A History of Home

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A HIstory of Home in the window of the Art Museum of Sonoma County

[About Lascaux cave paintings, Paleolithic inspiration, and my abstract painting process.]

Once in a while we are lucky enough to create a painting that somehow is a little bigger than we are.  This painting, A History of Home, was that for me. I want to take the time here to let the painting tell her story, her history of coming into existence.

It’s sometimes difficult for an artist to really explain what went into a particular painting.  In these days of marketing, the emphasis is on the “elevator speech,” a short, catchy, 5-second summary.  What a nightmare– trapped in an elevator and having to give a speech!  I won’t be doing any “elevator speeches” any more, in my studio or anywhere else.  Life is too short to waste it on the superficial.  This will be a wandering journey, like the entries to painted caves.

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A History of Home, detail, acrylic mixed media on canvas, 36″ x 48″, private collection

The second painting of a triptych,  I envisioned painting a series of abstract “maps,” entries to a colored world of cave and imagination.  In this one, we have begun to enter the painted caves, specifically Lascaux cave.  We stand at the threshold.  It is a map of dreamtime,  perhaps similar to Australian ritual paintings that mark imagined geographies mixed with “real” landmarks.

It fascinates me that parts of the painted caverns are actually called “galleries.”  They may have been our first cathedrals: most were not inhabited.  I am often inspired by the maps of the passages of the caves, and their abstract forms that are very unlike maps of the daytime world. Some of the marks in the painting feel like one of these “gallery maps” to me.

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I really love the line drawings the earliest modern archaeologists did as reproductions of the paintings. Because photography was more primitive at the turn of the century, most archaeologists were adept at sketching artifacts and paintings.  Almost all archaeologists who were allowed to enter the caves were male, of course. The most famous was “The Pope of Prehistory,” Henri Breuil.   He did the most amazing drawings of cave paintings and petroglyphs from around the world.

Drawings by Henri Breuil of cave paintings

I’ve spent a lot of time, literally many years,  seeking out  books with Henri Breuil’s drawings in dusty shops in so I could own some of his reproductions, with little success.  I think what was “drawing” me was  the beauty of the originals, but also a fascination of entering the world of the caves through transcribing the marks and animals by hand.

On the other hand, so to speak, I didn’t want to do reproductions of cave animals, no matter how compelling and beautiful.  The caves themselves show centuries, perhaps millennia, of overwriting– animal on top of animal, elaborations and erasures, adaptions, handprints, and abstract graphic marks that were most likely a symbolic language.  Generations of hands, eyes, pigments, footprints, erosion, stalactites,  mud and flickering lights.   Generations of whatever went on in these deep galleries. I wanted that. I wanted to enter that process, the one that started 35,000 years ago and is still going on today.

Back to caves, cave paintings, and my painting.  After a trip in the late 1990’s to the Grotta del Genovese on the island of Levanzo,  in the Egadi islands off the coast of Sicily— where I was led (by a genuine small hunchbacked cave keeper!) to the caverns with paleolithic paintings– I began to wonder why we have so few modern records of women scholars and archaeologists visiting European caves.  (I would love to revisit this island: just look at the setting of the entry to the cave!)

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Entry to cave on the island of Levanzo off the coast of Sicily.

I found that one woman archaeologist had documented Lascaux cave,  Annette Laming-Emperaire.  A part of the French Resistance, she entered Lascaux in the 1950’s and documented paintings and marks as a part of her doctoral thesis. Her method of cataloging and interpreting cave art is still in use today. But what fascinated me the most were her line drawings of cave paintings: sets of different style bison horns, diagrams of colored areas, and superimposed animals.

The young Annette Laming-Emperaire

I wanted to use her marks, so I enlarged them with a copy machine, created transparent acrylic transfers, and embedded them in the painting.  The black line drawings and diagrams are sunk in a dense field of paint.  Because they are transparent, the paint underneath is visible.

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Lower right, bulls and horses, superimposed

The painting has multiple layers.   Just last year I found that my paintings transform with 3-D glasses; the translucent bright layers, and the use of fluorescent paint, help facilitate.  With the glasses, the layers separate, and the lines float in an intermediate space on the picture plane.

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Viewer looking at paintings with 3-D glasses at the Paleomythic show. Chalk horses on “cave” wall by Caren Catterall.

This painting emerged out of paleolithic art, a trip to Sicily, Annette Laming-Emperaire, and the modern technologies of plastic, digital copies, and fluorescent pigments. The feeling of the painting is hearth-fire warm yet mysterious, filled with the spirits of people, animals, and landscape, and invoking a great woman scholar.  A History of Home is a story of entering art and making it our home over vast expanses of time— creating the new on top of the old every generation.  This process is hard to explain when someone asks “How long did it take you to paint this?”  (I figure about 25,000 years, give or take.)

I am pleased that it is going to the home of Rachel, Brendan and Tabitha Welsh in Alexandria, Virginia.  Their home was built in the 1790’s, so A History of Home will reside in a home with history.

Suzanne Edminster, September 2018

 

Crawling under the earth, leaning into the wind

I saw “Leaning into the Wind” with Andy Goldsworthy yesterday.  In my mind it was superimposed upon my current obsession with Paleolithic art and signs.  Goldsworthy seemed to me to be a shamanic figure, making lines and markets upon the earth with clay and rocks, like our unimaginably distant ancestors.  Who were us.

He climbed into trees a lot; this could have a relationship to the practice of “climbing the world tree,” one of the ways the ancients visualized entering the spirit world.  His body was part of the art.  It’s also interesting to me that the few colors he did use, from leaves, petals, or perhaps natural earth pigments, were deep yellow and red.   The use of ochre, often heated to produce an even more striking red color, is the first evidence of differentiated color preference in early humans.  Goldsworthy spent a lot of time breaking stones, which reminded me of our first tools, the chipped stone hand axes.  He made grave-like stone sleeping hollows and tomb-like tunnels.

Red ochre was used to make signs, dots and forms in the deepest, smallest passages, some of them hardly more than animal burrows.  I am reading “The First Signs” by Genevieve von Petzinger.  She has spent years crawling through dripping, muddy, claustrophobic passages recording abstract graphic forms.  Mud was everywhere in Leaning Into the Wind, along with streaming walls, slick pavements and goopy clay mixed with human hair.

The movie’s soundtrack is as compelling and hypnotic as the film.   Goldsworthy talks transparently about his own evolution as an artist.  For some people,  preferring the Goldsworthy of sixteen years ago in Rivers and Tides, it might prove more of a “Dylan goes electric” letdown.  I found it trance-like and moving.  Have you ever had one of those dreams where you work hard in your dream all night and wake up tired?  The film produces an effect like that.  Recommended.  Currently at the Summerfield, at 3:45 only.

 

My Private Paleolith

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“The Old Ways,” mixed media collage painting, detail, Suzanne Edminster.

What about our private, individual Stone Ages?  What about your art that was a start, years ago, before it ripened?  What’s in your art cave?  Is it brilliant?  Submerged? Rough?  Hard to find?  From ancient eras?  In this post, I’ll share some personal old, extinct art.  Some is destroyed, some still exists hidden, and all are my little secrets.

As I considered paleolithic creativity, I began thinking about my own ancient art.  Art is transient.  Periodically, I clean out and discard my old art.  Ancient art in nature is drowned, avalanched, petrified, faded, scratched and licked by animals, mineral-dripped,  overpainted, destroyed.  Some fragments remain.

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Detail of Doctor Doctor, mixed media collage painting. Suzanne Edminster

I still don’t know why I made this painting, which I named just today after years of existing title-free.  It does look like a shaman within a shaman, or big foot, or a gorilla, with magic biceps.  And a little hippo is sort of irresistible.  Maybe there’s a little bit of Big Bad Wolf, with granny inside.  It’s scary enough that it never got hung on a wall.  It has a personality…. someone you may not want to meet in a stone age alley by moonlight.

And a few more details of old paintings.  I was really into that heavy texture, my own modeling paste, made from thick gesso and lightweight spackle from the hardware store, half and half.

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Antique fragments, excavated up from our own lost ages,  still have power.   What do you do with your own ancient art?

Neanderthal art gives a new perspective on “Old Masters”

 

Detail from a collage painting using ancient art. Suzanne Edminster, mixed media on panel.

Neanderthal art has now been shown to exist and has been dated back to over 60,000 years, before Homo Sapiens was in Europe.  It has graphic abstract forms and seems to have recognizable animals (see the short film below).  As more and more work is done on the “abstract” sign forms in deep caves , we are finding that the abstract is not  more “primitive” than the realistic animals.  They occur together.

It could be more like comparing a novel with a movie made from the novel:  the more abstract marks have known meaning and carry specific information, perhaps a story script, or “credits” with location, authors, and events,  while the beautiful animals are the movie itself.  Books and movies do not exclude each other, but enhance each other.

We always seem to want to separate the “written” and the “visual.”  We have even assigned them different sides of the brain, which has now been shown to be a erroneous.   It reminds me of how much we wanted to believe the Neanderthals were knuckle-dragging apes rather than sharing a known human experience.

I’m going to try to paint my own paintings using some of these beautiful Neanderthal abstract marks.  I’ll keep you posted on the paintings.

Suzanne

Upcoming events:  on First Friday May 4, 2018, I’m hosting a gallery show of modern art in ancient modes created by five artists.

 

The Greek Gods and Polychromy: The Gods Weren’t White

The Greek Gods weren’t white!  We just think they were.  “The Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World,” recently at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, was a revelation.  Using minute traces of residual colors, historical material from past centuries that documented colored temples and statues, and all the resources of modern science, we now can be sure that temples of the gods in ancient Greece may have resembled a set on Black Panther more than a mausoleum.

“Chromophobia” is the fear of color.  It may be wrong to apply it to a to a whole society, rather than an individual,  but I think that we live in an era of mass chromophobia.  Modernism in architecture and decor focuses on neutrals, greys, browns, black and white- with maybe a daring splash of green from a succulent.  But from the earliest times, back to the time of Neanderthal woman, we have sought and ground pigments to produce beautiful, durable colors.

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Vivid pigments from mineral sources.

Seeing this exhibit reminded me of the gorgeous color in ancient Roman murals I saw when I was in Pompeii, and other examples preserved in the Naples Archaeological Museum.  I notice that the stone pigments have a chalky quality with a kind of depth found in modern pastels today.  Yummy!

Girl with Horns, Naples Museum
Rich blues, greens and golds
Naples Pompeii Villa
The famous Pompeii Red. How’s that for dining room decor in your vacation villa?
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These ancient Roman pigment sources from the museum in Naples look yummy enough to serve at a decadent banquet.

Look at those pinkish stones!  Pink was a popular color in ancient times.

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A beautiful pink dress.

I speculate that it was hard to get a sort of true blue-red:  Red ocher tends toward sienna/orange/ brown, and any red mixed with a white opaque binder would turn pink. “Rhodophobia” is the fear of pink;  someone with this affliction would have had a hard time in ancient Greece, because pink tones were everywhere.

A few hundred years ago it was still possible to see traces of color on Greek temples.  Pre-photography, you could go out with your watercolorist and his camera obscura and paint from life.  There were still traces of temple color documented in the watercolors of Greek landscapes and monuments by the English antiquarian Edward Dodwell and the Italian artist Simone Pomardi.

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Greek temple with some color still visible in 1805.

The complex friezes of the ancient world take on a vivid, comic book quality in color.

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What we see now vs. the original
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I want this redhead on my side!

The ancients used all the color available to them.  We should too.

Upcoming at Saltworkstudio: “Paleomythic”

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I’m pleased to be a co-curator for PaleoMythic, a show opening on May 4, 2018, in Backstreet Gallery.  I have long loved ancient art and found inspiration in it.  I have joined forces with master printmaker Caren Catterall and three other fine artists to explore our creation of modern myths from ancient sources.  I feel like I’ve been waiting ages to do this show… 65,000 years or so!  I hope that images recalling the sacred darkness of the cave can dispel some of the darkness rising in our collective souls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ancient Egyptian Blue: How the World’s First Synthetic Pigment Is Producing Tomorrow’s Brave—and Colorful–New World

Just for fun, a news flash on the first known ancient synthetic pigment from Egypt. It hovers between aquamarine and lapis. Even sculptures from the Parthenon show traces of it. Now I have to pull myself away from youtube videos of snoring hummingbirds and ruby-eyed lavender boas. Have a great weekend.

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color paletteHave you ever noticed that the AntiquityNOW website has splashes of a particular set of vibrant colors? Perhaps you’ve even found the Our Colors section on our site that reveals the ancient history behind our beauteous array. One color, specifically the deep blue, is particularly intriguing with its 4,500-year-old past, its surprising relevance for today’s scientific inquiry and its future promise for such fields as medicine and communications technology.

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World’s Oldest Painting in Spain: Abstract, of course

The world’s oldest painting is now found to be an abstract red “dot” or circle dated reliably back to 40,000 BCE. This makes it older than the previously dated Chauvet Cave paintings so eloquently documented by Werner Herzog. It’s also provoked speculation that Neaderthals may have been artists– the ultimate reversal of art from highbrow to lowbrow. Or perhaps abstraction is, once again, seen as “lower” art, thus the Neanderthal question… just kidding. Sort of. You can see the red area and the mouth-blown hand stencils below.
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The work, age-verified last year in a series of North Spanish caves, seems to be a mixture of abstraction, hands, and animals. The figures below are called “seals”. Huh? Maybe. Or maybe female figures with a vulva mark at the end… or, even, abstractions. There is an assumption that the abstract is more primitive and came before the figurative, but if the exquisitely worked animals of Chauvet are only a thousand years off, I think it’s likely that all the styles, including the popular figuative animals, existed simultaneously, as they do today.
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Here are horses, almost always found paired with aurochs. Look at the cute little zebra leg. It’s easier to love the horsie than the red dot, except for abstract fans. You have to interpret the dot yourself.

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Let’s hear it for the red dot! A red circle is primal, like the sun, like hands, like animals.

 A red dot also means the painting sold! Do you think it means he sold his wall of marks? Here’s my red dot– Over Underworld, a meditation on cave paint, civilization, and what’s underneath. You can see it during ARTrails this October in Studio 92. I hope to see you in my cave then. P1000487

News Release on World’s Oldest Art

Ancient drawings discovered in Spain have been crowned the world’s earliest cave art. Scientists claim the images date back 40,800 years and may have been done by Neanderthals. The find in 11 caves in northern Spain has beaten the previous record held by Chauvet cave in central France, which boasts drawings of animals thought to date back 39,000 years. Scientists say Spain’s cave art is now the oldest known in Europe, and probably the oldest in the world. The drawings feature animals, round red dots and a series of handprints known as a Panel of Hands. “We find one of these [handprints] to date older than 37,300 years on the Panel of Hands, and very nearby there is a red disc made by a very similar technique that dates to older than 40,800 years,” Dr. Alistair Pike, archaeological scientist from Bristol University explained to reporters. Working in the caves, scientists had to solve the difficult task of dating the ancient images. Pike explained that unlike bones or tools that can be carbon-dated and associated with artifacts found nearby, cave art is “not associated with anything but itself.” The team of scientists used a special technique to date the drawings. They analyzed the calcite patinas that form with mineralized water dripping over the art for thousands of years, just like stalagmites and stalactites form in caves. Over time, the calcite accumulates naturally occurring radioactive uranium from the water. Uranium atoms with years decay into thorium at a very precise rate. The ratio of the two different elements in a sample forms a so-called clock that can determine the sample’s age quite accurately.

Six Phases of Creativity

Worktable with 3 “Drafts” for Larger Paintings, Saltworkstudio

Where am I now?  What’s next?

I’ve been incubating this Dionysian series for a while. I have three 2 foot by 4 foot canvases waiting for paint to develop these themes, colors, and forms.  The starts shown above are meant to act as “thumbnails’ for the next phase of larger paintings on canvas.

I have the best luck with my finished pieces when I am purposely experimental, uncontrolled, and unfinished in my draft paintings. I’m groping in my own darkness when I paint.  I don’t want the whole process to happen even before I hit the canvas.  I don’t want  to pre-paint it in my head, my notebook, or anywhere else.

I found a useful new metaphor for thinking about any creative project, whether it’s painting or cleaning out the junk room. These ideas are from The Path of the Everyday Hero,  a book about mythic themes played out in life.  The six phases of creativity are preparation, frustration, incubation, strategizing, illumination, and verification (or manifestation).

Dignified, precise language allows us to reframe creative pauses or lapses. It’s interesting that frustration comes immediately after preparation, right at the start.  Frustration is the failure stage, the belly of the whale, the so-called “block”. What now?

My friend Karina Nishi Marcus is very clear on the idea that “block” should be eliminated from the artist’s vocabulary.  She says creativity is more related to nature metaphors, like “low tide” for the ocean, or “fallow” for the land.  It is a necessary part of the creative process.

“Noble Bull”, acrylic combined media, Suzanne Edminster

Frustration stops us from action, and makes us incubate our ideas, like an egg.  It’s on the back burner, in the nest, warming, passive on the surface but active underneath, mysterious, the seed under the ground.  To incubate properly we also need to strategize, to try things that might nourish or warm the invisible idea.   Some might work, some not.  But the passive time is needed, yin to the yang of action. Paintings can stay successfully in this stage for a long time, even years.

“The Great Ones”, acrylic combined media, Suzanne Edminster

The painter or artist may have to go back and forth in the frustration–incubation–strategy realm for a while, then illumination, the “aha moment” strikes, and elevates the venture to a different level, perhaps to completion.  The creative round, like the phases of the moon, will start again with a new idea.

“We Have Purposely Kept It”, acrylic combined media, Suzanne Edminster

These paintings are not done, but after some months of incubating, I am strategizing.  The notebook helps keep me on track.  When you find your way through an art dilemna, the solution often seems absurdly simple.  Still, it took time to get there.  The cycle may play out in one painting, or in series spanning decades.

The Dionysian metaphor is one of unbounded spring growth and ceremonial theatre, among other things.  Perhaps I should drink a glass of wine to Dionysios, and return to the paintings.    A flash of lightning,  a sprouting vine, or a Greek chorus might illumine the way to the next act of painting.

Mythic notes:  The Dionysian mystery cults tried to loosen the bonds between the worlds through sacred intoxication, theatre, dance and ritual.  The Pompeii Murals, with their glowing Pompeii red, were thought to have depicted aspects of this.

Pompeii Murals, probably showing Dionysian cult ritual

Happy Couples and Girls with Horns: Archaic Art Friends from Rome and Naples

This is my image of true love: looking into the light of eternity, together.

The Etruscan “Happy Couple in the Villa Giula museum  in Rome used to be painted and draped with fabric.  They had wine glasses and perfume bottles in hand and were reclining and eating at the same time– wonderful.  She had her earrings and jewelry on originally too.  This is the most famous of the tomb sculptures and is still incredibly moving for its feeling of affection and love. Not to mention the great “dos”, his and hers.

Then, the Romans invaded, and everyone started thinking about money, real estate, commerce.  Look at the new portrait of the married couple, Roman-style! Brood, worry, and scheme… not much trust there. And no more damn reclining in married portraits.

When not buying something or conquering someone,  in their spare time the Romans loved their soft and ahem, harder , images of sex.  This is a sweet one from the Secret Cabinet of Pompeii, a collection of erotic/ironic art  in the Naples Archeological Museum.  We did get in, though the guidebooks report this is often dicey.  It was deserted.  I think there’s a basic misunderstanding about what was erotic and what was common during the height of the Roman Empire.  Phallic-shaped signposts, lucky charms, and house decoration: common and boring.  Wall-painting series of  “menus” showing different sexual activities you could choose in the brothels, especially if you’re illiterate: interesting, erotic, naughty, not boring.  She’s light and he’s dark, showing the power of the guy, or something; this painting convention continued through the Renaissance and later in erotic scenarios. It’s Pan and his goat, but she seems happy.

Girls with Horns!  What can I say?  You can check my Mythic notes at the bottom for more ideas.  Here’s an Egyptian version of girls with horns.  They seem to have water buffalo horns, an image seen still in Naples because of their wonderful water-buffalo mozzarella cheese.  You buy it from the deli, little balls swimming in a salty sea, and carry it home in a tied plastic bag like goldfish from the fair.  Mozarrella alone is a “secondi piatti”– main dish– in Naples.   It’s grilled a bit, served with bread, and that’s it.

And now some Pompeiian paintings of girls with horns.  The “encaustic” they used included wax, but the paint actually used soap (lye-based) as the “caustic” medium binding the pigment  to bond with the walls.  These are not frescoes– the plaster was dry.  These are wet, slippery paint layers.  They then used the hot wax to seal the walls as a varnish on top, which they could buff to a high shine.  The first girl definitely has horns; the second may be more of a crescent moon, perhaps Diana.

Horns or crescent moon?  What say you?

For the last happy couple, Scott and I, the morning after our arrival back, at the IHOP at 6AM.  We are not reclining and eating, like the Etruscan couple, but you see a soft upholstered booth, coffee, empty plates and cups, books, and happiness.  Good enough.

Mythic notes: I saw a lot of images of  Europa on the Zeus-Bull.  She was taken to swim on Zeus-Bull’s back through the Straits of Bosphorus– Bosphorus means ox-crossing– dividing Europe from Asia/Turkey–in other words, the Straits of Istanbul.  Europa and Io merge women with bull or cow, and then put them in water– a river or sea.  They might be a holdover from a more ancient cow -goddess, or metaphors for mass migrations and settlement of cattle people, but I just thought that the girls with horns were cool.  The Romans idealized the Nile as a source of fertility;  Roman matrons would buy vials of Nile water at the local Isis-temple  and douse themselves with it to increase conception.

Book notes:  The Social Animal by David Brooks was a great buy.  It’s trending sociological research, carried by his  made-up, somewhat borg-like characters named  Harold and Erica.  The characters provide a framework for reporting findings from everywhere.  Intriguing.  Many are saying that the creative/artistic mind is the big money earner in our new world. Well, let’s hope.  He lets Erica do art after she retires, and there are a few pages on the latest social research on music, painting, and other arts.   Recommended for a rousing non-fiction read and a juicy idea source.

Studio Notes:   I’ve done large paintings of both Europa and Io as abstractions.

My Marble Buddies: Hanging with Sculpture in Rome and Naples

Three weeks in Italy! I felt like I was dipping my toe into a river of souls.  It was a time of borderlines and thresholds: old year to new,  marble to flesh, ancient streets filled with modern people, and classical beauty in the faces of people arguing, eating, buying stuff, driving Smartcars. The ancients seemed to live,  and the Christmas crowds of elegant Italians seemed temporary flickers haunting the alleys.  Meet some of my marble buds. 

The Capitoline Walls… this guy is great.  Is he a David figure?  To us he looked like he had 400 years of saying “Hey, Sailor” to his credit.   Cocky.  Just sayin’…

 

An achingly blue winter day, and I couldn’t tear myself away from the brilliant negative shapes against the stone. Youth and horse… stunning  contained force, and a tremendous face.  I like the entire Capitoline hill, and this museum piazza was designed by The Big Mike, Michaelangelo.

Capitoline Hill, sunset from the museum cafe terrace.  Murmurations of starlings, kinetic.  The whole Hill was formerly a nest of  state oracles and seers.  They liked the elevation so they could interpret flights of birds.  Nowadays the seagulls have invaded.   Oddly, they fly at night in the city, shrieks and white forms soaring in the darkness, a bit ghoulish.

 Classical sculptures are virtually all knockoffs—copied from ancient Greek sources, now lost— or propaganda for the ruler du jour.  Some mighty bodies were made with removable heads so the next Caesar could just screw his own on.  The head of Constantine below is 5 feet high, so the whole sculpture, with pedestal and base, might have been 50 to 70 feet or more.   Statues of this mass can so easily verge on  Facist architechture.  But they impress.  Think of Lady Liberty!

What has that flawed eye perceived in its time? Think, too, of paint and decoration, fabrics and jewels originally draped around the sculpture.  The marble we see now is more a bone structure.  Ripped from their original colored and decorated context, they become evocative collage pieces.  But some still shine. I felt that it wouldn’t take long to develop a real relationship with them.  The more we like them, the more they come alive, like any so-called “object”, I suppose.  I’ll miss hanging with them.

Next: Happy Couples and Horned Gals: More Archaic Art Friends from Rome and Naples