film shows Lopez Garcia painting a quince tree in his garden – practically in real time. Nothing cooperates with him and it is both heartbreaking and funny to watch. Sunlight is elusive and it rains when he expects to paint. He essentially repaints the picture each day as the fruit ripens and hangs lower. Eve Mansdorf has an apt term for these painters – she refers to them as “unreasonably reasonable.”
An artist who is the polar opposite of these sensibilities and yet has also had great influence with contemporary figurative painters is Lucian Freud. He is the grandson of Sigmund Freud. His early work is dream like and could almost be described as naïve. His growth as an artist coincides with a gradual honing of his facility. He began as more of a draftsman by forming razor sharp contours in this painting and graphic work, but as his work progressed it evolved into a masterful painterly practice. His approach seems almost entirely intuitive although evidence of anatomical schemas can be seen even if they are not consciously sought. His figures have a massive quality, which seem almost sculpturally modeled from the paint and are fraught with a palpable psychological presence. The paintings, particularly the nude figures of the performance artist Leigh Bowery, have monumentality unequaled in contemporary art.
It is worth mentioning these artists because they have all produced work that could not have been painted at another time. Unless the viewer is not really looking, it cannot be said that the methods for perceiving and forming the motif, compositional strategies and the expressive impact of paintings by these artists resemble anything from previous centuries. In her essay The Realist Criminal and the Abstract Law Linda Nochlin makes the argument that realism has acted as a vitalizing corrective to idealizing and generalizing impulses throughout the history of Western Art. She also argues that there is an inherent contemporary component in any realist endeavor because it will inevitably reflect the era in which it is produced. And so it is with the artists included in Human Measures.
The unifying idea at the core of Human Measures is that it includes painters working with methods that stress a perceptual connection with the motif. Equally strong shows could be put together stressing idealizing impulses and the figure or various narrative strategies. In fact, within this show attitudes toward the motif and working directly from it vary. Coldstream, Uglow and Lopez Garcia were in my mind during the nascent stages of this exhibition, but this does not mean that they are in anyone else’s. Katherine Schneider has no interest in them yet looks at Freud. Ananian appreciates them but feels more emotionally connected to Freud. Dubrow is interested in Uglow and Lopez Garcia but says, “Their methods are a curiosity to me, no more…”. Referring to Coldstream, Uglow and Lopez Garcia, Philip Geiger said, “I love all of them. What I admire is the magic not the system”. These artists and their method have more meaning for Ann Gale who is “struck by how the image is revealed through the measuring.” To Scott Noel Lopez Garcia, Uglow and Freud are not examples of polar opposites but are artists who have found the poetic potential in perceptual painting; he adds, “I do not think measurement is the point. What really interests me with these painters is the affirmation of a given beauty in the sensual world disclosed in a painted equivalent.”
If there is such a thing as perfect pitch in painting, Scott Noel has it. Scott’s breadth and depth of knowledge concerning painting is exhaustive, particularly in the areas of studio practice. His conversation can include sharp and particular insights into well known figures such as Degas but is also peppered with incredibly arcane information about obscure academic painters. In particular Scott has a special affinity for the paintings of Edwin Dickinson and Lennart Anderson; He was instrumental in bringing the Dickinson show to The Pennsylvania Academy and he wrote a beautiful essay for the Anderson catalog that accompanied a retrospective exhibition at the Salander O’Reilly Gallery in 2002. Though never an Anderson student, his painting manifests the tonal ideal best seen in premier coup painting as practiced by Anderson and Dickinson. Scott’s more involved paintings are not premier coup, but after the initial composition is determined, I suspect that sections of the paintings are finished in a premier coup fashion. Scott’s palette includes exotic colors such as caput mortum and half burnt ochre suspended in Cremitz white, which results in beautiful, high key relationships. In the end, whether the painting or only portions of it are completed in one sitting is irrelevant – that they seem like apparitions and hold a kind of fluid grace is what matters. A good example of this tonal sensitivity can be found in how the Siberian Husky dissolves into the background and the cool reflective sheen of the reclining figures in Afloat on a Wine Dark Sea.
Katherine Schneider’s intimate paintings of her family hold a remarkable power belied by their small scale. Two of her paintings are part of the contemporary collection of the Smith College Museum of Art and they hold their own quite comfortably with works by Gwen John and Alice Neel. Her subject is challenging. How does an artist cope with painting beings as slippery and volatile as children? Schneider’s solution is straightforward and practical. She approaches her self portrait by painting from a mirror, but works from video images of the children. We never think to question the factual basis of the painting on account of the natural vigor with which it is painted. The figures vividly inhabit the strongly lit, evening interior of a comfortable middle class home in a painting such as Self Portrait with Olive and Mae. Though executed by a quick, cursory hand in living paint, details such as Schneider’s red, black and white print shirt, the carved mirror behind the group of figures and the child’s plastic chair reach us with heart breaking particularity.
Categories are elusive. Michael Ananian’s work could fit as easily into an exhibition stressing the conceived aspects of the figure as those perceived. Michael attributes Robert Beverly Hale’s idea of a “secret figure” that we conceive within us as a significant influence on his work. Michael’s inner figure is stout and blocky and the influences that he acknowledges such as German Gothic wood sculpture or the paintings of William Hogarth are readily seen. Yet portions of the paintings are so vivid I am convinced that they must come, at least in part, from life. Michael acknowledges dipping into the well of the seen by quoting Philip Geiger’s comment about observation as “the shock of discovery”. Evidence of the observed can clearly be seen in a painting such as the second version of Phone Ringing from his Two Voices series. On many levels it is a purely conceived picture. The painting is divided into two sections, each with a figure and separated by a wavy, decorative band familiar to us as a film convention from 1940’s Hollywood to convey the two sides of a telephone conversation. In the lower portion a nude female figure is reclining and listening into a telephone while in the top portion a nude male is running to pick up the ringing phone. The character of the running male figure is so acute and specific (especially the upper half) that Ananian must have referred to a mirror while painting.
Philip Geiger’s work also displays a fine balance between the perceived and conceptual schemas of which Stairway is a good example. The speedy read of the composition and space (particularly the patches of light falling on the floor) and how comfortably the figures seem to slide into their architectural envelope are clearly related to Hopper, who Geiger acknowledges as an influence. Geiger is another artist that works before the motif and away from it. That the spatial read is so clear may tell us that time away from the subject is spent clarifying and refining the messy incidental quality of life. The painting is a beautiful balance of the guileless figures of children absorbed in the activity of drawing and composed order seen in rhymes between the wall facing us in the middle ground and the sun filled window it partially obscures. The paint handling is so beautifully fluid it can only be described as graceful.
John Dubrow is another case where the distinction between perceived and conceived – or at least the remembered – is blurred. Dubrow works at least half of the time away from the source. He feels that this allows him to work the entire painting as a whole and his paintings do have a beautiful, unified, abstract feel. He will make sketches that he works from which enable him to execute an elaborate street scene such as Prince and Broadway. The real interest in a painting such as this is not in the naturalistic completeness of the figures but in the active jostling of viscerally applied paint as it arranges itself into a space before our eyes. Yet, between paintings we can speculate about the degree of time spent before the motif. For example, the two Self Portraits in the show – 2001 and 2004 – vary in their particularity. While the 2004 Self Portrait shares the massive qualities of Prince and Broadway and has an iconic presence, the Self Portrait from 2001 is more naturalistic and the treatment of the facial features is finer. What is curious is that the distinction continues between the paintings in the space around the heads; the space behind the 2001 portrait is numinous and bobs and weaves while in the 2004 portrait has a solid and somber read.
The distinction stylistically is stronger between Ann Gale’s work and that of the other artists in the exhibition, but it also reveals the purity of her method, which is manifested in a series of individual color notations. She works directly from life, but considers the space and light in the motif as carefully as the figure. Sight measuring takes on importance concerning proportion within the figure but also is a record of space pressing in and wrapping around the form. The Windsor chair in Rachel seems to actively embrace the figure. There is a beautiful interplay of temperature and scale between the marks defining the corner of the room that the model is posed in and the figure’s face. The painting at once exudes the contradictory qualities of warmth, empathy, anxiety and time passing.
Although at various times Eve Mansdorf has worked from and away from the source, her recent paintings are almost entirely from the motif – yet a degree of conception is never far away. Mansdorf has a strong, internalized anatomical schema but is also open to accidental aspects of the subject found in life. In Waiting for Spring, although it is painted from life, the figures never posed together and the still life and landscape elements within the paintings were constantly undergoing transformation. Part of the fascination of Mansdorf’s paintings is the rich history of the painting that is visible through the built up and at times broken surface of the painting.
In my own paintings there is a similar tug of war between what is seen and what is known. I am fairly dependent upon the motif, although recently I have played with varying levels of conceptualization in paintings as well. Ideally, I suppose I would like to be the empty vessel I imagine Edwin Dickinson to be in his premier coup paintings, but this is seldom the case. I find that I frequently correct logistical shortcomings due to being set up too close to my models or working on large paintings. Both of these things came into play in Dancers. I was painting on a six foot canvas, which carries inherent distortions when working at the bottoms of the figures, and the same problems were duplicated by my point of view (I was standing about five feet from the models and had to look down at their feet). In addition I found that the back of the room curved a bit which I decided to correct for the painting. Art and life – are the contradictions ever resolved?
I will close with a parable. In the 18th century one of the great scientific questions that had not been solved was a practical method for determining longitude, which would allow sailors to navigate with accuracy. The British Navy offered a large cash prize to anyone who could solve the problem. Lives literally hung in the balance. The Royal Society proposed a variety of solutions that depended upon sighting and measuring the movements of the moon, planets and stars. These solutions had one serious flaw: they did not work. An alternate method was proposed using an extremely accurate clock able to be taken on board ship developed by carpenter turned clockmaker John Harrison. Harrison’s clock went through several incarnations and his method worked well enough that Captain James Cook used a version of it on his second voyage in 1772. Yet Harrison had great difficulty in collecting the prize because his solution was not considered elegant enough. Thus is it always between practice and theory. It is the same human impulse, I think, that drove artists to develop perspectival systems at the dawn of the Renaissance and Harrison’s method for determining longitude. People crave connection to the world at large. Similar impulses are embedded in the measuring systems of Uglow or any method for judging visual relationships employed by the artists of Human Measures. If some of the methods have been used before, this is not their important feature. What is important is that each artist has determined a way to chart his or her own course through their art and in the process connect with something outside of themselves.
— Tim Kennedy, September 2005