Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Harold Balasz -- Another Hero Gone

Today's Seattle Times had an obituary for Harold Balasz.  I had the pleasure (and it certainly was a pleasure) of being on staff with him for one of the annual Centrum Foundation workshops for gifted high school students.  Apart from being an exceptionally talented, skilled, hardworking artist he was a splendid human being -- warmhearted, open minded, funny ...  I wrote about my portrait of him in my blog  in July 2014 (complete with misspelled "portrait" in the title that I just noticed.

Another "Harold" anecdote that I just remembered.  At the end of the class days at the workshop we of the staff were likely more tired than the students -- they were a lot younger and overcharged with the experience of being in a group of kids each as motivated and eager as they were.  One of the older students -- high school senior -- was badgering Harold to draw her portrait.  He was tired and ready to throw in the towel for the day but she wouldn't give up.  He finally said "Oh, all right.  Take off your clothes and I'll draw you."  She, flustered, gave up.  At the faculty meeting that night somebody asked Harold what he would have done if she had taken off her clothes.  Shrug of shoulders -- "She's 18, I would have drawn her."

Harold didn't put up with much socially or politically either.  Here's my favorite of his posters -- hanging proudly on the wall behind me as I write.

As the saying goes -- I shall not meet his kind again.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Another "I want to be like him when I grow up."

The Seattle Art Museum is currently showing a wonderful retrospective exhibit of 110 paintings from the long career of Andrew Wyeth.  (He was actively painting until shortly before his death at 91.  He's my new hero -- I want to be like him when I grow up.)  I saw the show earlier this week and I'm going to go back and see it at least once more before it closes -- likely several times.

Ever since I saw this show each time my mind goes into idle one of his paintings pops up like a mental screen saver.  I love it when that happens.

He is categorized as a "realistic" painter and that he certainly was. 

However, he hotly denied that he was painting exactly what it looked like but how he felt about what was before him-- putting his own stories, his own memories on the board rather than a photorealistic likeness.  That said, his skill as a painter makes looking at them strictly as a likeness quite plausible.

Painters have it easy (the photographer says with tongue firmly in cheek) -- if there is something they don't like in the background they just don't paint it in.  We photographers are stuck with what is actually there (Photoshop helps but ...).  But I digress.

Wyeth is primarily known for moody, introspective paintings of his beloved Chadd's Ford PA and the coast of Maine -- and for nudes, especially the "Helga" series.  He also did portraits -- lots of portraits -- spectacular portraits.

Wyeth's portraits fascinate me -- most are "environmental" in that the subject is presented in context that adds to the story he was hoping to tell.  Unlike Arnold Newman's environmental portraits, however, the context is not nearly so explicit -- Newman's portrait of Stravinsky at his piano, for example, would not allow you to think of the subject as anything but an accomplished musician.  Wyeth's portraits are certainly made more rich by knowing his story but are also rich in that I can see a story of my own in them.

I am going to round up some reproductions of Wyeth portraits so I can study the poses and the lighting in depth.  There is a lot for a photographer to learn there.

Thinking about this (a lot) the light bulb that finally came on is that I am trying to do the same thing with my photographs.  The great Henri Cartier-Bresson once said:

"Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.  You cannot develop and print a memory."

Yes, photography demands that you be there, point the camera in the right direction, release the shutter at the right time. But when you are there, you do point the camera in the right direction, you do release the shutter at the right time — then you create a window into the past in a way that no other visual medium can match -- well, unless you can paint like Andrew Wyeth.  Then you can develop and print a memory or at least glimpse it — spy on it.  Or maybe when a viewer looks at a photograph they see their own story in it.  I hope so.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Art Fairs and the Four Os

I went to the Bellevue Art Fairs, BAF, last Friday.  Yes, “fairs” plural.  In addition to the main (and biggest) of the three, sponsored by the Bellevue Arts Museum, there are two sort of salons des refuses for those who were not accepted in the main fair -- or that were put off by the entry fee, previous rejection, or just annoyed.  As always there were a lot of walk-by booths but also a lot of booths with well executed work — much of which doesn’t appeal to me, but that’s my problem.  There were a lot of photographers. 

Last year there were a lot of photographers, too, one of whom is Vitali (vtphoto.com).  In the spirit of full disclosure, Vitali is a friend of quite a few years standing.  His passion is painterly, mostly moderately-sized landscapes, largely from eastern Washington.  There were several other (well, quite a few more) photographers whose work was in a similar vein but — in my biased view — his stood out from the crowd.  The rest of the work shown was pretty much interchangeable from booth to booth.

Last year I also went to the Seattle Art Fair, SAF, held at the CenturyLink event center.  This is an enormous, big name event with galleries from all over the world paying huge bucks for display space.  (I’ll go to the 2017 SAF later this week.)  There was a lot of photography shown there also.  Apart from big names from the past — Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, Sally Mann, Gordon Parks … — almost all the remaining, more contemporary photography was, to my eye, best described by the three Os:


The Seattle Times reviewer, Michael Upchurch, commented “If you’ve seen one gaudy anime-inspired painting, frankly, you’ve seen them all.”  Not only do I agree with him (there were a lot of those) I would add “If you’ve seen one oversharpened, oversaturated, oversized, landscape or nature photograph, frankly, you’ve seen them all.”  (and there were a lot of those, too).

Which circles me back to this year’s BAF.  With only a few exceptions, the photography was oversharpened, oversaturated, oversized, landscape and wildlife work — with the addition of a fourth O, Overpriced.  A few thousand bucks for a photograph (or triptych of photographs) is not only way outside the range of my art budget but, since it’s about the size of a ping-pong table it wouldn’t fit on any wall in my house.  

Duane Michals once quipped “I never trust any photograph that’s so big it can only fit into a museum” and “An eight-by-ten inch photograph by Robert Frank can be heroic.  An eight-by-ten foot Gursky is just a billboard with pretensions.”  

Beyond that, the Four O photographs just hurt my eyes.  Especially with the addition of high dynamic range (but I couldn’t think of a word for that beginning with “O”). 

Just this morning the light bulb over my head came on.  Last year’s big photography thing from upscale galleries at SAF became this year’s big photography thing for the way-less-prestigous BAF.  I’ll bet that if I had paid more attention to the paintings in both events the same phenomenon would be visible there.

Vitali was there again this year — with painterly, mostly moderately-sized landscapes from eastern Washington (different images from last year) — and his work stood out from the crowd even more than last year.  He is doing the work that moves and interests him rather than leaping on whatever square-wheeled bandwagon happens to be rumbling by. 

I do that, too.

I wonder what will be the big noise at the SAF this year?  Will it filter down to the provinces by this time next year?  Maybe it will be small, black and white, silver prints mostly about people (but I won’t hold my breath.)

RIP Newspace

Portland's Newspace Center for Photography abruptly closed as of July 7, citing financial distress.


When Blue Sky opened in Portland it was a counterculture answer to the Cameraworks gallery -- founded by Minor White students and firmly dedicated to that genre of photography.  (Cameraworks recently hired a new curator and has become quite a bit more eclectic.)

Newspace, 15 year-old NFP was, in my opinion, a counterculture answer to Blue Sky's emphasis on cutting edge and experimental work.  But it was also a lot like Photographic Center NW (PCNW) in Seattle was in its earlier days.  They had a rental darkroom, rental studio, and offered classes and workshops staffed by local photographers in addition to having a gallery space.  They were in a low-rent light industrial building in NE Portland -- a bit off of the beaten path but only a few blocks from the streetcar line.

My immediate mental image was that of their landlord wandering in and announcing a 150% rent increase to cash in on the gentrification of the neighborhood.  

Well, I don't know if it was 150% but Blue Sky's newsletter had an item bemoaning the demise of Newspace and it emphasized how lucky Blue Sky was to own their space.   Hmmmmmm.  

It's wonderful that PCNW and Blue Sky each had a sugar daddy (or mommy) to help bankroll buying their space but it's too bad that Newspace didn't have one too.   

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Smelly old Pallets as Art

We recently bought a new chunk of limestone to replace our broken fireplace hearthstone.  How it came to be broken is a mystery clouded in the mists of a household that then contained teen-aged children. 

The new hearthstone, some 300 pounds of it, was delivered on the ubiquitous wooden pallet — a particularly scruffy instance of it.

While preparing to break it down into pieces that would fit in the trash pickup bin it reminded me of an art project I saw a few years ago.

At that time, the county’s Arts Commission had a small gallery space in the venerable Smith Tower — a wonderful old  1914 office building complete with marble staircases, brass filigree gates over the elevator doors and human elevator operators.  The gallery was (and, in its new location about a block away, still is) one of the stops on my frequent gallery strolls through Pioneer Square.

On one such visit, very shortly after the opening of the monthly show, I found the gallery full of scruffy wooden pallets.  They were stacked, as I recall, three wide by six across and nearly all the way to the ceiling.  There was room to walk around the stacks of pallets but that was about it.  The pallets were accompanied by an artist statement so baffling that I began to doubt that it was actually written in English.  My visit to the gallery that month was rather brief.

A few days later there was a small item in the Seattle Times about it.  A few days after the opening, tenants of the nearby office spaces began to grumble to the building maintenance folks about a, well, unpleasant odor coming through the ventilation ducts.  The building staff tracked the source of the odor to a stack of wooden pallets that were unexplainably in the building.  With a suspicion that a huge stack of tinder-dry wooden objects arranged with plenty of space around them for air circulation might constitute a fire hazard they asked the safety folks to take a look.  The pallets were outta there the following day. 

I was apparently one of the few admirers that saw the exhibit except for those that came to the opening.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Portrait of Julius Eastman

45 years ago (sigh) I photographed a concert of experimental music in Buffalo, New York. The light in the venue would be best described as “somewhat less than total darkness.” There was a slide screen upon which the score for the piece being performed was projected and there were stand lights for the handful of musicians. Needless to say, the negatives were very thin and very contrasty.

I did salvage a near-profile portrait of one of the composers, Julius Eastman. At the time he was a professor at the State U. of NY at Buffalo. I also was able to enlarge and make a positive transparency of one of the pages of score of his piece “Trumpet”. Printing the portrait under the transparency so that the music cascaded down over his face did make a pretty snazzy portrait.

Time passed. Lots of time passed. In January of this year Julius Eastman was profiled in New Yorker. After his time in Buffalo he had become a leading light in what was then called “minimalist music” before his death in 1990.

Well, says I, that’s a good reason to revisit my portrait of him. I made a new (and much better) print and posted it on my website as the “Print of the month — or thereabouts” for February. I even sold a copy of it.

Last week I got an email from the head of a the Bowerbird Foundation in Philadelphia, mentioned in the New Yorker article, that is organizing a museum show and likely concert series honoring Eastman. He said that he had few if any photographs of him from his Buffalo days and asked if I could give him more details about the portrait and if I had more photographs from the concert.

I answered him with what little detail I could remember, including that the score for which I had a page photograph was for “Trumpet” and that I did have more photographs of very poor quality. His response came quickly — the score for “Trumpet” had been lost and my photograph was likely the only scrap of it in existence. As it turned out I had a photograph of a second page also. His speculation is that with those two pages to show how Eastman scored the piece and the audio recording of it that he had in hand, a sharp-eared musicologist could reconstruct the entire score. He was delighted.

With the magic of Photoshop I was able to bring up some detail in my very thin, very contrasty negatives — that showed two other musicians as well as a dim view of the venue. I sent him thumbnails and promised higher resolution versions if he wanted them.

His next question was about the venue. He had thought that the concert was held in a concert venue in Buffalo called DOMUS but that my photographs didn’t look like that space. He asked if the venue might have been the Unitarian church in downtown buffalo where he knew that concerts in a Black and White Arts Festival were held.

He also mentioned that one of the musicians shown in my photographs (the flutist) was the founder of an experimental music ensemble that still exists and that he had spoken to him very recently.

I told him that, by chance, I know the minister at that church and that I would send her a couple of the photographs and ask her if she could verify that. Another quick response — yes it was their church, that their music director was a fan of Eastman’s music, and that one of his pieces would highlight their music service later this month.

So here’s a photographer in Seattle making a connection between a curator in Philadelphia and a musician in Buffalo with a negative made 45 years ago.

Isn’t the internet wonderful sometimes?

Postscript:  The church music director recognized the second musician that played in the 1972 concert.  Another connection made.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Outwin 2016 at the Tacoma Art Museum (TAM)

"Outwin"? Ever hear of it? I hadn't until the email from TAM announcing the opening came a while back.

Subtitled "American Portrature Today", it is a triennial competition sponsored by the National Portrait Gallery (part of the Smithsonian) and is juried by a panel of curators from the Portrait Gallery and, significantly, working artists. It is open to any artist, professional or Sunday only, working in any medium, in the United States. This, the 4th Outwin, drew over 2500 entrants and was winnowed down to 43 -- a size just about right for two of the north galleries at TAM. This is the first venue after it hung in the Smithsonian.

Why "Outwin"? Virginia Outwin Boucher was a passionate supporter of the National Portrait Gallery and volunteered there for nearly 20 years. She and her children endowed the competition in her honor.

I can't say that I was particularly excited by "Miss Everything", the first prize winner that illustrated the email announcement from TAM but Barbara and I were ready for a brief road trip so we took the arduous journey down I5 to see it yesterday. Three years or so back TAM received a mammoth gift of vintage and contemporary art of the American west from the Haub family (along with the money to build a new wing to house it -- wouldn't it be nice to have the loot to afford to do something like that?) and much more recently a smaller but similarly impressive gift of contemporary Northwest art from the Benaroya family (along with the money to build yet another new wing to house that). But I digress again.

Outwin 2016 includes sculpture -- including a cast glass bust -- drawings, paintings, a good deal of photography and two installations. The skill level and attention to detail throughout is exceptionally high. Most of the works are straight-up representational -- the originality demanded by the jurors achieved through content and approach rather than avant garde technique. 

The work that strayed farthest from strictly representational was the installation Caja de Memoria Viva II. I'm not keen on installations as a rule but I'll make an exception for this one. It is housed in a large hollow cube suspended from the ceiling at a height such that the viewer can walk under it. The front/back/left/right views of a kindly, wrinkled, older man's head are done in charcoal on the sides of the box. As you walk under it you are looking up into the hollow cube that is decorated with snapshots and letters and a soft, nearly unintelligible voice speaks to you -- you are literally "inside his head".

The other installation, "A Moment in Time" is a set of 17 small photographs housed in a large, wall-mounted case -- one portrait for each decade since the invention of photography. They begin with a jewel-like Daguerreotype in a tiny, ornate case labeled "1850" and progress with the technology of photographs through ambrotype, tintype, albumen, silver, polaroid and digital (labeled 2010). Only when I read the wall tag did I realize that all the portraits are self-portraits of the artist -- costumed to match the fictional time of the photograph.

With the exception of the photographs in "A Moment in Time" all the photographs were digital prints and all but two of these were color. One of the latter, “Haints at Swamp II” was a faux toned C-print mounted behind a crystal-clear thick glass that gave it the appearance of wet-plate or even aureotype. 

With no exceptions the pieces in this show stood on their own as portraits apart from the fame or obscurity of the sitter -- David Hockney no more nor less than a homeless African-American man on a San Francisco street corner.

Many of the portraits dealt with social issues -- homelessness, gender inequality, racial tension, transgender acceptance, mental and physical disability -- but the issues were beneath the surface of the portrait that was first and foremost an image of a human worthy of attention and respect.

Many of the artists, in their statements that accompanied the art, commented on their artistic debt to the great portraitists of the past. It was easy to see, for example, Edward Hopper's "Night Hawks" in "Audrey, 2014", Vermeer's use of side light in "Becky, June, Jessica, and Mary" (perhaps my favorite of the show), Sally Mann's ability to show childhood as both idyllic and threatening in "Mavis in the Backseat", August Sanders' respect for his subjects in "Hiede and Lilly"

As for grand prize winner, "Miss Everything" -- it is one of those artworks that I didn't appreciate until I saw it in person. In this painting, a young African American girl in a partly polka-dotted dress, white gloves and a scarlet hat stared fixedly at the viewer while holding an outsized teacup. Her skin is grey (although my eyes obediently saw it as a chocolate brown). At a glance it resembles a "naive" work but, like Jacob Lawrence's paintings, the longer I look at it the more sophisticated and carefully done it becomes.

"Outwin 2016" is on view at TAM until May 14. The small but well-produced catalog is available in the gift shop.

I plan on seeing it again. 

(and as an aside, the blogspot editor is a real pain to use -- this is hardly the format I had in mind but I'm throwing in the towel)