Archive for the ‘Art from the Studio’ Category

Two Mona Lisas—Art Forensics

Monday, October 1st, 2012

The Louvre's Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa is the most recognized face in the world.

It seems we actually have two portraits of her. One when she was in her twenties, and one, the one hanging in the Louvre, when she was in her thirties. There is a current video, beautifully done, outlining the art sleuthing which has documented the early portrait of the younger woman, Mona Lisa: Leonardo’s Earlier Version.

Take 21 minutes and look at this terrific account which traces the early portrait from Italy to England to America to Switzerland. It shows not only who possessed the portrait, but how it came to be, and the video is a brief look at the art forensics involved.

One of the methods of verifying the authenticity of a painting is Connoisseurship, the opinion of someone who has looked long and hard at an artist and his work and “sees” either an authentic or fake hand at work. A second forensic method is scientific analysis that can identify exact pigments used, x-ray a painting to see underneath the finished form, authenticate the date of varnish, compare brush strokes with known works, date canvas, date frames, and more. The third method is finding the paper trail—who owned the painting, who bought the painting, where has it been.

Sound like detective reality and fiction writer’s plot. It is.

In this video, the Mona Lisa Foundation presents a paper trail which includes comments by Leonardo’s contemporaries; a sketch by Raphael; the date, 1508,  of a varnishing technique used by Leonardo; current analysis using modern research equipment; and a careful history of where this second Mona Lisa has been hiding. It also presents a side-by-side comparison of the Louvre’s “older” Mona Lisa with the portrait of the younger Mona Lisa.

There are, of course, many books on Mona Lisa. One that I like is R. A. Scotti’s Vanished Smile, The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa. It’s a fast read about the 1911 theft of the painting from the Louvre.

But the video is a beautiful 21 minutes.


Clyfford Still Museum

Saturday, July 21st, 2012

Denver Art Museum

Big Sweep

We just got back from the downtown Denver complex which contains the History Colorado Center, The Denver Art Museum, and the Clyfford Still Museum.

The History Colorado Center is devoted to demonstrating early life in Colorado and does not shy away from explaining how U.S. Troops massacred Indians or imprisoned Japanese Americans during WW II. It is an interactive museum–you can milk a cow (fill a bucket with light), ride a model T down a dirt road, ski down a ski jump, and wander through a general store. We were there early. As soon as the kids came, we left–it’s a great space for both adults and kids–more leisurely  without the kids, however.

We passed the Denver Art Museum on our way to the Clyfford Still Museum. We’ll have to see inside it another day. Brains can only hold so much information. But the art outside is intriguing and didn’t require active gray cells. The giant broom and dust pan is called, Big Sweep. It’s by Coosje van Bruggen and Claes Oldenburg, made  in 2006.  It’s stainless steel, aluminum, and fiber-reinforced plastic. It’s also a kick.  A great surprise. The large rock-like sculpture in front of the museum is more what you would expect to see.

I really wanted to see the Clyfford Still Museum. It is very new; it opened in November, 2011. Some of the street level inside walls are textured cement, gray, and the art is on gray walls upstairs in this impressive building.

Clyfford Still lived from 1904 to 1980. He left his art to a city which would house it and care for it. Denver was chosen by his widow. None of the art is to be sold, and he stipulated that no restaurant should be part of his museum. Even if you are hungry, you have to admire that.  Only four of his works were sold prior to the opening of the museum in order to fund the museum. The four pieces brought a total of 114 million at auction. You have to come to Denver to see the pictures. It’s worth the trip.

Clyfford Still Museum


His art is displayed chronologically on gray walls.  His work prior to 1944 depicts human figures and machines. The pictures on display when we were there reminded me of Diego Rivera and some of the murals of depression era workers. Still’s figures are juxtaposed against machinery, and the workers hands are distorted and very large.  Not a “feel good” view of  daily toil.

In 1944 he began to work in what became know as “Abstract Expressionism” when he created a huge canvas, approximately 8 feet by 7 feet, thick black paint layered on with a palette knife, interrupted by a jagged  yellow “bolt” and intersected by red. It reminded me of some modern German glass artists who use color rather than recognizable forms to create light and life.  Still said he wanted to fuse texture and color “into a living spirit.”  Done! Some of his smaller lithographs and water colors also demonstrate his exploration of texture and color. His pictures do not have titles, just numbers. So we don’t have preconceived notions of what the paintings are “supposed” to be.

There is a conservation room and large canvases hang from ceiling height. The museum is responsible for 2400 paintings.

Overwhelming. Worth a visit. Or more than one visit.




Using Yarn As Art

Saturday, June 23rd, 2012

Sangre de Cristo Arts Center

The Sangre de Cristo Arts Center in Pueblo, Colorado, is an amazing building. Like many of the homes and buildings in Pueblo it is made of brick. But this building is only 40 years old and very modern. It houses several permanent collections and in June, 2012, Under Western Skies features works by Western artists from the collections.  The building is beautiful inside as well as outside so it is always a pleasure to walk through the three floors of art. There is a rather unique series of pieces using Fairy Tales as inspirations, but not too literally.

Fairy Tale Walk-through Forrest

A walk through a forest of hanging cloth panels of aspen trees is “interactive.” From high in the trees, sparkling masks stare down eerily.

Currently, though, I had more fun outside, than inside. The bronze statues, a light post, a couple of  trees, and the stair rails are wrapped with yarn pieces done by what looks like a mad hatter’s workshop. When I asked inside who had done the knitting, the receptionist said simply, “those people over there.” Since we couldn’t find any people over there, I’m going with my initial impression of the mad hatter.  These are pieces made of different textures of yarn, some look knitted, some may be crocheted, some fuzzy, some stringy. A bronze carousel horse has his tail and mane augmented with yarn, a bronze girl, Her Quiet Moment by L’Deane Trueblood, has a yarn lei added on, and the stair railing’s twist of metal is “scarfed.” All are delightful bursts of color and textures. The soft yarn contrasts with the hard metal and bark.

Very cool. Very funky.

Yarn lei

Yarn on Street Light

yarn on tree

Yarn on stair rail


Museum of Making Music

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

View from Museum of Making Music

Music Merchants Building, Carlsbad

Up the hill from the Pacific and the Carlsbad Flower Fields and to the side of Lego Land there is a charming museum all about music–things to play it with and its American history from 1900 to present. It is a small space tucked into the larger business building of the National Association of Music Merchants.

The museum space is divided into five galleries arranged chronologically. Each combines written, audio, and displays of musical instruments and music producers.  Lots of buttons to push to hear history and samples of music. Lots to read about the displays. A some very nice “play me” instruments that you can strum or drum and listen to yourself through headphones. Gallery 1 shares with us the early piano and organ music of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s highlighting John Philip Sousa and Tin Pan Alley. The history of music marketing and manufacturing is detailed more on the web site so you don’t need to take notes as you go from gallery to gallery. It’s a wonderful web site.


display of instruments

Gallery 2 takes us into the “Roaring Twenties”, jazz, player pianos, and phonographs. Gallery 3 moves to the mid-thirties and the forties; Gallery 4 into the 1950’s, Elvis, and skyrocketing guitar sales. Gallery 5 brings us into the 1980’s and the different Rock styles. The audios and displays really highlight each time period. The instruments are carefully preserved in cases, from violins to accordions to  a valve trombone.  If you know the instruments you can spend a lot of time finding the one you used to play.

You absolutely have to put on the head phones and strum or tap on the beautiful strings and drums as they come along with the sections.  I tried the harp and the steel drums but I bet the guitars get a lot of  use.

"play me" harp

"play me" guitar


Plum Blossoms

Monday, February 13th, 2012

plum blossom

Plum Blossom

It’s plum blossom time again in San Diego.  The bare branches of plum trees are filling with pink or white blossoms.  I have three trees just outside my studio window.

Of course, it’s not exactly winter here. Well, it is winter, but it is a warm and sunny California winter. But in Chinese brush painting tradition, the plum blossom represents winter and fortitude.  The delicate flowers bloom in the midst of cold and snow and signal that spring will come.

To draw them in the traditional manner of the The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, the definitive early work (1679) of Chinese brush painting, requires a steady hand and a rather stylistic approach.

Mustard Seed Garden Plum Blossoms

Plum blossoms appear on fans, silk, rice paper, scrolls–everywhere. You will see them discussed in almost every current “how-to” book of Chinese brush painting.  With orchid, bamboo, and chrysanthemum they represent the four seasons and celebrate nature.

It’s a pleasure to drive down a busy street and see the blossoms.

Mustard Seed Garden Plum

I find painting them extremely difficult.  To get the delicate flowers and the strong trunk takes a lot of practice.  If you get them right, you demonstrate a significant mastery of brush and paint. I think that is why they appear on the covers of many books attempting to teach us how to paint.  Authors want to show that they have mastered a difficult subject. One of my favorite books is Leslie Tseng-Tseng Yu’s Chinese Watercolor Painting: The Four Seasons.  It is a beautiful book with good text. She tells us that each “of the five petals represents a beneficence: longevity, happiness, health, prosperity, and the natural passing of life.” The plum blossom is not just a pretty flower. It symbolizes deep human desires.

Next time you see bare branches covered with tiny pink flowers, know that even the very delicate blooms of nature survive a harsh winter.

Plum Blossom

Plum Blossom


Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980

Sunday, November 6th, 2011

Since we set our clocks back last night to Pacific Standard Time, I figured I should write something about the Getty sponsored arts project, Pacific Standard Time.  It celebrates art in L.A.  during the years 1945-1980.  There are three museums in San Diego participating in this very large regional project–Mingei International Museum and the two locations of Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

I’ve seen the exhibit in the La Jolla location of MOCA.  Lots of lighted geometric shapes and one really eerie room without light, Eric Orr, Zero Mass.  Zero Mass requires a guide, or at least someone at the entrance to this black room to tell you how to navigate–put your left hand on the black paper wall and follow it around.  And, when you get somewhere inside, stand there and your eyes might adjust to the blackness.  It was totally disorienting.  I couldn’t tell if I was walking in a straight line, if I’d ever get out.  After about five minutes of stumbling along, I did see the very dim silhouettes of three other people in the room, but only after hearing them talk. It was worse than being trapped underground in a English cave with a bunch of other tourists when the electric lights failed and we had to be led out by the guide with a flashlight.

Zero Mass was all the more black because I had just stuck my head in Bruce Nauman’s Green Light Corridor. It is a long, narrow, high walled corridor of green fluorescent lights.  If you are very skinny, you can walk through it.  But, even though I thought that would be a fun walk, I just put my head in for thirty seconds and spent the next five minutes seeing after-images and blinking a lot. That might be the best way to prepare for Zero Mass.

Sculptures of acrylic,  neon, and geometric illusions were interesting. But the La Jolla museum itself provided the best use of light and illusion.  The blue Pacific is visible from the windowed walls and the ocean and palm trees have color filtered through the glass. But there is one corner turn in the windows with a cut out square without glass.  Through that, the ocean, sky, and trees have a different color and intensity. That is worth the price of admission.

Red Tide?

San Diego’s coast just had a red tide–an expanse of algae which is a dark reddish color during the day and smells like seaweed a good way from the shore. It  contains bio-luminescent organisms. The organisms emit a blue light in response to motion. So at night, the waves fluoresce.  It is forbidden to take pictures in the museum so I couldn’t take pictures of the MOCA lights but I did get a lot of black pictures of the red tide waves, with boat lights in the background.  Not sure what this is a picture of, light of some kind on the ocean at night.

Good enough.

Handmade Books

Monday, August 1st, 2011

I’ve been checking every now and then on Donna Meyer.  She’s making a book a day for a year and blogging about it–not writing a book a day, making covers and pages bound together in different ways.  I think she is on about book 187. So when I went to art class the other day, I had handmade books on my mind.

The subject of the class was summer fruits and vegetables, the colors of summer. Still-life painting is not my cup of tea but traditional Chinese Brush Painting has many examples of using a simple mushroom or radish to express the spirit of life with minimum brush strokes.  Western still-life painting often tries to catch the shimmer of light, direct or reflected, on various surfaces but Chinese Brush Painting does not depict light in that way. So a summer fruit or vegetable should give the artist a chance to be in enthusiastic touch with the spirit of an object.

The lesson was eggplant and peach, colors of summer.  When I got home, handmade books were still on my mind so I decided to display the picture as a book.  Peaches symbolize longevity in Chinese thought and I remember the 16th Century classic Journey to the West in which Monkey steals the peaches of immortality.  So I painted a monkey to go with the summer peach and eggplant using Jane Evan’s monkey as a model.

Summer colors, peach and eggplant

Summer colors, eggplant

Then I cut my 16 inch painting into fourths, folded long heavy paper into eighths like an accordion which I learned to do from Sibyl Rubottom in her UCSD class on Book Arts. (Donna Meyer calls this a snake fold).


Monkey, peaches, Longevity chop

I pasted it all together, made front and back covers with blue and gold thin paper, put a small rectangle of papyrus paper which looks like bamboo on the front cover and wrote “Summer” on it and stamped “Longevity” on the same papyrus paper on the inside back cover.

In Sibyl’s class we added a poem to the accordion book–a poem with  syllables and lines structured by the Fibonacci number sequence, which if you don’t remember from math class you should remember from the Da Vinci Code. I added a Fibonacci poem to link Monkey to the peach and eggplant.  Clever! The poem forms a pyramid when typed out so I had to use two pages to fit it in the book.


If nothing else, the book has the virtue of displaying the painting on a table top and then being folded away to store on a bookcase.

To take a look at really good Artists’ Books, check out Sibyl’s books on her Bay Park Press web page.

John Baldessari at the Palm Springs Art Museum

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

Banner, Palm Springs Art Museum

The Palm Springs Art Museum currently is exhibiting John Baldessari prints from the collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer and his Family Foundation so we headed over the mountains and across the desert to Palm Springs via Borrego Springs.

John Baldessari,  a conceptual artist, often juxtaposes disparate images in a single composition which sometimes form something the viewer can see as a unit, as in Two Figures: One Leaping (Orange); One Reacting (With Blue and Green), 2005, and sometimes remain disparate as in Two Erect Figures/Two Skateboards, 1995.

Sign, Borrego Springs

So with that in my head, I was not surprised to find along the way to Palm Springs the natural beauty of the desert and the quirkiness of humans butting against each other, from signs in Borrego Springs to drifting sand on abandoned buildings in Salton Sea leading to lush groves of date palms.

The Palm Springs Art Museum is a magnificent building, inside and out.  The outdoor cafe was an oasis, with a long water pool, beautiful desert plants, and sculptures.

Castaneda, Thinking Woman, 1979

Inside, photos of the Baldessari works were not permitted so you need to find another source for images. But I’ll describe just three.

Baldessari’s precise prints and sense of humor make this exhibition worth the drive.  Some of the works were clearly puns, as his cast aluminum pink nose amid globs of white clouds on a blue background mounted on the ceiling so you have to look up to see it, God Nose, 2008. Some are clearly just fun, as his The Pot with Nine Removals, 1996, the first frame shows palm trees and a hunter/missionary in a cannibal pot surrounded by eight blond native girls and then, one by one, the girls are photoshopped out, then the man in the pot is gone, and the tenth frame is just the pot. Of the more serious works, my favorite is Rollercoaster, 1989-90, two black and white photos of a rollercoaster with a curving line painted from right to left in a thin sweep of color like the down and up of the coaster.

In the museum shop I bought the beautiful book of the exhibition and some white pencils with Baldessari’s famous sentence, “I will not make any more boring art,” written in black three times along the length of the pencil. I’m giving them to my artist friends.

I also bought a large eraser with the word WRONG stamped on it. You can’t get much more conceptual than that.  I’m keeping it.

California Artist Margaret Morrish

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

Margaret and her lion cub

Margaret Schroeder Morrish, 1893-1975, was a life long artist and world traveler. The cover of the Arcadia Press book on Fort Collins, Colorado, where Margaret Schroeder was born, shows a lady-like Margaret at her easel  in a small group of Ft. Collins painters. She was neither dainty nor content. She even had a lion cub. And she didn’t stay long in Ft. Collins.  She married Ross Morrish, and when he died suddenly in 1926, she packed up her two children and traveled across the United States to the Los Angeles area.  She painted fire boats in New York harbor, red mesas in New Mexico, and oil rigs on Signal Hill in Long Beach.

Signal Hill Oil Rigs 1950

At 60, she set off on a round the world trip, solo. She hitch-hiked in Africa to paint the pygmies, painted street markets in India,  white sails on the Nile, Inca ruins in the Andes, the glaring blues and greens of Tahiti. She was invited to be the first person to stage a solo exhibition in the Tower Gallery in Los Angeles City Hall and in December, 1961, she had a second solo exhibit there as well.

Hong Kong Harbor Being Cleaned

Hong Kong Harbor 1958

Margaret’s 1958, 3X4 foot painting of Hong Kong harbor hung in her son’s Glendale house for 50 years, with L.A. smog in the outside air and pipe and cigarette smoke daily in the inside air.  It was covered with a thin coating of yellow/brown nicotine and dust.  As it was cleaned, sea gulls emerged covering the sky, figures showed up in the boats, and buildings became visible on the horizon.  It’s painted with a palette knife as are many of her oils. It reflects her global wanderings and her lifelong enthusiasm for color and scene.  It is one of hundreds of compositions which brings what she was privileged to see in person throughout the world to  viewers around the world.

Chinese Sculptor Xiaoye Sun

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

Short of signing onto Facebook as a friend, I could not learn much from the Internet about the sculptor Xiaoye Sun whose selected bronze sculptures were on display from January 4 to February 25, 2011, at pulse gallery in the NTC Promenade of San Diego’s Liberty Station.  However, Ansley Pye of the San Diego Fine Art Society and pulse gallery was well informed and shared insights from her own research and communications with him.

Xiaoye Sun is a young man (born in 1979 in Beijing) who has been an artist all his life. He trained at the Ilya Repin St. Petersburg State Academic Institute of Fine Arts, Sculpture, and Architecture. He has had exhibitions in Beijing and Shanghai.  Alexander Salazar Fine Art in San Diego represents him.

So, not much to go on. That made the pulse gallery visit one of those “I’m not sure what to expect” experiences.  There were no titles or explanations posted by the bronze art works.  Interestingly, that put no barrier between me and the piece, no preconceived notion of what the pieces were saying. I looked at all the pieces on display, cats, rooster and duck, man and swan, man and dog, female figures before I asked the titles of the works.  There were eight or so cats,  cat sized and obviously strong and healthy, and beautiful.

"Dog" by Xiaoye Sun, Bronze

Not so the others. In obvious contrast to the cats, there was “Dog.”  No tricky title, just “Dog.” A starving female dog, in pain, hungry, with a litter of pups somewhere.  The human condition?  Maybe.  But an image of desperation at least.

"Suicide" by Xiaoye Sun

Then there was a distorted figure of a man being watched by a dog whose head was cocked to one side, waiting, curious. Odd. But I didn’t “get it” until I knew the title, “Suicide.” That was a shock.  I had not seen that the man was on the verge of slashing his wrist while the dog watched.

"Don't Cry" by Xiaoye Sun

And the rooster holding a duck.  I had no clue. The title “Don’t Cry” put it in human terms.

"Man Versus Nature" by Xiaoye Sun

But the most amazing piece was a fragmented human, with only half a face and one leg a pieced together bit of blocks. He was choking a swan. Well, the title helped, “Man Against Nature.”  Then it reminded me of Three Gorges Dam controlling the age old course of the Yangzi river.  Chinese traditional art reveres nature, sees man as small next to  the greatness of mountains and waterfalls.  This piece was a fragmented human and a swan that looked doomed. No harmony here.

These four works evoked, overall, an empathy for suffering creatures, man and beast alike, some link between us humans and other animals.   What is Yiaoye Sun talking about?  Don’t know for sure but the works are powerful.