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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