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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