Sunday, December 11, 2011


Influence of Hue 40 x 40" oil/cold wax on panel ©2011 Janice Mason Steeves
Each time I begin a painting, I wonder where it will go.  I begin intuitively,  holding a thought in my mind of what I'd like to express. My paintings are abstract investigations of landscape, symbols, memory and process.  I know artists who are fully confident that even if they can't see what the finished painting will look like, trust that the process will resolve itself and become a painting.  I can't say that I am so confident.  When I step into the studio each day, I feel to some extent that I'm stepping into the abyss. This is the excitement of abstract painting.  I have no idea where the work will go or how I will get there or if it will resolve itself.   And yet they do, they always eventually do.

I love that razor's edge though, between safety and the abyss.  I think it keeps the work honest.  There is some sense of terror there!

Yesterday,  I reread a quote of Joseph Campbell's from the book, The Art of Pilgrimage by Phil Cousineau.  Campbell had just made a speech in Chicago about the nature of the goddess and the role of the artist in society.  Afterwards, a woman came up to him to tell him that she was going to Greece to 'find the spirit of the goddess'.  She showed Campbell her detailed itinerary, which included precise calculations of the best times to visit every major cultural attraction.  "Do you think this is sufficient?", she asked Campbell.  He took her free hand in his and with great kindness said, "Dear lady, I sincerely hope that all does not go as planned."   When Cousineau later asked him about this response, Campbell replied, "How will the gods ever find her when she has done everything in her power to make sure they never will? Unless you leave room for serendipity, how can the divine enter in?"

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Red-Mark Rothko and Hotel Art

Thoughts of Stones #5   ©Janice Mason Steeves 2011   
Yesterday I went with my friend Jane Lind to see the award-winning play, Red, at the Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto.  What an experience!

Director Kim Collier describes Red, as 'a play about faith versus doubt-in the artistic process, in ourselves, in our work, and in our place in the world.  I think we all are confronted with the sturggles that faced Mark Rothko: what does my life's work add up to?  How will I be remembered?  Have I been true to myself? These are all questions that eventually demand an answer from us."

 Red is set in Rothko's studio in 1958 in New York City where he was working on his mural commission for the Four Season's Hotel.  The play documents a fictionalized account of Rothko's conversations with his assistant, Ken.  We get a look into Rothko's intense artistic vision- to create art that expressed archetypal human emotions and communicated with the viewer at the deepest level. His assistant, Ken, challenged Rothko's thinking and accused him of not being in touch with the world, of living in an ivory tower, of becoming a has-been, while the world moved on to Andy Warhol and Pop Art.  Rothko held to his beliefs that art can change the world but felt he was betraying himself and his own ideals by 'selling out' to the Four Season's with this lucrative commission.  Finally, he went for dinner there.  Horrified to see only very wealthy patrons, overcome by the clinking of glasses and forks, the inane conversation and artificiality, Rothko impulsively withdrew from the mural commission, believing he was protecting his paintings and his own ideals.  In the end, Ken was fired from Rothko's studio, soon after he declared, "It's only a painting.", betraying Rothko's deep-seated belief that these were much more than paintings.  They were like living beings.
I am reminded of Sean Scully's comment, that in his work, he is trying to show, "Everything, all at once".

On the drive home, Jane and I found ourselves wanting to discuss all of the topics that came up for us in the play, besides the gorgeous set and production.  The actor who played Rothko, Jim Mezon was fabulous in his intensity, and looked amazingly like Rothko.  Ken (David Coomber) was the perfect foil for that intensity.

We wanted to discuss that intensity of Rothko's and what the situation is in art now, is there any of that sort of passion left in painting?  Do artist's want to communicate emotions, or the absence of emotions?  What's the future of painting? What makes a good abstract painting?  Jane will be writing a blog post on her experience of the play and our conversation that would be interesting to check out.

And then as conversation does, ours shifted and flowed along to other related things. I remembered this week, an artist friend, who was at a workshop a few years ago, where the insensitive instructor told her that her painting was 'Hotel Art'. My friend said her feelings were hurt, her ego was bruised and she just wanted to hide.

I can understand that there are artists who paint Hotel Art, but those are not the ones who usually take classes or have their work critiqued.  On that same thought, another friend, who is not an artist, suggested I look up the work of an artist she likes.  I did so and was simply horrified.  This was an example of Hotel Art.  It's painted for decoration. Very slick.  She has a formula: texture the background with moulding paste, then add drippy washes of transparent colours with a dab of dark here and there. Passionless, poorly painted.  It sells well.

Rothko knew his paintings weren't Hotel Art. These paintings, originally intended for the Four Seasons, eventually went to the Tate Gallery.

“Art to me is an anecdote of the spirit, and the only means of making concrete the purpose of its varied quickness and stillness.”-Mark Rothko

“Pictures must be miraculous.”-Mark Rothko