It’s easy to make fun of abstract artists. You only have to watch some TV to see the cultural perspective on abstraction. In sitcoms, Hal from Malcolm in the Middle throws so much paint on a canvas in his garage that the whole painted surface crumbles off in a paint avalanche.
In Grace and Frankie, a recent Netflix sitcom, space cadet Frankie (Lily Tomlin) paints two dots on a canvas and stares at those two dots for three days, stuck. (This fictional studio led Tomlin’s co-star Jane Fonda into trying painting and ceramics.) And in Mad Men, Don buys a painting, under pressure, and sits wondering what it is and whether he’s been conned. (This painting was created by my friend Karina Nishi Marcus.)
No one really can tell you what abstraction is. You’re doing this passionate, ridiculous, solitary, incomprehensible, contemplative, snake-oil-salesman of a job. Who can advise you? Where can you go for professional critique or discourse outside an MFA program?
This Saturday I loaded up my ancient truck with 4 paintings, all large, two new and two older. I had been accepted as a participant in an ongoing seminar sponsored by the Lucid Art Foundation. The seminar was held at The Dance Palace at Point Reyes Station, a renovated church in an idyllic setting. It’s not a painting seminar: it’s critique provided by professor and painter Jeremy Morgan.
Morgan verbally examines and critiques your paintings. I found it more of a mentoring process. Much of the critique is devoted to sources and origins, or possible artists to research that might have resonate with your own style. In this way the critique widens its viewpoint from the art at hand to encompass an expanse of history and connections. His examination leads not so much back into the paintings as outward from them into the next possibilities. My critique took about 35 minutes. Three people were critiqued in the three hour segment.
All participants were handed index cards to write their own notes or observations for the painter. At the end of the critique, these cards were handed to the artist. This allows the whole group to participate, but not interrupt the critique. Some of my cards are shown below, but it was really the critique from Jeremy that felt like a light shining into my process. I felt my art had been seen. And looking at others’ art for a long stretch of time felt both intense and satisfying. We so seldom spend more than a half an hour just being with a painting, unless you’re the one painting it.
This reminded me of my arts education in poetry. I studied in the New College of California Poetics program with poets Diane di Prima, David Meltzer, and Robert Duncan (partner of the artist Jess), and others. The poets chose NOT to teach in a creative writing format. Instead, the classes were devoted to examination of poets and their root sources. It was assumed that if you were a writer, you would write, independent of a program. Instead they wanted to offer the heart of their practices, their source material: myth, Kabbalah, deconstruction, archaic history, visual arts, Hermeticism, alchemy, other poets, natural history. These were the only treasure they could bring us; the rest was up to us. Poetry is the most abstract of the written arts. In a strange way, this odd education equipped me to enter the wilderness of non-objective painting.
Point Reyes Station is idyllic. I went with Nishi. Before the class we hit a bookstore and went cheese tasting at the Cowgirl Creamery, where I bought Red Hawk and membrillo, which I had not tasted since Spain. The day was beautiful. The town borders lagoons, meadows, riparian forests, and everything is walkable. At sunset, eating sandwiches in front of the view, we both said that Turner would have been right at home, notebook out, getting that Claude Lorrain smudge of eucalyptus on the windy horizon.
Find more information on the Lucid Art seminar with Jeremy Morgan.