Monday, August 26, 2013

Brice Marden: cold wax medium and calligraphy

Brice Marden Second Letter (Zen Spring)  Oil on linen   96 x 144 "

After teaching my workshop at MISSA on Vancouver Island in July, I visited my artist friend, Barbra Edwards on Pender Island.  She was reading a book about the American abstract artist, Brice Marden, written by Eileen Costello.  I picked up a copy of the book when I came home.

I love connections and interconnections between people and ideas and events. In my last post (click here),  I wrote about my brush explorations workshop, where I painted with red cedar brushes and ink, creating calligraphic forms.  In reading Eileen Costello's book on Brice Marden, I was excited to learn how Chinese calligraphy had such an enormous influence on his work.

Another connection I had to Marden's work was that he was a pioneer in the use of cold wax medium and oil paint.  He was working with it for years before Gamblin started manufacturing it.  From 1965-1981 he used cold wax medium in his minimalist paintings to give an impasto quality to the paint and to make a more matte surface.

 I did not know about the Asian influence on Marden's work.  An exhibition of Japanese Calligraphy at the Japan House Gallery in New York in 1984 marked a major turning point in his work.  He began then, to study Asian culture and calligraphic forms began to enter his work.  He admired Chinese poetry and was inspired to learn that their glyphs were ideograms-symbols that represented an idea or concept.  Marden's work moved into new territory then as he improvised on the concept of ideograms and began drawing his own glyphs that became enormous interconnected lines that seem to move and turn in space.

What interests me most about Brice Marden is his creativity and his wide-ranging interests: Greek friezes, Chinese hand scrolls, scholar's rocks, ancient gardens, the use of twigs and sticks to draw with, and his interest in numerology, all of these entwined within an art historical context.

Marden says about his art, that "It's something very deep and felt...It's all about questions that there are no answers for, it's that whole thing about mystery."  He sounds rather like the painter-priests of Zen Buddhist lineage I'd say.

There is a quote by Ezra Pound in the book: "The artist is always beginning. Any work of art which is not a beginning, an invention, a discovery, is of little worth."  Marden has always followed this path while staying within the tradition of abstraction.

I am delighted to read of Ezra Pound's advice because invention and discovery have always played a crucial role in my painting.

I'm deeply focused right now on the work for my show at the Burlington Art Centre in Burlington, Ontario which opens November 23, 2013.  My new body of work is in progress and I have not yet photographed it.  I'm at the stage where I can't let anyone see it right now.  On the heels of my series of life-affirming paintings influenced by the illness of a good friend, comes a new series that I can't quite find words for just yet.  It seems to be related to light and the fragility of life. ............ More to come.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Tao of Painting

One brush stroke     Ink on Paper, 16x20" -Janice Mason Steeves 2013

Two days before I taught my Abstract Painting workshop at MISSA on Vancouver Island, I took a 2-day class called Brush Explorations.  The workshop was taught by Lorne Loomer, a long-time teacher of brush painting who was deeply influenced by the West Coast artist/mystic, Jack Wise.

It was so enjoyable being a student for a change and experimenting with painting/calligraphy.  Our first task was to make our own brush.  Lorne provided us with red cedar bark that had washed up on a Vancouver Island beach.  We were to take the bark outside with us as we searched for a stone that spoke to us.  With that stone, we were to beat the red cedar bark into a brush, loosening all the fibres until we had a very spindly, feathery-looking object that we were to use as a brush.  My bark split into several pieces so I ended up with four brushes of various sizes.

Back inside, we dipped our newly made brushes into Chinese ink and then practised making marks on paper. As I stood, bent over my worktable and played with these brushes, I gradually developed a bodily rhythm, moving back and forth in a sort of rocking motion-over to the ink, then back to the paper, then over to the ink-back and forth, swaying as I painted.  It was very hypnotic and meditative.
I learned that given the opportunity, these brushes can speak for themselves.  I would twist and turn them on the paper, but I let them lead the way.

The images began to look like letters in a secret language.

Lorne gave us instructions to make a booklet of 10-12 drawings.  We were to choose quotations from a large selection that he had copied for us.  Then we were to paint with a quotation in mind.

"The bough sings and the ink dances"   Toni Swenson
by Janice Mason Steeves 2013

"I would like to paint the way a bird sings." Claude Monet
by Janice Mason Steeves 2013
In just 2 days, I fell under the spell of the red cedar brush.

Back at home, I bought a book called The Zen Art Book, the Art of Enlightenment by Stephen Addiss and John Daido Loori. The first chapter is called "Art as Teacher".  Loori writes, "During it's early history, Zen was influenced by the refined practices of Chinese poetry, painting and calligraphy.  The Tao of Painting, a book written around 500 C.E. is the canon on the art of painting as a spiritual path. The Taoist approach to art was unique; it involved learning to express the energy or qi of the subject.  By the Song Dynasty in China (960-1279 C.E.), the Zen arts reached a high stage of development with a novel phenomenon; the emergence of painter-priests and poet-priests who produced art that broke with all standard forms of religious and secular art. This art did not inspire faith or facilitate liturgy or contemplation.....It was not used in worship or as a part of prayer. It suggested a new way of seeing and a new way of being that cut to the core of what it meant to be human and fully alive.  Zen expresses the ineffable as it helps to transform the way we see ourselves in the world."

In my own art practice, Art is the Teacher.  Just as the brush led the way for me in the Brush Explorations workshop, so my painting leads the way for me in my studio, taking me into territory I don't always want to go, driving me to take risks and be courageous.  I have to look at my imperfections, and learn to accept them.  Art can transform. "It enlarges the universe, touches the heart, and illuminates the spirit."  John Daido Loori

Monday, August 5, 2013

Teaching Workshops: Simplifying, Focusing and Setting Limits

Lines of Desire 1368  8x8"  Oil/cold wax on panel © 2013 Janice Mason Steeves 

July was a busy month of teaching Abstract Painting with cold wax and oil workshops:  a 5-day workshop at Metchosin International Summer School of the Arts on Vancouver Island, a 3-day workshop in Vancouver and then another 5-day workshop at the Haliburton School of the Arts in Ontario.

While I teach the technique of working with cold wax with oil,  my workshops are about painting. 

I try to make the structure of my workshops very simple and clear.  It's a step-by-step process, each day building toward the next day.  Five-day workshops add a slowness to the pace that is difficult to create in a 3-day workshop.  It takes a couple of days for students to settle into the process-learning a new technique and then letting go of expectations that a painting should be produced in the first two days.  I think that one of the most important messages I was trying to get across was that of simplifying, focusing and setting limits.

Limit your choices, limit your colours, limit your shapes and even the words you use to describe your work.  I wrote a post about limitations after I had been to Inish Maan off the west coast of Ireland.

Creativity comes from limits, not freedom.

Stephen Nachmanovitch, in his book, "Free Play, Improvisation in Life and Art", says, "Sometimes we damn limits, but without them art is not possible. They provide us with something to work with and against.  In practising our craft we surrender, to a great extent, to letting the materials dictate the design. Limits yield intensity.  Working within the limits of the medium forces us to change our own limits.  Improvisation is not breaking with forms and limitations just to be 'free', but using them as the very means of transcending ourselves."