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A Natural Work of Art

I just returned from a trip back to Western Kansas where I grew up. After several rainstorms the landscape has turned a vibrant blue-green, which contrasts beautifully with the white limestone rock that tells of its history as an ancient seabed. The creek was alive with turtles and fish while I was there, and deer and rabbits bounded gracefully along, racing me as I turned my car down the country roads.

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My favorite activity when I’m in Kansas is getting up early to watch the sunrise. With a cup of coffee and my camera in hand, I drive out to my family’s farm, find the perfect spot and park. Prairie grass, wet with dew, bathes my feet and the scent of wild sage fills the air. The birds awaken and I hear the distinctive songs of meadowlarks, kildeer, mourning doves and red-winged blackbirds. Nearby rabbits pause as if hypnotized into a state of absolute trust–they’re here to witness the same show I’ve come to see and together we watch the horizon as the first colors of the day appear in the night sky.

A streak of red rises just behind the black silhouettes of trees. Then orange, so brilliant it could be mistaken for a brush fire.

Flourescent CloudsSoon clouds pick up the colors and sweep the sky with a pink that I’m sure can’t be reproduced on canvas. Brushstrokes race across the sky, becoming lighter and sharper as the sun crests the Earth’s eastern edge.

Over the next few minutes the sky turns from dark night to a clear blue that is deep and rich with vaporous, wet clouds.

SunsUp

The dawn is near and with each color splash I’m granted an intimate glimpse at nature’s palate.

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As blocks of color reveal themselves to me I am reminded of the artist, Mark Rothko, an artist who is often identified as an Abstract Expressionist, although he himself rejected this label. He is considered one of the most famous postwar artists and his signature style, referred to as “multiform”, consists of only two or three large color blocks painted onto large canvases with the intention to induce an experience in the viewer through the feelings brought forth naturally from his choice of color combination. He would instruct people to stand as close as eighteen inches from his work so as to envelope themselves in the intimate moment of viewing the artwork. In his later years Rothko stressed that to truly experience his art was akin to a spiritual experience.

I experienced the same feeling watching the great dome above me turn night into day, and as much as the artist wants to imitate life, in my opinion, it still remains outside his grasp.

Here are a few of Rothko’s paintings.

Mark Rothko3 Mark Rothko1 Mark Rothko2 Mark Rothko4 Mark Rothko5 Mark Rothko6 Mark Rothko7 Mark Rothko8

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My Favs: Van Gogh

Wheat Fields with Reaper at Sunrise

This painting is not only a visual representation of a wheatfield, it’s also a physical depiction. I feel the heat from the summer sun beating down on a dying landscape. I see the blasts of hot wind whipping the wheat heads around in circles. I feel the man’s clothes sticking to my own skin as he works.

I’m glad I have air conditioning.

Starry Night

The sky is alive in this painting. Stars shining, moon glowing, and, whether it’s the Milky Way or the wind, I see space moving across the Earth at night.

This is the sky I saw each night as a child. I miss it.

Shifting Perspectives

White walls, white floor, white ceiling.

The gallery is the artist’s empty canvas. Its collection; his thoughts revealed. Spectators shuffle about, deep in thought. They speak in hushed tones of the artist’s mind.

His greatness.

His illness.

I meander over to the wall of self-portraits. In eight paintings I see Van Gogh’s talent displayed to the public; his madness exposed to the world.

Self-Portrait With Pipe, 1886

The first portrait depicts the emerging artist at thirty-three. The canvas is dark, with only a subtle use of light and shadow defining the angles of his face. The pose is dignified; dark, buttoned-up suit, a pipe, the serious expression…It’s a deep study of himself and the artist is present on both ends of the brush.

Self-Portrait, 1887

A collection of three drawings is next. Quick studies of his face. A distant, disconnected image at the bottom. A fragmented, unfinished image in the upper right corner. In the center, the most complete image speaks to me with his eyes. Is it anger…confusion… both?

Self-Portrait, 1887

The artist’s signature style begins to emerge in the next portrait. The colors continue to be muted, with the exception of a few red whiskers, but the brush strokes are laid on with more energy. The artist’s face is placed in its usual three-quarter position, the texture of his skin is smooth but grey and dead. His intense eyes seem tired…. As the focus moves away from his face the brush strokes become heavier, flying away from him in a halo of grey-black lines.

Self-Portraits, 1887

Color holds more meaning in the next portrait. Indigo lines define the collar of his coat, orange and red whiskers fill out his beard, a strip of white highlights his prominent nose, and three brush strokes of raw umber stand out against the other colors of his hat. The use of light blue and white for his eyes within the shadows of his browline intensifies his stare and I feel him judging me just as I do him. There’s a vitality produced by the use of such vibrant colors that make each separate from the other. I hear him declare his independence from the confines of what’s expected of him in this work…and he dares me to challenge his vision.

Self-Portrait with Pipe and Straw Hat, 1887

The artist is fully immersed in his bold, new style in the next portrait. It feels as if it were meant to be a spontaneous, painted sketch for another, unfinished work. There’s energy in the thick application of paint and bold lines, and my eyes follow them fluidly across the canvas. His eyes are vacant and he seems deep in thought…making me the intruder in his moment of quiet reflection.

Self-Portrait, 1887

The intensity of the artist’s eyes has moved into his forehead, mouth and chin. Angles are more pronounced and the heavy brushstrokes are layered on with a recklessness that is fully fleshed out as his signature style. They become wider as they fly out away from his face, where contrasting colors are juxtapostioned against each other. The artist exposes himself through the energy of his brush, but questions his decision with the suspicious, stricken look in his eyes.

Self-Portrait with Felt Hat, 1887

A state of fragmentation radiates from the next painting. Heavy colors and bold lines flatten the depth but increase the vitality. My eyes follow the direction of the lines as they flow out from the center to join the rotating circle of blue color behind him. His right eye is in shadow but the area surrounding it is highlighted so that his connection to me is not diminished. The artist has intentionally changed his appearance to create a different being altogether and is unapologetic of it.

Self-Portrait as an Artist, 1888

 In the last portrait the artist portrays himself at work. Bold lines and a contrasting palate have been blended together into a much more subdued, refined painting. With his focus entirely on his canvas, he has disconnected himself from me, the Intruder. Van Gogh has successfully receded from the reality forced upon him by society and has retreated within himself to find his own balance and create his own unique world.

 The effects of Van Gogh’s mental illness acting as the filter through which he painted has been debated since his death, but maybe there is another idea to consider. Here is a man of great genius, who saw things differently in a world that has never embraced differences with ease… Maybe his disease came as much from the outside as from within.

A square peg suffers when forced through a round hole, does it not?

The Van Gogh Museum is located in Amsterdam: http://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/vgm/index.jsp?lang=nl

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Emotion in Motion

The battle between David and Goliath, a story of “right over might,” is a dramatic showdown between the brawn of a giant and the wits of a gifted boy. It’s a theme used in art to exemplify feelings of personal strength and defiance in the face of great odds. Three artists in particular are known for their depictions of David and each capture a moment in the story that illustrates what they experienced in their own lives. Instead of writing about them in the chronological order of their creation, I want to look at them as if they were a slide show of the event as it unfolded.

Michelango’s David (1501-1504), the most famous example of the Biblical story, portrays the would-be-king at the moment he is sizing up his target. As is typical of the Renaissance style, he is an idealized version of man. His body is perfectly proportioned, each curve and cut of the marble appearing as if it were truly flesh and bone. His posture is relaxed. All his weight is shifted to his back leg, with one arm hanging loosely at his side and the other, holding the stone that would kill the giant, resting against his shoulder. All the tension of the moment is played out in his facial expression. Under furrowed brows his piercing eyes are focused on his target, readying himself for battle. Michelangelo’s David is a metaphor for the city in which it was created: Florence; a commercial center that, at the time, was challenging the power of Rome.

Gianlorenzo Bernini chose to sculpt his David (1623-1624) at the moment of conflict, as was characteristic of the emotionally charged Baroque style. David’s entire body is part of the story. Turned to the side, his legs are braced and ready to spring into action. He twists his torso away from his target, stretching the slingshot tight between his hands as he prepares to aim. Determination is clearly seen in his facial expression. His jaw is clenched, his mouth; grimacing, and the intensity in his eyes almost forces the observer to turn away from him to follow his glare to the imaginary Goliath. We are witnessing the moment just prior to battle. Bernini’s intention is to bring the observer into the moment with him and that connection between myself and the artist is what makes it my favorite of the three depictions.

The aftermath of the battle is depicted in Donatello’s David (circa 1440). It precedes the other two and is the first freestanding nude male created since antiquity, thereby exerting the power of the Medici family who’d commissioned the work over the Vatican by breaking the church’s sanctioned artistic rules. David is small and effeminate, his body softly curving as a hand rests on his hip. A coy smile plays on his lips as he eyes the head of the giant at his feet. In contrast, the large and heavily bearded head of Goliath is overtly masculine. Donatello even goes so far as to place Goliath’s sword, an obvious phallic symbol, in David’s hand.

Together, these sculptures tell the celebrated story in three different styles, from three different perspectives but always with the same message:

Through faith in ourselves, even the weakest among us can prevail.

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