Friday, December 19, 2014


Richard Tuttle at Tate Modern

Richard Tuttle once talked to me about the power of force and resistance. The way he put it was that the closer you got to complete blackness, the more it became all about white. That the more you talked about hope, the more it was about despair. Ultimately the message was all about balance. Ultimately the message was: don't overcompensate.

I tend to overcompensate sometimes. If there is no explanation, I error on the side of over explaining. If there is no appreciation, I error on the side of over appreciation. I can't risk more of the less.

Richard Tuttle at Tate Modern

I live in New England. The seat of less is more. There is no art here. Which might help to explain places like MASS MoCA and the ICA. Bigger and bigger places for art that make people smaller and smaller.

ICA in Boston

They are this huge overcompensation. Huge. They shout from the inside of their fortresses, "even if you don't care about art, well we do!" And the region just shouts back louder: "we don't care." In which case Noah decides that "we are going to need a bigger boat" and they build it. And these arks just sit alone in the landscape.

Which was why I was surprised when some museum people that visited Bow Street recently to see Nina Nielsen's paintings kept remarking how much they liked it. Really liked it. A funky little low ceilinged guerrilla theater of a gallery in a little tear-down of a shack on a rural road. Apparently they were relieved to be able to be intimate with art; exhausted by their own overcompensation. Funny.

Addison Parks, Bow Street

bow street

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Artist notes: Jack Frankfurter

I couldn't get to the computer very often because I was so busy for the last few days. The important item is that I have prepared a large canvas and have laid out a complicated drawing. In correcting the charcoal drawing I discovered that I may have chewed off more than I can digest. If after another attempt tomorrow to get volumes in multiple perspectives right I fail, I`m not giving up but will wipe the canvas and try something less challenging.

Jack Frankfurter, Rome

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Location:Rome, Italy

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

IF NOTHING ELSE; how nice to paint

This one thought has been floating around in my brain since I read that the late poet Mark Strand's mother was a painter.

How nice to paint.

I have always felt this way. No matter what. No matter if I was in the glaring spotlight or in complete and utter darkness.

How nice to paint, and I suppose, by extension, how nice to be a painter.

You see, it dawned on me, like a brick to the head, that when I read that Strand's mother was a painter, that that was all that mattered. It didn't matter if she was a famous painter, or even a good painter. I just thought, how nice for him, how nice for her.

This goes along with what I have said before, that anything worth doing is actually worth doing badly, contrary to the popular aphorism. There are things in this world that are worth doing no matter how badly you do them.

How nice to paint.

I have always tried to spread this idea. I did it while teaching at RISD alongside other instructors who felt entitled to act as gatekeepers, to save the world from bad painting. As though they had either the right or the wisdom to discourage and even crush the dreams of young people.

How nice to paint.

Painting gives you a way to connect to the world. It inspires you to look. To see. To see colors. To see shapes. To see light. To see connections. To enjoy clarity. To enjoy ambiguity. It inspires you to put colors and shapes side by side. It inspires you to look really hard. To see what makes something what it is. To remember. To share those memories. To look inside. To share what can't be seen.

How nice to paint.

Painting invites us to see why one person looks the way they do, how they felt, how they made us feel(a recent trip to the Frick restored my appreciation of portraiture).

Painting gives us a way to share what matters to us. Do you see what I see? Do you feel what I feel? Do you think what I think?

How nice to paint.

Painting, like bicycling, is a more than the sum of the parts proposition. On a bicycle you may get where you are going, but it is the wind in your face and the sense of flight that makes it special. You won't find that anywhere in the spokes or the pedals or the handlebars. It is beyond the parts. So is painting.

Ultimately, as my old art history teacher, James Kettlewell, tried to tell me, it is not about paint. Like bicycling, it is where it takes you. It is not the finger but where it points. You could say that painting is more than the sum of the arts.

How nice to paint.

I remember as a boy in Rome when my mother's boyfriend, who was an aspiring opera singer, went off to see the maestro, a man who would decide if he would, as my mother put it, sing or sell ties. I knew that that was wrong even as a child.

How nice to sing.

I remember when a friend of mine decided to try his hand at being an art dealer, saying that he wanted to rid the world of bad art, even bad art by artists he deemed worthy. Because even great artists let bad examples of their work leave the studio! Again, as though he had the right or wisdom. As though he could not sleep until he had saved the world. As though bad painting was a personal affront to his very being, to the very gods.

How nice to paint.

I did my best as an art writer to encourage every artist about which I wrote. And for every time that I failed I am eternally sorry. I was mean to Jake Berthot in print. Sorry Jake. Very sorry. I was mean to Richard Merkin. Sorry Richard. They did nothing wrong. Quite the opposite.

How nice to paint.

As a curator I have placed the work of students alongside their teachers with great success. Outsiders alongside insiders with great success. Somebodies alongside nobodies with great success. Excellent rose food.

How nice to paint.

There is a rivalrous sickness in the world. Brother against brother. Sister against sister. Painter against painter. Parents pit their children against each other. Parents pit themselves against their children. Teachers pit their students against each other. And they pit themselves against their students. This is worse than mean. This is the worst kind of failure. Spite. Laziness. A failure of imagination. Of courage. A failure to encourage each individual, to respect the right of each individual to explore and fulfill their own lives.

I am both astounded and saddened by this sickness. To turn everything into a competition ostensibly to produce results. Sadly Somerset Maugham and Gore Vidal, two writers I once enjoyed and admired, are both credited for saying something along the lines that it is not only important to succeed, it is also important that others should fail, especially friends.

I say.

If you paint, if you are a painter, hold your ground; you have arrived. Keep faith and hope by your side. And keep your ego busy doing place settings or some such so that it doesn't interfere with the job at hand. And, of course, always remember what brought you. Never forget the love. The joy!

How nice to paint.

Addison Parks, Spring Hill, 2014

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Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Martin Mugar: The Pastorale

Martin Mugar at the Bromfield Gallery, 2013

Is it possible that our own expectations are what cloud our vision, that life is never what it seems because what we want gets in the way? This struggle is at the core of Martin Mugar's work; this struggle is the mighty challenge that he has taken on, and that in turn explains the kind of challenge that the viewer faces when confronted with his paintings.

Martin Mugar's work is only "not what it seems" because of our expectations. We expect that pastel candy-like surfaces that appear like a large confection are sweet and decorative. We might eschew the sugar rush, the diabetic coma, the sick stomach. Or we might dismiss the pleasantries, the overall decorativeness, the unbridled optimism, the quiet pastorale.

What is truth could pass for irony, but it is not. It is us. We are not up to the challenge. Martin Mugar's work is a mountain we cannot climb. It is too high.

But the truth is simpler still. Mugar is interested in light, in mortality, in the universe. If you see this, you see his work. It is anything but sweet. It is anything but decorative. It takes on our largest and most frightening questions.

Martin Mugar at the Bromfield Gallery, 2013

And it does so rather ingeniously. Mugar finds a way of dialoguing with these questions by not getting caught up in paint in the traditional sense. He is a painter, and isn't it nice just to paint. But this isn't about paint anymore; it is about something more, so he has come up with a material vehicle for his expression that removes that distraction from the experience, that frees the work from that misdirection.

Yes, this is about something more. So instead of sensuous oil paint at the end of a brush, he applies his wax and pigment concoction with a tool that is, yes, something a pastry chef might use. But again, this is no pastry.

Pastels don't interest him per se. But in order to get as much light into the work as possible he loads up white to achieve this, reducing the colors he needs to direct his narrative, his conversation with the almighty, to the palest possible terms while still retaining their "color." Optically that is the effect, the dissolve, just like color dots in offset printing, they become neutralized at a distance, merging, coming together, coalescing, losing themselves in the light that they all miraculously generate. Think white light. Think Turner, think Monet, not Ben&Jerry's.

Light is not just the means to his ends, it is his beach, his sandbox; where he lives and breathes. Where he plays! Where he expounds. Where he wrestles with God.

Martin Mugar at Bow Street 2009
Subtlety and sublimation are the twin engines of his ship. His twin masts. And his sweet perfume. His surprising quiet strength. Lilac. Rose. Jasmine. Gardenia. Violet. The colors of smell. The smell of good things. Making the best of things. Wasn't one of his paintings titled "My Mother's Dress." Isn't it all about the smells. Memory. The dream that slips and slides, and slips away.

This is where he lives. Somewhere between the scent of the garden and the silvery reflections out on the waters near the New Hampshire shore, where he makes sense of it all, makes art of it all. Somewhere between the birth and loss of a child. Somewhere between life and death. And maybe somewhere beyond. This is the stuff of his paintings. This is his story.

Martin Mugar, 2012, oil and wax on wood

These are "what does it all mean" paintings. Maybe sometimes "what the hell" paintings that have something of Job about them. "What the hell do you want from me" paintings. "Fighting for the light" paintings. Is it ironic that what he does to liberate his paintings, and us, might end up getting in the way? That we can't get past his invention. Like the sound of Frankie Valli's falsetto voice.

Perhaps. But if we want to get up where the air is fresh and sweet, we have to make the climb. That's the thing. The worst thing that you could say about Martin Mugar's paintings is that they belong in a museum, the only place where we can possibly have the time and space to understand them.

That said,  we don't have to understand them.  We can climb as high as we like.  We can have fun, because they can be fun too, and sweet, and even silly. Joyful. Of course. Absolutely.

Addison Parks, Spring Hill, 2014

Detail:from the painting behind him in the top photo

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Nina Nielsen: True Grit

Nina Nielsen and Stone(2013-2014), Oil and sand on canvas, 20 x 16"

Perhaps Nina Nielsen came to painting late, but it seems silly to say that. Still somehow in this world it is apparently relevant. I am not sure why. Apparently there are rules; in fact, maybe she was one of the rule makers. Maybe she broke everyone's rules, including her own, when she finally took painting seriously in her later years.

Nina Nielsen turned 74 a few days before the reception for her new show of paintings on November 8, 2014, at the Bow Street Gallery. Now Nina and I both grew up in an age when it wasn't considered polite to talk about a woman's age. I am not exactly sure if there was an exact moment when Nina took up painting, maybe fifteen or so years ago, but I t would have been rude to ask. I also believe that while she may not have always painted, it was always happening, always in her. The paintings are proof of that. They do not lie.

Janus(2012-2014), Oil and sand on canvas, 20 x 16"

Most people act surprised to find out that she paints. I would have found it surprising if she didn't. After spending over 40 years running her gallery on Newbury Street in Boston that championed painting like nowhere in this part of the country, in 2007 she retired. There isn't a painter dead or alive that crossed the threshold of the Nielsen Gallery, of what was nothing short of an art world Mecca, that didn't feel like this was the one place where painting mattered. Because painting mattered to Nina Nielsen.

When I was in my early 20s my then mentor Richard Tuttle cautioned me that if a painter didn't make it by the age of 27, then they might as well throw in the towel. I didn't know if he thought that this was right or not. It seemed as though he did, but that was just my impression. As though what difference does it make if something is right or wrong as long as it is true; as though we aren't just all making this up as we go along, as though it was carved in stone. Still, I couldn't help but be a little relieved that I had managed to have a solo show at (MoMA) PS1 by the time I was 27, and that he was at the opening.

I also knew that such ideas were ridiculous, which was maybe why giving Nina a show at Bow Street was worth doing, even at considerable cost to myself. It reflected not only my belief in her and her work, but also my core belief about art, that anyone can paint, at anytime.

The art world is torn between the marketplace on the right, as in galleries and dealers, and academic institutions like universities and museums on the left. Pick your poison. Artists are forced to eat both of course if they hope to survive and flourish. There are few if any alternatives. Bow Street was founded to be such a place.

Balance(2014), Oil and sand on canvas, 24 x 18"

I have a lot of questions, like if Nina Nielsen loved painting as much as she clearly did, how could she not paint? Why wouldn't she? What was to stop her? Not having a degree? It is not like she was trying to fly commercial airlines or perform brain surgery, she wasn't in danger of hurting anyone.

Also, why is a young person out of art school better equipped to be an artist than someone who spent a lifetime in the company of art, eating and breathing it day in and day out? Is training what is important? Does anyone really believe that it is training that makes an artist? If they do then they are drinking some mighty strong cool aid.

I taught art, if you can call it that, for over twenty years, but I did it as a service, to be a shepherd, to protect young people from the cool aid drinkers. One of the stories I liked to tell was about when I was a young teen getting his driver's license, when I got one question wrong on the written test. It was "what makes a good driver?" The oversized Virginia State Trooper who administered the test in a big dumb hat told me what was what in no uncertain terms when I tried to argue the question.

He told me that it wasn't skill, or experience, or knowledge that made a good driver, that it was desire. "Desiiiiiiiiiiiiiire!" I was dumbfounded.

Dumbfounded that I would discover the secret of life in a little DMV in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1968, when I could already speak half a dozen languages and had travelled the world and the seven seas and met some of its truly amazing people. I walked away shaking my head and never forgot it. Richard Tuttle didn't have a chance.

Caliph, 2011-2014, oil & sand on canvas,28 x 22"

When someone says that they trust their gut about something, it is just a colorful way of saying that they trust themselves. I trust my gut about things in general, and I recommend it to everyone that will listen. I used to say something really banal like that if you listen to your heart you can never go wrong. I still believe that, but life can be too harsh to survive with only your heart as your guide. Unfortunately I tend to rely on my gut as much or more these days. Life takes heart and guts.

Nina Nielsen trusted me to hang her work. That was pretty gutsy of her. I even made a little play on words in the catalog essay for the show that Nina Nielsen had sand because she put it in her paintings. Sand. Grit. True grit!*

I even saw what other people saw right away in her paintings, her artists, but not in the same way. Where they saw the influence of all those artists whose work she had had the courage and honor and pleasure of showing, I saw the company she chose and kept.

Influence is what happens when we have an agenda. If we are buying a car, our choice can be influenced, but much less so if we are just looking. Nina is just looking. She is painting because she feels it, no other reason. As she likes to say about Porfirio DiDonna, her most prized painter, it is not a career choice.

So yes, someone might look at one of her paintings and see one of her artists, DiDonna, or Bill Jensen, or Harvey Quaytman, or Forrest Bess, or Colin McCahon, or Joan Snyder, or John Walker. They might show themselves in one of her paintings, but it is more a presence or homage or challenge, more like a portrait. She is not using them or even imitating them, but letting them pass that way, stop for a breather, take a load off their feet. No, my gut tells me that these paintings are authentic, and if you spend a little time with them, I trust that you will agree.

Elegy(2014), Oil and sand on canvas, 20 x 16"

Addison Parks, Spring Hill, November 20, 2014

*See also: Nina Nielsen and the Secret of Life

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Happy Accident; Handel Evans

Handel Evans; c. 1964; ink, gouache, plaster on wood; ruined by my reflection!

I first met the painter, Handel Cromwell Evans, in Rome in the fall of 1962. I was nine years old and he was 30. I was studying art at the fledgling art school of one Bruce Copeland, where my sister DD and I would go in the evenings and do batik and papermache, the stuff kids do. In another room was a man painting a large mural, maybe 10 by 20 feet, that was an explosion of bold titanic figures and crashing geometry, like a cubist drama inspired by the Bernini fountains in the Piazza Navona. It made a huge impression on me. 

Standing in the doorway and seeing Handel at work, back to me, arms outstretched as though he was conducting a tidal wave, a vision happening right in front of me, affected me irrevocably, much in the same way that the revelation of walking in on my artist mother, with clay in each fist working furiously on a giant terra-cotta head in her bedroom in our home in Shaker Heights, had done a few years earlier. I didn’t just soak it in. I wasn’t just wowed. Both experiences combined to determine the course of my life in a split second. There was no going back. 

I remember my friend, the painter Leon Polk Smith, telling me about walking by an art class when he was in college and looking in the door, and then telling himself that that was what he wanted to do. Having that moment. He was a fully formed adult being reborn. I on the other hand was already the little artist when I saw my mother working. I was when I saw Handel painting the mural. I can’t remember not being the artist. But those moments showed me what being an artist meant as a grown up. As a human being. They opened a door. They showed me something about the power of art in a flash that I have lived with my whole life and never forgotten.

Soon afterwards my mother and Handel became involved and we would see a lot of him. I am quite sure that I never had the privilege of knowing anyone like him before or since. People are often outraged, for example, that he very quietly asked me one evening sitting across from me at dinner if I knew what that hamburger I was eating actually was. I am sure I probably said something clever and stupid that it was a hamburger. In complete earnestness and without a shred of malice he explained to me that it was ground up dead cow. I am fairly sure that my mouth opened in mid chew and that it stayed open and didn’t move as I contemplated this horrifying information. I am again quite sure that the food in my mouth fell back onto my plate, and that from that moment on I was a vegetarian, like him. 

It was not that complicated. I had not known what I was eating. When I did have some idea what was in my mouth, well, why would I want to do that? Like seeing him painting that first time, the information travelled at light speed. For what it is worth, I am now 60 and I have always painted murals and been a vegetarian(and made sculpture). Handel was like that. He made that kind of impression. He was kind, direct, even matter of fact, but he was also passionate about what he believed and cared about. And he had not an ounce of cynicism.

When I was invited to attend a memorial for Handel in Philadelphia after his death in 1999, I was too sad, and declined. I had lost contact with him after Rome, and although I spent years trying to track him down, I had never had any luck.  I was thoroughly devastated when, having found him at last, he had died in his mother’s arms six months earlier.  

What Handel taught me has always stayed with me. In many ways he was my first and only teacher, even though he was really just a friend, and really just my mother’s boyfriend at that. My sister and I both liked him very much. He was one of those rare individuals who was completely present and genuine, even with children. As everyone knows, children see through everything. In a world where most people walked and talked like ghosts, Handel was solid as a rock and all substance. When you are a child, a man of substance actually means something. A man of substance is something you connect with. He was the kind of person that if you saw him from the back, you still knew what he was looking at, thinking, and talking about. He was the most intent person I can ever remember knowing.

DD and I soon stopped going to Bruce’s for art. Handel became our art world. We made papermache according to his special recipe. One of the things I never hear about in connection with Handel was that he made marionettes.  This was huge to DD and me. Anything about puppets and marionettes was magic. Handel made world class marionettes, and he convinced us to be very patient with his complicated paper mache recipe because even the Queen of England owned one of his marionettes. It took time and patience and work to make this stuff that would become the heads and bodies and arms and legs of these special creatures. When the mixture finally was ready, it was a dream to work with, and we appreciated immediately why it was worth all the trouble. It was light, smooth, and incredibly responsive.

I had always carried sketchbooks with me as long as I could remember. I filled them with drawings and poems. Handel and I would draw together. He never tried to influence me. We would just draw. When it ended, when it was over, when my mother and he split up because she wasn't in love with him, when he left; he left me his paint box, my first paint box, and to get on with things, I used it to paint my first oil painting, a little thing of our siamese cat.

One of the many things Handel had shown me was how to make my own gesso, how to prepare wood panels with it,  and finally polish the surface in such a way that it led right into the painting, influencing the composition. Handel encouraged me to listen to the little whispers of form that appeared in the unique irregularities in the otherwise blank but hand-crafted painting surface even before the painting began; in fact, Handel taught me that listening was the first step to making a painting. 

Finding the composition in the painting surface goes all the way back to Leonardo da Vinci and beyond of course. But only a year or so after Handel's  guidance, the Futurist Master Gino Severini also personally recommended that I look for the patterns formed by sand cast on wet plaster to inspire my mural/fresco compositions. It was Handel, however, that conveyed this to a 9 year old boy in a way that made absolute sense. He also showed me how to work the surface with sandpaper and a rasp to realize the abstract shapes that emerged. 

Handel’s own work pushed this idea of working the plaster surface farther and farther over the years that followed so that he integrated this process into what the work would become, allowing the push and pull from the substance of the plaster painting surface to the working of the paint to culminate in a completely original outcome. I have never quite seen anything like it in all of my travels in the art world. 

I am not sure why Handel abandoned this process, but he did. Perhaps it got him where he was trying to go. Perhaps the techniques he developed ended up getting in the way, like baggage, and their weight imposed itself on his journey, like too much tail on a kite.

The real purpose of this recollection is to tell of one particular incident that has stayed at the bottom of who I am. It is a hand on my hand at the tiller. Anyone who knows me well knows this story too well.

Handel and I were drawing each other one evening. It went very well. My mother liked the ink drawing Handel did of me drawing him so much that she insisted on having it and getting it framed. That was always my mother's biggest compliment: she had to have it. I experienced it recently. Nina Nielsen said that she liked this 1959 Resnick painting I have from my mother so much by saying that she wanted it. John Baker, her husband, said the same thing about a Picasso drawing I had just purchased at auction. He wanted it. It is the highest compliment and every artist knows it.

So Handel, who did a lot of his own framing, did what he always did, and fixed the drawing with a quick coat of shellac.

What happened next was a little miracle in my life. The shellac quite by accident caused a drawing on the reverse side of the paper to come through and ruin the drawing. It was one of mine, one of my mythical poetry figures, and it crossed perpendicular to the figure Handel had done of me. Right through the middle of my torso!

My mother was beside herself that the drawing was spoiled. She even cried, which seemed unlike her and over the top. But I guess the drawing captured something fleeting, a moment of innocence and art, a moment of quiet but heartbreaking intensity. I didn't get it. I secretly blamed myself because it was my drawing that caused all the damage and fuss. And yes, Handel's was a beautiful drawing, crisp and alive; Daumier and Lautrec would have approved. 

But here is what happened next and what made all the difference. Handel began to comfort my mother, and he welcomed the opportunity because he loved her dearly. He tenderly explained to her that all was indeed not lost, that not only was the drawing not ruined, but that it was better, better because what could be better than a drawing of mine showing through his drawing of me drawing him. It was divine providence. Couldn't she see that? It was the happy accident every artist hopes for when they lay themselves at art's feet in the act of making something. It was a miracle. And she stopped crying, and smiled, and understood. And so did I.

Addison Parks

Spring Hill,  2014

Monday, November 10, 2014

Richard Tuttle: Factory of Madness; Factory of Hope

It is almost 40 years since Richard Tuttle took me under his wing and mentored me for three or four long years. The University of Richard Tuttle.

Of course he would have rounded the time since up to 40 years even though it would only be 37. That was the way he was; he would insist that I was 30 when I was barely 25. No discussion. Move right alone.

Yes. Facts were a red flag to his bull. A fly in his ointment. A barn to be burned. He admitted as much.

My question is simple: are 37 years long enough a wait to be able to reflect upon my experience with this absolutely most remarkable and confounding of individuals?

What can I say? This is an artist who cleared the decks so that he could have it his way. Doesn't every artist try to do this? Torch everything in sight so that they can start fresh?

Richard Tuttle simplified everything so that he could complicate things his way. This is him and his work in a nutshell. Get this, and you get them both, the man and the work.

This was something he worked so hard to impress upon me, that violence was inherent in everything, especially in the making of something. It was the breaking of eggs to make an omelette school of RT.

I still need more time.

If stating the obvious makes me banal, well, that is a risk I have always been willing to take to see that what is what gets said. Nothing offends me like begrudging the truth. And the truth is that Richard Tuttle is a brilliant individual, and an utterly unique, authentic, and original artist who has always struggled for and found the courage, imagination and determination to be absolutely, even painfully, true to a vision of art and life that is nothing less than fresh. Maybe the only guy that makes such a cliche worth stomaching.

I have spent my entire 60 plus years in the art world, and have worked with and known and admired many artists, great and small, here and abroad, but I never met anyone like him before or since, nor will I ever. The world is so much better off for him, and the attention he gets makes an art world torn between marketplace and academia almost bearable. His improbable success over the years, like a modern day Savonarola, signals an ache in that world.

That was actually how I met him. October, 1977. I had been attending a lecture at Brown by a very famous and successful artist at that time, Alex Katz, that was more like listening to a rug salesman, and I had to leave before I threw up. Tuttle was standing by himself at the door to the Bell Gallery across the way from the exit.

Desperate for fresh air, I went over and talked to him, this guy in a cheap shirt whose work in the gallery was practically invisible. Small, irregular pieces of paper with some watercolor stuck to the wall, drawings with just a scrawl of pencil and wire dangling from the surface. It was the most curiously beautiful work that I had ever seen, beautiful in the true, as in truthful, sense, and his words were like Moses to me. Fresh air.

We talked for hours, stayed in touch, and later, in 1978, when he wrote and urged me to move to New York for my own sanity, I packed up and went. I was, and still am, so glad that I did.

Addison Parks, Spring Hill

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Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Artist Notes: Dena Haden

I have been living and working out of my studio in Berkley, Massachusetts. Besides making my art work, I also work as a gardener, maintaining two acres of flower and organic vegetable gardens (which I enjoy immensely). Over the past year, I have also been the director of the Boston Critique Group, an artist collaborative in the Greater Boston community with about 40 active members. My work is currently included in an exhibit, Multiplicities- New Directions in Fiber Art, on view at the Imago Gallery in Warren, RI through November 15th and I will also have an outdoor installation on display at the RopeWorks Gallery in New Bedford during the New Bedford Open Studios, late November. You can see more of my work at

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Nina Nielsen and the Secret of Life

Balance(2014), Oil and sand on canvas, 24 x 18"

Nina Nielsen and the Secret of Life

If art is the search for the secret of life, as the great and controversial English art critic, John Ruskin, once wrote,  then Nina Nielsen is its one true champion. 

In her textured dream-like paintings Nina Nielsen shows us something. She gives us something. A peek at something. A vision of sorts. But that is only part of it. The part that we get. The other part is that she has to find that something, and that is no easy task. Some artists paint the same subject over and over. Nina Nielsen finds new ones every day.

Ultimately these are, “Ah, there it is,” and “there you have it” paintings, but they come from a long hard climb. They are notes kept from her daunting adventures. They are treasures discovered tightroping the razor’s edge, trophies from her wild safaris, sacred hearts gathered on her quest for the secret of life. Art is nothing if not the sacred quest, and Nina Nielsen knows this better than anyone. 

They say a good baseball manager treats every out like gold. Each one of these paintings is indeed gold, an awesome revelation, a wonderful epiphany along her path. This is the hand on her rudder. This is the gift in each of her paintings.

Elegy(2014), Oil and sand on canvas, 20 x 16"

Nina Nielsen has sand. She takes it from her summers on Nantucket and puts it in her paintings. It grounds her. It grounds her work.

Sand, ground, are what these paintings have in common. As works of art, however, they are individuals, individuals that are in full and complete possession of themselves. They stand on their own two feet, with a heartbeat and a soul and a brain, waving at us! They have that sense of themselves; that completeness; that command of their own ship; their own destiny; their own sphere of influence. Each one does not prepare you for the next. Each one is different, each one is a surprise. Each one is a flame from her fire.

Nina Nielsen at Bow Street

These are modestly sized canvases, rarely bigger than a bread box, with what appears to be no more than a few colors, but they surprise with a great deal of color and they play remarkably large, larger than life. 

These paintings make sound, even music. By themselves, and together. You can hear the wind blow or the night howl or a rose petal fall. One of her older paintings just seems to make a clicking sound. Another one rustles in the breeze. One more still makes the sound of the morning sun. They have that kind of mystery; that kind of poetry; that kind of power. They can lean in and whisper in your ear, or host a choir of angels.

Yang(2014), Oil and sand on canvas, 24 x 18"

Suffice it to say that there is an of-ness and is-ness thing going on in all of painting all of the time. It can be a very fine line. Painters tend to lean one way or the other. Nothing wrong with that. Nielsen, and an artist like Forrest Bess* that she loves and admires, share this same ground, or same sand of is.  Being there. A painting that is something more than of something. Now just what the is is, is what these paintings are all about. What that is is, is what inhabits the space of the painting. What dwells there. And finally what reaches out well beyond the frame.

Nina Nielsen at Bow Street

That these paintings tend toward abstraction isn't really relevant. They do not ally themselves to one trend, one art historical philosophy or construct or movement.  They don’t restrict themselves. They go where they go. They are free. 

You might think that because they are something more than about something, that we are left in the dark with secrets that we can never fully understand. Perhaps, but don’t panic. Let them come to you. You’ll be surprised. One minute you might not get one at all, and then the next it will flood your kitchen with light. They work that way; they unfold, sometimes slowly, sometimes like a fan, or sometimes they come upon you like a squall. 

Janus(2012-2014), Oil and sand on canvas, 20 x 16"

Nina Nielsen's paintings make a “light out of darkness” impression because what we get is something that seems to just appear in the painting, something that we have never seen before, and will never see again, like that strange and wondrous flower in the deepest jungle that only blooms every one thousand years, when the planets are just so. Yes, and they are still about something too. But don't try to touch it or catch it or keep it. Don’t even try to understand it. Be happy for its presence. Be happy for the moment.

The artist works so hard to capture that thing that can't be captured, for themselves, for us. Nina Nielsen gently freezes that moment,  stills something as elusive or impossible as a dream for us to marvel at, to see, to know. To believe in. These paintings represent a gathering. Each one is the culmination of that gathering which she seeks and experiences for herself. Each painting is a coming together in that way.

Left: Caliph, 2011-14, oil & sand on canvas, 28 x 22";
Right: Medallion, 2011-14, Oil and sand on canvas, 30 x 24"

For this reason the paintings are not compositions per se. Pictures as compositions. They are not meant to be; they don't need to be. They are not about composition by definition. There is no time for that. There is only time for something else. Something much more important.  And even though they are centered, they are not quite centered. Maybe this is about tension, or maybe she is just lucky to get her subjects in the frame at all. This is painting on the fly; we will never be here again. And this raises an interesting question, does she find her subjects, or do they find her?

If there is one message to be had, it is that life is for the living. Anyone who knows Nina Nielsen knows this to be true. Places to go, places to see, places to be, places to be still.

Proscenium, 2014, oil & sand on canvas, 20 x 16”

The texture is part of the magic of these paintings. The sand in the paint acts as a frame to keep the is of the painting in place. Each grain of sand acts as a place holder of sorts. A nod to what is accident and what is random and what is chaos, and maybe, to what is some larger order. It is a loose net to keep the is still for a split second, long enough to allow that moment to, in effect, last forever.  There is no getting around what sand does and doesn't bring to the work. Sand is a ground, but a ground that shifts and blows in the wind. And it evokes time and timelessness. Pyramids were built on the sand and blasted into bits and buried by it.

Another aspect of this work is the figure/ground. They act almost as portraits. More Frans Hals than Rembrandt in that they are more the moment and less the held pose. Although who knows, maybe they are also the latter. Maybe feelings and thoughts and dreams like unicorns pose for Nielsen in her garden. Maybe epiphanies like butterflies only take breaks to stretch their wings. 

Stone(2013-2014), Oil and sand on canvas, 20 x 16"

So many of these paintings look back at us. They wonder about us. Like a deer that pauses in the forest and takes us in. Curious and curiouser. We are honored by this attention paid to us, the viewer. Of course such is the nature of art, and we are honored by it just as we are honored by all things, by nature, by love, and by the smallest insect. We just have to never forget this, and these paintings are something of a stark reminder. They hold our chin in their hands and ask us to stop, be still, focus, let go, pay attention, make time, make time for life, yes, to stop and smell the roses.

Indeed, there is something a little bit stark about these paintings. Like that spit of land out in the ocean where their sand hails from. Nantucket. Yankee. Tough, resolute, self-reliant.  Maybe just a little bit more Thoreau than Emerson. Fierce in their solitude. Radiant. Gone their own way, and tenacious, even almost defiant, when they hold their ground.

Caliph, 2011-2014, oil & sand on canvas,28 x 22"

Again the paradox. Not for quitters. Ephemeral and fleeting and yet solid as a rock. These paintings are all of that. A metaphor for painting itself. Nothing if not conviction. Made of not much more than belief, and belief can not just move mountains, but be mountains. Nina Nielsen is that ancient alchemist. She makes powerful magic of a little pigment, binder, and sand. 

These paintings are haunting, but strangely benign, like some ancient culture staring back at us through time. They are spirit guides. They talk to us. Life takes sand. Nina Nielsen's got it.

Bow Street Gallery
Lincoln, Ma

Left: Caliph, 2011-14, oil & sand on canvas, 28 x 22";
Right: Medallion, 2011-14, Oil and sand on canvas, 30 x 24"

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Artist Notes

Dear friends,

I recently helped my son Paris put together an alumni blog for his class, and the results were so spectacular that I thought of doing something similar for all my artist friends. A kind of forum. It could be news, or just what's on your mind, something you saw, something you're doing, something you love, something you hate, something you miss, something you believe. Musing or amusing. Epiphany or Breakfast at Tiffany's. If it is promotional, serve it warm. If it is mean, I would hope you really mean it.

Please include a photo; it can be of your work or anything at all. You can also include audio or video clips.

At first I will just attach it to my art deal blog, but if it takes off I will give it its own dedicated site.

Please think about sending me something, anything, if the urge or inspiration moves you.

Thank you. Warmest wishes, Addison

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

If you don't get it, you don't get it! The Subtle Art of Appreciation.

What is your greatest pleasure? Name it. Own it. A good novel? A walk in the park? A great meal? Having a family? Football? Ice cream? The beach? Golf? Gardening? Work? Art? Movies? Opera? Cats? Dogs?

Of course, my theory is that the more things you like the happier you are, and conversely, if you don't like anything the chances are that you are a miserable SOB. But that is another story.

This story is about a different aspect of the act of appreciation. It is about the subtle but startling realization that if you don't get something, the way not everyone "gets" cats, then well, you don't get to enjoy the pleasures having or knowing a cat can bring. If you don't like chocolate, then you miss out on all the happiness that chocolate can give you. And so on.

People make a mess of subjectivity. A complete mess. Yes, we are free to like what we like, or should be. It would be nice. Yes, apparently Tosca isn't for everyone. But most people take this privilege and turn it into a weapon. What they like becomes good, and what they don't like becomes bad. They objectify the subjective. It gives them power. The power to validate, and invalidate. What they care about is important, and what they don't care about is of no importance whatsoever.

And apparently invalidating things can be almost more fun than validating them. A practice often but perhaps incorrectly associated with adolescence. Yes, I have a friend who is at this point in his life an old man, but there is something of the 13 year old girl about him in the way that he petulantly dismisses things with a wave of his hand that more than anything probably just threaten him.

So here is the rub. All the fun you think that you are getting by dismissing things out of hand, for whatever reason; the opposite is true. You are cutting off your nose to spite your face. Indeed, this act of spite is the very act that deprives you of the pleasure of something. Anything.

I always like to say to someone when they tell me how much that they dislike something, "how nice, you really have something to look forward to," that once they truly discover and "get" that thing that they think they hate, they have endless pleasure in store for them, waiting for them, smiling in anticipation for them.

You see, appreciation is in fact its own reward! For example, when I was a young man I held a belief that was not my own, that Westerns were puerile, not worthy of my time. Even though I loved the movie Shane, that was the exception. I didn't "get" Westerns.

Then one afternoon, maybe I had the flu, maybe I didn't, I found myself watching a Gary Cooper Western on a little black and white TV in my bedroom on my family's farm in Virginia.

All of a sudden I got Westerns. Man in nature. Man versus nature. Man versus society. Man in space. The hero. The loner. The self-reliant. The free spirit. Man face to face with the universe. Man face to face with God!

Yes! All of a sudden I got Westerns, and then, I had all those Westerns to look forward to waiting for me. John Ford Westerns! John Wayne Westerns. Spaghetti Westerns! All of it!

I learned so much that day. Not just what a sympathetic actor Gary Cooper was. I learned that every prejudice I had wasn't just my loss, but that each one held a new promise. When you get something, you actually get it! Thank you Gary Cooper.

Addison Parks, Spring Hill

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