Monday, December 17, 2018

Fish Tails from Karen Holtzclaw

"You're going to find this strange," Karen Holtzclaw said to me, "but I can't stand fish."  This was in an email exchange between myself and Karen, where I was surprised to see such an assertion, because Karen's paintings are full of fish!  Karen went on to say "[I] prefer scuba diving in a swimming pool rather than in a lake or ocean because of fish being too close... chance of me sucking water into my lungs if they get too near.  Can't take me fishing either because I scream when a fish is caught!"

Fish are important in Karen's recent paintings, particularly goldfish, or koi.  Such fish, sometimes in dramatically mutated forms, appear in almost every painting in Karen's new show, leaping about.  
For Karen, these golden fish symbolize resilience and determination.  As a child Karen happened to see a horse watering tank on a farm that was full of giant goldfish.  This image stayed with her through the years and perhaps helps explain why she finds these particular fish so meaningful;  they seem to be able to thrive in difficult circumstances.

 Recently, Karen got carried away describing to me her youthful experiences in and near nature:

 "living life on a farm was very brief but visiting grandparents farm was a major part of my childhood memories...gravel roads, creek, apple orchard for great climbing, chickens running loose, cats and dogs, picking vegetables from the garden and canning, pumping well water, cows to be milked and then prepared for the milkman, a horse...always wanted a horse and was convinced there was one waiting for me after receiving a birthday card featuring a horse, was told there was no horse but I just knew there was a sign...and there wasn't...pigs...had to watch out for those pigs, they'd eat a man, an out house and chamber pots, burning corn cobs for heat, potato cellar, building forts with hay bales in the barn, walking down the lane to get the mail, finding arrowheads and playing songs from the church hymnal on the piano.  Ponds and lakes came in later when we started water skiing trips to Cicero Lake then started renting cottages on Wawasee Lake during the summer months. "

Karen's paintings convey this richness, this sense of nature's inexhaustible possibilities.  They make the viewer want to plunge in, despite or even because of the mysteries Karen evokes.  

This reminds me of another story Karen tells from youth...
"Mom and I ventured into the Everglades one year and rode one of those boats with a gigantic fan on the back 'air boat'?.  Used to explore the channels at the lake too...getting lake grass caught in the propellers then having to jump into unfamiliar water to untangle the clog.  Liked watching dragonflies and butterflies.  A little cornflower blue butterfly landed on my finger one time and stayed quite a while...I could even move my hand around to look at it from different angles..."

Reading that story, in an email from Karen, I shivered a little thinking about the alligators that I imagined must have been in those waters she was jumping into as a child!  

A leap of faith is also something that art calls forth from the artist.  Karen says ...

"When painting I like to surrender to what emerges from within.  Not asking why but accepting and incorporating what is at that moment"

... sometimes a painting calls this forth from the viewer too. 

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Ponderings by Karen Holtzclaw

Ponderings is a brilliant show of new paintings by Karen Holtzclaw at the Bellevue Gallery at the Farmer House Museum in Bloomington through December.  The result of Karen’s intense outpouring of creative energy over the last several months is a must-see painting show.

Karen’s paintings are hypnotic, seductive, deeply serious and silly funny.

Because of growing up experiences on Southern Indiana farms and playing in woods overlooking the Ohio River, as well as visits to Cicero Lake and Wawasee Lake, Karen developed a close relationship with nature and an appreciation for the way human and natural worlds intersect and overlap.  Set in pond environments, Karen’s current paintings call our attention to that sometimes fraught relationship between human and natural worlds.  

Each painting presents what looks to be a small pond, bursting with life and activity.

Collectively Karen’s paintings make one feel like one is looking at a large pond one is tempted to jump into.

As a child, while visiting a relation’s farm, Karen was startled to encounter a horse watering tank full of gigantic goldfish.  This seemingly improbable encounter may help explain the presence of large orange coy fish as major protagonists in almost every painting in Ponderings.  These coy defy gravity, leaping and swooping in yin yang pairs, seeming to evolve on the fly in weirdly beautiful ways.

We often think of ponds as quiet places, but Karen’s ponds seem bursting with life, texture and color almost to the point of frenzy.  Something is a little off. It takes a little looking to see some discordant notes. A chemical drum floats in the water, disgorging sludge. 

Smokestacks in the distance in one painting seem to compete with a wildfire in another painting.
Plastic trash floats around,  

Nature seems to be able to adapt.  A frog wears a crown made from a fast food cup.

Mutations give fantastic new forms to familiar creatures.

But one has the impression that the pond beings are trying to escape - and to where?  As viewers we seem to be invited to acknowledge our role in the pond creatures dilemma and to care.  At the same time we are called upon to witness their irrepressible spirit and energy.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Embracing the Endangered: Collages by Layla Bowles

Layla Bowles’ November show at the Bellevue Gallery, Embracing the Endangered, is dazzling.  17 collages, small in scale but ambitious in theme, fill the gallery and fill the eyes.  

Exploring issues such as addiction and our relationship with the environment, Layla dives deep into the individual and collective unconsciouses, seeking insights.  Earnest purpose gives these searches depth; the artist is looking for answers (not that there is ever a final answer). At the same time, a lively sense of humor ensures that each journey remains a buoyant one. There is darkness but there is also light.

The show’s title piece sets a tone.  Urgently red fills the picture. A woman seems dirty and scarred and perhaps in trouble, a situation hinted at by a giant hovering vulture, which she seems to push aside.  Or is she ecstatically dancing? Perhaps drunk? Her third eye, her eye of spiritual insight, is wide open but her prosaic eyes are blind.  Should we worry for her or try to be more like her?

There is something godlike about some of  the beings who inhabit Layla’s show. A strangely fire-like creature has eyes full of wisdom, but is unable to speak.  

Another being who is wearing an owl mask seems to teeter between male and female stereotypes - is any of it real, he seems to wonder?  Is he connected with Athena?

A possible forest nymph sprouts leaves instead of hair. 

In one hallucinogenic piece, a busy city fills most of the sky. From this city emanates an  ancient skull. From the ancient skull a tiny modern brain seems to falling or floating out. A giant sparrow or finch seems to be crushing a detiorating road house with its tail.  The bird is holding what looks like a slice of human brain as if it were a leaf. What does it all mean? What does a dream mean?  

Another city seems to connect more harmoniously to its natural environment, but in itself seems more regimented, less natural.   An electric guitar that seems to be a bottle that seems to be a foot seems to be exploding into space, spurting an attenuated face with burning eyes. Is it a genie created by the burning sands that, over millenia, carved away the massive cliffs?  

In one of the exhibit’s more surprisingly beautiful moments, Einstein’s brain is revealed to have a visual texture akin to the visual texture of a gnarled apple tree.  Einstein himself seems to wonder why this would surprise anyone.  

Natural elements play a key role in another collage made mostly out of onion skins. An incorporated Dali face seems surprised at such an outbreak of organic energy, but a tiny dancer seems very at home.

The largest collage in Layla’s show is the one that addresses addiction most directly.  Words spell out its message: that the war on drugs might not be what it seems. But such words aren’t needed.  A Bosch-like toad creature seems to distribute drugs above a kind of river Styx, where Charon boatmen ferry skeletal lost souls.

Another skeleton lounges/dances in a military graveyard, covered in bling and flanked by two anciently mossy trees.  Serious as a graveyard, this image is also ridiculous and funny and offers up, as well, a lovely tour de force of visual textures.  We seem to be entertaining ourselves to death, to borrow a phrase, but as long as we have art, on one hand, and nature, on the other hand, we can achieve at least some semblance of joy and beauty?

One of the strangest and funniest pieces seems to evoke a kind of fishy Medusa, recalling Archimboldo. 

 In another playful collage, two bejeweled snake fish seem to swim amongst the beams of an ancient eastern temple, to the surprise of a ground-roosting bird.
  Is there an implied contrast between worldly delights and spiritual delights?

In perhaps the same temple, a cat makes friends with a nesting bird, while floating on a disc of light in elaborate pumps.  What is this kitty up to?

Another magical character sports a Little Richard bouffant, made up out of old school bits of technology, such as wheels and gears.  His arms are centipede-like creatures and his feet are giant diatoms and his attitude is rockabilly, but the aura he gives off is blues. This is someone who can live in many worlds at once.

Another collage seems to be entitled It’s Only Words.   Instant refridgerator-poetry words are pasted onto ancient chinese clay warriors, leaving us to ponder if they fit or not, while pointing teo the individuality of these characters whose individuality seems to have been effaced.  Thought of as a group - the chinese warriors - they are also individuals.

One of the most enigmatic collages seems to depict a feathery twilight garden, where a hoofer seems to be dancing, twirling her straw hat on her finger tips.  Her partner is a plant that has a human nose for a stem and bright red lips for a flower. Instead of a sun providing light there is a wall lamp. It is a beguiling world, but artificial.

Layla's show seems to end on a note of quiet strength.   What seems to be a shaman appears in sepia colors of quiet dignity, surrounded  by an intense red of emotional strength, wearing a slightly irridescent bird headress made from possibly quilted flag material.  Perhaps what is most endangered and most important for us to embrace is our ancient wisdom.

Red means something different in what seems to be the show's final, summarizing image of an addiction sufferer. She seems elegant but distressed, living in an oppressive grey world that is at the same time blood soaked.  She fiercely gobbles pills, as if to find relief in the act of consumption. She has a mouth for an ear as if she has forgotten how to listen. But you can tell that deep down she is listening, for something. Like the artist she seems to be searching  for answers.

Embracing the Endangered is a little show, but also a big one, overflowing with ideas.  The gallery encourages visitors to not just look, but also to spend some time with the art, reflecting and discussing.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Style and Meaning: Greek Revival Architecture, etc.

Greek Revival is one of my favorite historical American styles.  I think this is in part because I grew up in the city of Boston and was very Boston proud.  In particular, I was obsessed with architecture and Boston had some great examples of Greek Revival architecture.  A particularly early and very ambitious piece was Quincy Market, 1826 ...

I tend to assume that the Greek Revival style was popular in America in the early 1800s because it was associated with Greece and thus with  both democracy and the struggle for independence, something Greece was known for historically and also in the early 1800s.    I think it says a lot about how early Boston elites defined ideas such as liberty and independence that they chose to build a market in this style and very grandly in this style.  Today it is the far right wing that we think of as championing the "Market" as the ultimate source, sign and guarantor of freedom.  Back then I guess it was the 'liberal' eastern elites that thought that way.

There is also a late building in the Greek Revival style that exists to this day in Boston, the Custom House.  It was built by the Federal government, yet it suggests that Boston elites continued to associate freedom with 'the Market'. I think it is perhaps the most successful Greek Revival building ever created in America, a building whose design is so well wrought that it has survived the replacement of its dome with a five hundred foot office tower without any real loss of artistic coherence, in my opinion...

Around mid-19th-century, the history of architecture in America gets a little weird. Where I grew up, in Boston, Greek Revival seems to have been abandoned just as it peaked, and not for artistic reasons.  Artistically it was a style of unmatched dignity and power.  Yet architecture seemed restless, now toying with styles hearkening back to the earlier federal period (Boston's South End) ...

... now exploring Egyptian Revival ...
... Gothic Revival in an early phase ...

In the 1860s, America seemed to settle on French Second Empire as its grand new style...

I think that this restless search for a consensus American style had a lot to do with the growing split between the North and the South.  The growing rift between North and South over slavery had to mean that the two regions could not unproblematically share notions of freedom and liberty, much less an architectural style embodying those notions.  My sense is that the South embraced Greek Revival longer than the North did, while the North searched for an appropriate new style.   French Second Empire (ie French Second Repulic?) seemed to fill the bill for a while, but it too gave way to another consensus style, Italianate:

Here again associations played a big role I think in recomending italianate as a suitable style for a young nation espousing freedom and liberty.   Italy was in the throes of establishing itself as  a unified independent country in the 1860s and northern Italy in particular (which Italianate relates to particularly closely) was associated, presumably, with the culture of Florence and with Florence's own struggle for independence and a kind of democracy going back centuries.  Italianate must have been particularly attractive to any Bostonians who prided themselves on the idea that Boston was the Florence of America!

So it's probably not surprising that the greatest achievement of Italianate as a consensus Great Style for America was in Boston:  The Boston Public Library...

The conceit is that this building is based on the fortress-like palazzos of Florentine elites of the Renaissance, but repurposed to serve the people as their special home within the city...

It is interesting to compare the current Boston Public Library building to an earlier building for the BPL, also Italianate in style and also extraordinarily beautiful, as well as a very early version of the style  ...

As with Greek Revival architecture, Boston seems to have created both an early great version of the style and possibly one of the latest and  perhaps the greatest version too.  Although Italianate was an international style, I think of it as the first style of architecture in which a uniquely American version began to develop.  American Italianate has elements recognizable from the international style, but proportioned and arranged with a new freedom.  

With Italianate, one gets the impression for the first time that American architects were less interested in showing that they could measure up to English and French counterparts and more interested in exploring a style in their own way.  The search for a genuinely American style heated up after Italianate, with groundbreaking architects such as Furness, Richardson, Sullivan and Wright.  Then came the allout aesthetic assault that was the Chicago World's Fair, which infamously stopped the development of an authentic American style in its tracks, establishing the grandeur of the European Beaux Arts style as the International Grand Style of Empire.   To this day it's probably fair to say that there has never been an authentically American grand style.  Maybe such a thing is a  contradiction.  Can something be grand without it being some kind of imperial posturing?  Is artistic consensus possible or even desirable?   

My next piece will be about Copley Square in Boston.   It's one of my favorite places in the world and I have plans for it!!