the sundays

2019.27 (Edwin and Thomas Landseer, The Stag at Bay)

            It’s difficult for me to remember a lot of firsts. At best, I have an oldest memory of some thing or event but there is no guarantee that those are the first times I experienced anything. I could figure out the first 45 that I bought because we still have them all. I could just check release dates. It was probably “Watching the Wheels” or “Woman” The first album I bought with my own money was The Outfield’s Play Deep. Anything I had up until that point was a gift or mixtape. The first time I remember being in a movie theatre was when my parents took my brother and me to see Kramer Vs Kramer. I assume they expected us to sleep through it because I was 4 years old at the time. I know I was awake long enough to see Jane Alexander walking down a hallway naked right before my mother’s hand went up over my eyes. Mom would repeat this maneuver two years later to block the giant Nazi in Raiders of Lost Ark being chopped up by the airplane propeller.

            But what is the first unique piece of art that I saw? It had to be in our house, because, as I have previously established, I did not enter a museum until I was 17. I didn’t visit an art gallery until high school. We had prints in our house for a long time. My parents still have a series of what I think are offset lithography prints of northern European engravings that celebrate each month, like Breugel. Scenes of harvest, etc. They have four, one for each of our birth months. As family finances improved, unique works like paintings or monotypes showed up. My parents still have some Anna Jaap monotypes from the 1990s in their house- still lifes a bit more recognizable in presentation than the abstraction she has progressed to since then.

            There are strengths and weaknesses in the means by which you form a lifelong bond with a work of art. The biggest weakness seems to be the effort required to go see it. Music is everywhere. It goes with you and gets directly tied to wherever you are when it is playing. The Sundays were from London and wrote about British things, like losing a pound in the Underground, but their first album is forever burned in my brain by driving down Conference Dr near Rivergate Mall in Goodlettsville, TN in my friend’s very old, red Volkswagen Beetle that was in such bad shape that it didn’t even have floorboards in the back seat. If you sat back there, you pulled your feet up and hoped for the best because you could see the road passing underneath the car where your feet were supposed to rest. The heat for the car was broken in some way that prevented you from turning it off. It was on all of the time, even in the summer. No matter the season, the windows were always down, which does make for good cruising and listening to The Sundays in the spring evening. This relationship to an album is nothing that a band in that position could have ever predicted but that’s the strength of recorded music. This is art’s weakness. No one is driving around Goodlettsville, TN having an Albrecht Dürer moment. Dürer is not in the air. But this weakness is countered by art’s strength that when you stand in front of a painting, you are standing where the artist stood. There was a show of Leonardo da Vinci drawings at the Met years ago. A friend of mine and I were standing in front of a drawing, 2 feet from it, when we heard a woman behind us say, “You know, you can see it from here too.” My friend turned back and said, “Yeah, but he was standing where I am when he drew it.”

            I assume that most artists have had that moment early enough in their lifetime to nudge them a bit into the profession of making art: a person stood where I am standing and made the thing I am looking at and this is the only place you can stand to have this experience because  this is a unique object and I occupy the singular space directly in front of a unique object at this moment. The closest thing to a first for this experience that I can remember happened in my grandmother’s house. She was the caretaker of some of my great-grandmother’s art. I have little-to-no information about my great-grandmother. I should ask more questions. She lived in eastern North Carolina and was a hobbyist of art more than an artist. She taught some classes but what remains of her work are pieces that she copied, predominantly images from magazines. We have a small watercolor still life in the kitchen that she either set up herself or copied it. It’s a handful of red, green and yellow apples with a small glass dish. It lacks volume and light but possesses a nice washy quality. It’s also well-arranged, from my perspective because it’s a relatively-long horizontal and a quick scan of all of my work will reveal that I don’t consider myself to be good at arranging along a horizontal. I make verticals. I really need to work on expanding my range of formatting.

Edwin and Thomas Landseer, The Stag at Bay, engraving, approximately 1848, image courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust

Edwin and Thomas Landseer, The Stag at Bay, engraving, approximately 1848, image courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust

            The work of hers that grabbed my attention over the years was the biggest surviving piece that the family kept. It’s a copy of Edwin and Thomas Landseer’s The Stag at Bay. It is unclear to me whether or not the original Landseer painting exists now. The composition is best documented by Edwin’s brother, Thomas’ engraving from approximately 1848. It depicts a stag in what I assume is a lake being attacked by two wolves. The winner and loser of the fight have yet to be determined but I feel like if the stag is in the water, then the stag is going down. It looks like it could go either way. There is a threatening cloud hovering over the composition with a bird of prey circling in the darkest section of the cloud. Despite the storm, broad rays of light streak from behind the cloud to illuminate the shoreline and forest in the distance. It’s a nice slice of British romanticism. Every element of the natural world is turned up to maximum volume.

            My great-grandmother’s charcoal copy of this print hung in my grandmother’s house and then came to my parents after my grandmother’s death. For the first few years of it being there, I considered it a hideous thing and rarely looked at it. But one day I finally had that “Hey, someone stood right here and made this” moment and my relationship with it changed. I think it happened because I understood that it was a relative of mine that made it. My father knew the person that made it. Now it was a mysterious object. I had no idea who Edwin Landseer or what Romanticism was or that my great-grandmother had copied this. I thought she made it up out of her head. Why would she do this? It seemed unlikely that she would ever see a stag attacked by wolves. As my eye developed, I graded it. Her drawing has space and light and proportion but lacks form. But she was seeing more than likely seeing this in a magazine so how much form did she have to observe? The horizon line doesn’t match up on the left and right side of the stag’s body. This is not a Cezanne move. It’s an error. The drawing’s importance to me grew as I grew. When we bought our first house, my parents unloaded a lot of my childhood stuff on me that had been in their attic. They gave us furniture they didn’t need. I asked for the stag and got it.

slideshow: Edwin Landseer- Night (Two Stags Battling by Moonlight), oil on canvas, 1853, 56x103”, Morning (Two Dead Stags and a Fox), oil on canvas, 1853, 56x103”, Ptarmigan in a Landscape, oil on canvas, 1833, 19.5x25.75” - images courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art         

Once I started working at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I dusted the frame of two large Landseer paintings every week. Other smaller Landseers were around, and honestly, it is a gem of a small collection of his work. Click here to see them. The Ptarmigan in a Landscape painting is a masterful control of earth tones and grays. One large piece I dusted depicts two stags battling at night. The partner of the same size depicted two dead stags with a fox and a bird of prey. Saturday night, Sunday morning? Not knowing Thomas’ prints, I was still able to look at these and my great-grandmother’s drawing and know that she was looking at his work. The composition of forms was too similar to not be him. That gave me enough to start searching. Over the years (this is early internet 2.0) I would occasionally search “Landseer stag” and find work similar but not it. After a year or two, I got an eBay hit on the print and the mystery was solved. Now I knew what she had been using as her guide and I could compare and contrast the original and the copy. The unsolvable mystery will always be where she saw it and what she was copying. She sliced off the right quarter of the composition, but maybe that wasn’t included in what she was looking at. Maybe the edits in her composition were not hers. She washed out the storm. It’s a clear day in her drawing. The landscape is downplayed. The true romanticism of the piece is negated just to focus on the subject. She nailed the shape of the stag and the antlers and the wolf on the left though. It’s a good copy. No wonder I wanted it up on the wall.

film still from  Bull Durham

film still from Bull Durham

            The drawing hangs above my studio door now. I’ve drawn it in the background of at least one piece of mine in the past and I’m sure I’ll use it again. I see the print pop up on auctions, but I’ll never spend $5,000 on it. I found it hovering in the background of a bar scene in Bull Durham. It’s a nice steady reminder of art history as well as family history and that your children and grandchildren may latch onto an oddball thing you make as a keepsake that you were ever here. We have this drawing and some of my wife’s grandfather’s whittled oddities. You can hold those whittled piece in your hand in the same way you can stand in front of a Leonardo drawing and say, “This is the only one of these. I am holding it (or standing in front of it) and no one else can have that direct relationship right now but me.”

2019.8

Nashville Visionaries received a very nice write-up in the Nashville Scene thanks to Laura Hutson Hunter. Congratulations to everyone at TSU and Carl Pope for putting this show together and thank you for letting me be a part of it. The show is up until April 1.

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I spent more time than necessary trying to count the number of guitar tracks on the Sundays’ “Goodbye”. For now, I am sticking with 4 but if you told me that there were 8 then I would believe you. If for some reason, you have stumbled upon this post and know how many guitars are on it, please let me know. I do not know how economical they tried to be, but it feels like a lot of ideas move in and out of the recording and it is paced to pop/rock perfection. Even if I am never right, I like trying to pick apart a studio recording more than a painting. It is all the same process, but it is easier to hear than see. It is an equally valuable learning experience in terms of considering how to create something. Map out the structure of a painting, a musical composition, a novel, a poem. The same principles are at work.

 There are a few of ways to think about it.

One is the live recording of a notated piece of music. From a novice perspective, it is all there. Account for tempo and volume in relation to the microphones and everyone else and make it work. You are less practicing for a recording than you are for a performance that just happens to be recorded. This is not using the studio as an instrument or a tool beyond documentation.

Then there is the one-shot approach to making a non-notated recording. If everyone is playing, then you are doing version after version of it until everyone locks in and you have what you want. You change your mind as ideas develop and keep doing takes. Work it. Listen to it. Rework it. At some point, the people out of step get in step and the people that have been in step all afternoon start to get irritated and the take that gets printed is usually an angsty mix of competency and frustration. The best example of this for me is Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog”. I do not know how many takes of “Hound Dog” were recorded but take number 28 is reportedly the one used for the single. Scotty Moore thinks they did more than 40 takes in a day. In that recording you hear that mix of “let’s keep trying”, “I am barely hanging on” and “I am so over this.” Moore’s first guitar solo is dutiful. He stays within the margins. I am sure after the first 27 takes, he was just hoping to make it more than halfway through the song so people would not stop them halfway into a take. The second solo is a beautiful mess. As Keith Richards said, it is like he dropped his guitar and it made a sound that worked. My favorite stat about all of this is that the end of the first solo and the beginning of the second solo are only 15 seconds apart from one another. That is such a quick mental shift from “Let’s just get through this” to “I am going to wreck this car…on purpose.” That solo cannot exist outside of the song. It makes no sense. But the song cannot exist without it. It is a mixture of disparate, ugly elements that form something solid when put together. You hear this a lot in live recordings. Something out of tune that defines a recording. Intentionally sick harmonies that create a vibe.

The Sundays’ “Goodbye” is a different animal. It is what producers and engineers get paid substantial chunks of money to construct. In this case it is more than likely a construction of the guitarist’s making. If you are not obsessed with guitar gear (and I am not) then you can never know how much work one guitar can do. You can watch The Edge in the It Might Get Loud documentary to see how much he can strangle out of one chord but placed into a song, it might be harder to figure out what is going on. This is not a live recording that is rehearsed and practiced and attempted over and over until everyone gets it right. It is built. There is a bed of picked rhythm guitars laid down to let the other guitars float on top of it. They float in and out, send shards skimming over the surface until all of them come together for the final minute, simultaneously floating, ascending and pushing towards the end. It keeps what is an almost 5-minute song built on one riff ever-shifting, especially once the layers of vocals and bits of keyboard get set down on top of a steady rhythm section that ascends when necessary but otherwise understands that it is there to plug the hole and keep the ship going in a straight line.

Painting sometimes works similarly. There is the “spontaneous” piece made in one sitting: revised, painted out, painted over and hacked to death. It is something that can only exist in its finished form if you spent 75% of the creation of that painting in complete frustration and desperation. Stars align. Mistakes join forces to become a solid form that you could not have planned. You can work this way if you are capable of processing that failure quickly.

Some artists live in that space. In a cynical summary, it is a quantity versus quality methodology. If I make 60 paintings, then 20 of them will be good. The other 40 can be painted out. If you can mentally sustain yourself, then go for it. I think of that approach as phase one. Songwriters probably need 40 songs to whittle down to 12 for an album. The life you breathe into those songs in the studio is the “Goodbye” step in the process. Sometimes the demo surpasses the studio creation. Know your strengths. Also if anyone can get me Jane Wiedlin’s demo of “Our Lips Are Sealed” please contact me. It was in a documentary I saw on VH1 and I have not heard it since. There are acoustic versions of it but not her original cassette version.

Miraculous 4-track demos aside, the majority of this approach is research and development. I am firmly planted in research and development right now.

If I had to guess, I think I made 8 paintings this week. This means I also painted over 8 paintings. Two of those pieces were good but I did not want to settle for “good” and my attempts to make them “great” ended in misery. As it stands, I have three canvases with interesting grounds on them that will make for better work one day. The benefit of doing this for over 20 years is that you know to leave mistakes lying around because they will find their place and you will end up making something that could have only happened by living with failure for an extended period of time until it is redeemed.

I wrote instructions for myself at the beginning of January as to how to proceed in the studio. Make a lot of ink drawings. Develop a new visual language for myself. That will build towards a new painterly language. I did nothing of the sort. I began to paint. It was not the worst thing to ignore my direct orders. I ended up making a handful of paintings that I like. I’m batting .300 with the paintings which does not sound great but .300 will get you in the Hall of Fame. That said, a week of failure was enough to convince me that I possibly had beginner’s luck and I should get back to the plan. I have returned to brush-and-ink drawings. I had stepped away from ink for a couple of years. It is good to be back with it. It is so direct and unforgiving. If you make a bad mark with a pencil, you can save it. One bad mark with an ink-loaded brush can cause you to adjust the entire drawing to accommodate that one mark.

There is no conceptual agenda. That sounded liberating to me at first, but it is just a different kind of frustration. You can draw anything. So, what do you draw? Today I drew a Bond villain, an Iraqi priest that I have painted a number of times, my son and a landscape. That emptied the tank. Now I have to go find more random subjects. Sadly, we live in a world where the Bond villains would get me more attention than anything else. Maybe I will revisit some old subjects. Matisse spent a career doing that. Done well, it is interesting. Executed improperly and you might as well be the old rock star that has decided to record symphonic versions of the hits.

When I type it all out, that was not much of a week. I finished painting the den.

It is going to rain 6 more inches this week.

Spring training games start on Friday. I am ready for baseball. They usually do not play baseball games in the rain so at least I can watch a game and remind myself that the sun does exist.

Currently reading:

In Xanadu- William Dalrymple

St. Augustine: City of God

The Book of Matthew

2 Timothy

Quote for the week:

“Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one's first feeling, 'Thank God, even they aren't quite so bad as that,' or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything -- God and our friends and ourselves included -- as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.”

CS Lewis- Mere Christianity