Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Another Solution to the Problem of the Head

Many problems have more than one solution, and not just more than one workable solution, but more than one optimum solution. This means that one may prefer one solution over another, but that no defense can be made of the preferred solution such that the disfavored one is reasonably eliminated. Certainly this scenario pervades the broad and unevenly lit universe of making art.

Case in point: ways to represent the head. I just worked up a pretty appealing argument for one means of representing the head. It happens to be a means I myself have worked on for many years. But it’s not the only way to do it.

As you may have noticed, I do a lot of work with Leah, a model who is, relative to me and a fair number of other artists, muse-grade. I ordinarily draw and paint her head at various points in the structural/emotional paradigm I was working up last time. Here, for instance, is the preparatory sketch for my painting Blue Leah #2:

Daniel Maidman, Preparatory Sketch for Blue Leah #2, pencil on paper, 15”x22”, 2012

It leans on the emotional, sacrificing some structural accuracy for the sake of mood, while still maintaining approximate fidelity to form. That sounds awfully clinical, like I go in the studio, set a few dials to the desired values, and hit EXECUTE. The act of drawing wasn’t like that at all - this is just how it came out.

Here, on the other hand, is the preparatory sketch for a version of Blue Leah #3 which I later abandoned:

Daniel Maidman, Preparatory Sketch #1 for Blue Leah #3, pencil on paper, 15”x22”, 2012

This happened to come out much more technically: sometimes you start a drawing, and you realize you are getting everything in the right place, and you excitedly ride that wave as far as it will carry you - it is very rewarding to draw without mistakes. That’s what I did here. The elements of personality and mood are still present, but they are subordinate to right form, right shadow shape, right highlight position, absolute line…

Different though these drawings are, they still represent two points in the same continuum. Consider now a third drawing of Leah - this is a preparatory sketch for Meiosis #2 (we’ve discussed it before):

Daniel Maidman, Preparatory Sketch for Meiosis #2: Head, pencil on paper, 15”x11”, 2013

This conforms with something we’ve discussed in the remote past, which I call my natural line. I am always not using it very much because it is so reminiscent of Matisse and Picasso, who got there first, and I am always vowing to use it more, because it is genuinely mine and I like it.

Because I do not practice with it very much, I can really only access it around models I have worked with so much that I have the sense of them in my hand and heart; it is a blindfolded true line, if you like. To my eye, it is outside the architectonics-of-the-head paradigm altogether. Certainly there is something right about it, but that rightness is no longer empirical or derived from an analytical model deeply compatible with the empirical. You can’t shade one of these the way you shade an ordinary drawing, or it turns into crap:

Daniel Maidman, Preparatory Sketch for Meiosis #2: Body, pencil on paper, 15”x11”, 2013

That turning-into-crapness yields an important clue, that this mode of linemaking exists outside the classical accounting of observed form.

So anyway, I decided I wanted a more worked-up take on the version of Leah’s face I drew in my natural line. I wanted to make a painting of it. How? How? How? Well - it’s eventually a question of diving in and seeing what happens. So I drew something very like it onto a canvas and got Leah to come in and we sat down and banged out a painting in three hours.

Daniel Maidman, Leah, oil on linen, 20”x16”, 2014

A few thoughts on this painting. First of all, it doesn’t look like my ordinary work. The values are much less contrasty and more clustered toward middle grey. I have preserved the centrality of line. There is no real three-dimensionality to the forms. It doesn’t really look real.

And yet it has other qualities which I have pursued a long time and feel like I caught here, a bit, at last. Leah appears not in her guise as a highly particularized set of forms, but as a day-to-day person; we don’t see her forms more astutely than we do those of people we run into in normal life. That backgrounding of form provides space for aspects of personality I can’t catch in my more developed work - the casual facets of personality: a turn, an interested glance, the intake of breath, a fleeting thought. I asked her to put her shirt back on because I realized I wasn’t painting an Eternal Nude, but a civilian. This is how you paint a friend. It comes closer to what we like about Hals - Hals is the master of the brief and the transitional. That’s why art history puts up with his sloppy, half-assed brushwork. Those awful marks are the byproducts of the only means of catching spontaneous liveliness: painting fast and not trying to get it right.

I liked this pretty well when I got done, and I like it more now. It’s been growing on me, in a friendly way.

I hope this works for you as an example of another optimal solution to a problem. I sometimes worry that the breadth of my techniques (not that broad, but not monopolar either) will make my body of work seem uncommitted. But it’s not that; it’s that life is very various, and I want to make room in my own life and work to say “yes” to as much of it as possible.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Architectonics of the Head

I posted the following portrait of Rachel on Facebook a few weeks ago. Rachel is a model I have drawn frequently at Spring Street over the past couple of years, and about whom I will have much more to say down the road.

Daniel Maidman, Melancholy Portrait of Rachel, graphite and white pencil on Rives BFK Tan, 15"x11”, 2014

I had my doubts about this drawing, but there was a unity to it which is something I’ve been working on. Artist Joseph Podlesnik commented, “Finesse and control, not an errant mark - like building a house of cards, placing one element carefully before the next, ensuring the former supports what follows... yes?”

Podlesnik himself knows what the hell he’s talking about in terms of the unity of organic forms.

Joseph Podlesnik, Untitled, pastel on paper, 12.25”x7.5”, 2014

I promised to follow up on his analysis (which is what I’m doing here), because it answered closely to something which has been much on my mind for maybe the past year or so. I can’t find a record of the instigating incident, which was also a Facebook thing. Somebody somewhere posted this closeup of the face in the painting Ramsay MacDonald by British (and, pleasingly, Jewish) painter Solomon Joseph Solomon:

Solomon Joseph Solomon, Ramsay MacDonald (detail), oil on canvas, 35.5”x28.5”, 1911

Solomon is a hero of the current crop of neo-academic painters. Whoever posted this closeup remarked on Solomon’s amazing grasp of the architecture of the head. Sometimes in life a single turn of phrase will change some fundamental thing for you, and for me, this concept of “the architecture of the head” was one such phrase. I rephrased it for myself to “the architectonics of the head” - the system of the architecture, over and above the specifics of the particular architecture.

What I mean is this. The remark, in either form, elevates the given head from simply a nicely-done head, to a comprehensible head. One can understand what makes it work so well: every element, from the distribution of values over the surfaces, to the varying yellows and pinks, to the placement of the parts in correct perspective, answers flawlessly to the geometry and structural unity of a convex bony object wrapped in a little meat and skin. The lack of error to this head gives it its sense of rightness. Encountering this head, the eye unclenches, because it senses it will not have to paper over any differences between what is presented and what was meant.

This conceptualization of the topic as a matter of architectonics was new to me. I was familiar with the ideas of knowing the structure of the skull, and the proportions of the face, and so forth, before. But I had never integrated the diverse implicated topics into a single concept, called architectonics, which subsumed all the relevant sub-topics. All the parts fell into place: they became a single thing. There was one head-ness to the head.

This sudden sense of the parts falling into place effected a quiet revolution for me. I had been self-consciously avoiding heads based on “what I know” - I follow this avoidance in general, but especially for heads. I don’t want to draw first what I “know” is there, and then see if I can shoehorn the specifics of the model into place once I’ve answered to the strictures of knowledge. So I build up heads from features, making sure each feature has its right shape, and doing my best to get the features to sit in the right places relative to one another. This method is prone to mishap, but it encourages me to focus on personality and emotion in the faces of the people I am looking at, and that is my highest priority.

Indulging in that sense of superiority which I, for one, cannot quite overcome, I have been faintly dismissive toward the knowledge-oriented drawers of heads. Those aesthetes, I allowed myself to think, were really drawing concepts, and not people. And most of the time, this may be true. It is not easy to draw either a concept or a person. But I think there are two things a fair-minded observer would have to concede about Solomon’s MacDonald: that indeed it does have an amazing grasp of the architectonics of the head - and that it is rich in character, mood, and presence. That is, it neatly leaps over the dichotomy which I was proposing, of the head from architectonic and humanist perspectives.

At the right time, all it takes to make progress is the recognition that progress is possible. I bumped up against the Solomon and the description at the right time. Thenceforth, I found that I could approach the head as Solomon did: from both an analytic (architectonic) and an empirical (humanist) perspective.

Actually, let me not make so audacious a claim. Let me say that knowing it was possible, I could no longer not try. I finally had enough knowledge and experience on both sides of the divide that I was comfortable simultaneously throwing both methodologies into the effort. I could see the unified skull beneath the flesh, and I could also see the complex configuration of tensions and relaxations of the muscles of the face, which gives faces their emotions and characters.

So when Podlesnik says, “Finesse and control, not an errant mark - like building a house of cards, placing one element carefully before the next, ensuring the former supports what follows... yes?” what I read is, “I understand what you have been trying to do, and it worked.”

Looking at it again, you can see the Solomon to this face, can’t you? It is not as good a picture, but Rachel happened to take the same pose, under the same lighting, at the same angle relative to me. Or close enough. The two instances partway fused.

Under more generous conditions - that is, in paint and with all the time in the world - I continued to deploy the model of the architectonics of the head, emphasizing and eliding detail to accomplish individuality and unity in a portrait I was working on of my friend Rupa DasGupta.

Daniel Maidman, Rupa, oil on linen, 20”x16”, 2014

Eliding detail? you ask. Yes, in one very particular way - I brightened the side of her nose, so that the upward planes of her cheeks and nose appeared more fused into a single structural unit. They don’t actually look like this - but it’s how the eye understands them. This kind of selective de-emphasis can only fail to interfere with the personhood of the model if you’re coming at the problem from both sides. Thus, you see me here applying to their fullest the principles I learned from my own practice, and from this Facebook poster whose name currently eludes me, and from Solomon Joseph Solomon.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

I'll Stand With Chaos

Let’s pretend I didn’t just ignore you for a couple months. Of course, what we feared has come to pass - Huffington both drained the energy I pour into this blog, and changed the tenor of my writing. Perhaps this is alright; one might propose that when I started with you, I was in training, and my training yielded its results, and now most of my writing is of a different character, for a broader and more professional context. Perhaps. But I don’t like to think that what I am doing here is not an end in itself. I like to spend time with you here, and to ruminate in a leisurely way on my work and the work I am looking at. Everything just seems so much more busy these days. Let’s say, then, that life is more busy, and leave it at that. To the topic at hand.

I was on the subway the other day, looking at some ads which a little googling suggests are ubiquitous in the United States right now - the ads themselves are Google ads, for a service called Google Play, which I’m going to guess has something to do with streaming music. Here’s one I pulled off the web.

I found myself resenting these ads even more than I resent most Google ads. I was looking at them, thinking about their design; about how Google likes to throw resources at everything it does. I pictured focus groups and psychometricians generating viewer response scores on sets of icon juxtapositions, and a designated Clever Artist coming up with the quarter-turn white highlight on the speaker cones, leaving an implied sans-serif G in the negative space; and Swiss designers in lab coats carefully rotating elements by pre-specified scientific increments in Adobe Illustrator, displayed on enormous flatscreens at the ends of flexible chrome arms in surgically clean white rooms.

Google HQ

I pictured this entire antiseptic apparatus of advertising throwing the enormity of its muscle into generating these images and making them perfect.

But you know what? They still kind of suck. They suck a lot. They are terrible ads. They stand in relation to good ads as PC design stands in relation to Apple design. The only reason to register their presence at all is that you cannot avoid them.

This is an important lesson in what makes good art. Google has undoubtedly thrown a generous budget at their big ad campaign. But they threw it in the wrong direction. Good art is not a question of money, scientists, experts, and committees. Quantitative validation of your output does not make it functional. Art is a system so tremendously multivariate that it cannot yet be regularized by means of rational protocols. Like Asimov’s hypothesis about extremely advanced technologies, it is indistinguishable from magic.

The practical outcome of this non-reduceability property is that any miserable art student with a No. 2 pencil has in his or her hand a tool as powerful for the creation of good art as does Google with its well-paid army of image engineers; more powerful, perhaps, because Google makes the mistake of thinking that quality control controls quality, and the art student lacks the resources to indulge in this corporate delusion.

When Google gets it right, if it ever does, it will be because they got their hands on the right single person with a great idea, and then got out of the way. They will get it right the same way the humblest of artists does, not by throwing money at the problem but through inspiration.

There is no means of controlling the system through which good and bad art are generated. It takes the fiery form of democracy explained, not particularly surprisingly if you consider their overall body of work, in Pixar’s 2007 movie Ratatouille:

In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau's famous motto, “Anyone can cook." But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere.

Pixar never dolls up the brutally exclusionary nature of art. Some artists can become great and others never will. But they consistently combine this elitist insight with its egalitarian complement - that who can become great and who cannot is a wild process answerable to no budget, aristocracy, inheritance, education, authority, or even justice. Art stalks where it likes and strikes whom it will. From a mortal perspective, it appears to be chaotic.

The presumption involved in Google’s lacking Pixar’s wisdom regarding the creation of personal artwork in a corporate environment - and further, Google’s abysmal bad taste in going wide with their dull, mediocre campaign -

- was what stirred my resentment. But ultimately, their money can only buy them ubiquity. In taking their stand, they defeat themselves. This is true of all art institutions reliant on something apart from the art itself for their claims to art status, by which I mean museums, galleries, graduate schools, the press, the academics, the collectors, and anyone else with authority who might want art to be orderly and predictable.

I myself am some of these institutions, and I interact with the rest. I would never dismiss the best among them. These best understand that they are subordinate to art, and that art is untamable. There is not yet a complete theory of art, and it is not demonstrated that it will become possible to form a complete theory of art in the future. There is only good art, bad art, learning to see and respect the difference and, for artists, chasing like demons after quality.

I emerged gladdened from the subway, having been reminded of the radical democracy of art, which is functionally identical with chaos. I’ll stand with chaos.


That last line sounds very dramatic, but in fact it is not a brave act in any way, and I wouldn't want to imply that it was.