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Friday, December 25, 2009


robert mangold, curled yellow figure

It's Christmas morning when kids all over the Eastern time zone are opening presents and playing with Santa toys, or not. Rain is wetting the snow good at 33 degrees. Occasional gusts of wind thrash the window with splashes of water. Heavy overcast sky, an actually beautiful shade of light gray. To mix the color with paint, it looks like a touch of black in white would get it, but the only thing that would do is show it's definitely not it. Then a whisper of blue, of red, until it gets close enough that to get it right you have to feel it. Painting a cloud is not just white paint, and not just a touch of black for the gray underside.

All that's saying is, it's not as simple as it looks. Like everything else. First thing I always learn when I take something for easy is, it's not. Whether or not I paint worth a damn is not the important part to me of painting. Everything I've rendered in paint has taught me a great deal. Foremost, it takes awhile to fill a canvas with paint, whatever the size, and make it look like something. Each one is a project that is ongoing for however long it takes. I told myself early on, it's not because it's supposed to be this way or that, it's a process, like reading a long book. It doesn't do to hurry. I like it to take a long time, like months, because my way of seeing what I'm doing changes and I get a broader perspective of what I'm reaching for.

Patience may be the most important part of painting, like in shoveling snow. Without the patience to hover over one detail until it's right, there's no getting it done. Artist Robert Mangold paints a canvas in one color, always a shade of a given color you've never seen before. He'd be called a colorist in the minimalist period that came after abstract expressionism, the same time as pop. With a single pencil line, a fairly big kindergarten sized pencil, he made a circle on a square canvas like the one in the permanent collection at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, a soft kind of pastel olive green that's not olive.
The green is one I've never seen before, that is, to notice. The circle drawn in one pencil line almost touching the sides, comes back to the beginning center bottom of the square, missing the beginning about an inch. In that 1" space is a dynamic tension that raises one line on one color to art. To see a sample of Mangold's work, you can google his name. When the google page comes up, click on images in the upper left. You'll get pages and pages of images by him, articles about him, pictures of him. I don't mean to promote him, by any means, as the greatest of the greats. He has an interesting eye that I happen to appreciate.

All I'm getting at, is something so simple can be so beautiful, like the 0 in zen ink drawings. They get their tension in the nature of the brushstroke, the white streaks that flow with the black. Mangold got the same tension with a pencil line by not meeting the beginning point. It's a totally visual moment with feeling. My own particular feeling was awe in a big way to see something so simple have such a strong impact as I felt standing before it, wanting to close the circle, wanting not to close the circle, an alternating current visual sense. Back and forth. Standing at the top of the stairs of StPeter's in Rome, looking up the columns to the ceiling overhead, which looked like it wasn't far away, then having to adjust focus seeing it's not as close as it looks, it's a long ways up there. The refocus has an emotional element in it that swirls around awe. Made me feel like an ant.

Passing through this space gives a feeling of humility automatically, so stepping inside the cathedral almost equals stepping into glory. It feels like a sacred space whether or not you're Italian, because Michaelangelo understood what the French call a trick of the eye can do to bring a work of art to life. Inside the big chapel, where God and Adam reach to touch fingertips overhead, it looks at first not too far away. Then again, eyes need to refocus a time or two until you realize what looks like its life-sized characters just out of reach is actually gigantic characters a very long ways away, scaled so they'd look life-sized from standing on the floor. There again, refocus generates an awe factor giving one the feeling of humility in the presence of the Most High, who is also the same size we are. I imagine Michaelangelo reminding us what Jesus said, 'ye are gods.' Perhaps he was saying, God is vast and far away, while at once the same size as us, and approachable.
It's real art that generates awe for whatever it makes you feel. In the National Art Museum in DC, I was walking toward, if I remember correctly, the Manet room, seeing the painting of the dead matador through the doorway on the far wall. I started in that direction, and on my right it was like somebody flashed sunlight from a mirror in my eye. I was passing the doorway to the Gauguin room. The colors on his canvases I saw through the doorway glowed like the light was inside them. I made a right turn and stepped into a space surrounded by these colors with light in them and felt that awe again. The light in the colors does not translate well in photographs. I didn't know Gauguin paintings glowed. I looked close to see if I could find what made them glow. All I could see was he felt it and made it what he felt, using his own tricks of the eye to get there.

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