Thoughts about Guston

So why have I be thinking about Philip Guston a lot lately. The first time I ever saw his work was a retrospective at the Whitechapel in London in 1982. I knew nothing about his work previously. I remember being so startled by his large scale paintings. I had no response at all, it was like looking at something with no reference points- I was dumbstruck. Later I realized, what an impact his work had on me and how truly monumental it was.

A lot has happened for me since I moved out of my studio in Upland, California in October 2016. I have had some medical issues , a detached retina being the most serious, and we have moved to Portland Oregon after living in California for 25 years ,it has been somewhat of a culture shock. Now after all the moving ,I have a huge studio and am beginning the process of working again and finding my feet in a new place.

I have started doing work about the five senses. I have also finished a piece that I brought with me based on the "Garden of Earthly Delights: by Hieronymus Bosch. I started looking at the structure underlying Bosch's triptych. It struck me that there would not be a garden of earthly delights without the five senses to appreciate them. So my quest has been combined, how can I visually express what hearing , seeing , touching , tasting and smelling might look like?

My approach is to start with some loose, almost cartoonish drawings of the parts of the body that are the centers of the various senses, which brings me back to Philip Guston. He uses the cartoon vernacular to show a disembodied head with a cigarette and a plate of chips and calls it "Painting ,Smoking , Eating". Below is the finished triptich loosly based on the "Garden of Earthly Delights"

 

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Homage to Alison de Lima Greene

When I moved to Houston in 1986 to do a two year residency as a Core Fellow, we had our studios at the Glassell school across the road from the Museum of Fine Arts. Alison de Lima Greene was and still is a curator at this museum, her title is "Curator, Contemporary Art and Special Projects". She has recently been involved in putting on a show of Yayoi Kusama work, an artist I admire very much, called "At the End of the Universe"

Alison really seemed to respond to my work and towards the end of my Core residency she purchased one of my drawing/wall sculpture pieces for the museum. This was and is such a huge honor for me. I don't think I can really express what it is like, to have someone in such an influential position believe in me in this way, so thank you Alison.

This is the piece the museum purchased, they also own an additional three pieces. One donated by the group that put on the Synergy Exhibition that I won a jurors prize for and two more large drawings of my body series, the" Brain drawings". I always wanted to say I left my brains in Texas.

I realize after hearing from Alison, That I don't have a photo of the correct piece so here is the link to the museum catalogue, the photos I show below, reveal the drawing with a different bronze wall sculpture, the next drawing has the correct wall sculpture.

https://www.mfah.org/art/detail/11818?returnUrl=%2Fart%2Fsearch%3Fq%3Dwendy%2Bsmith                                                                                                                           

Pink

"In the 18th century, it was perfectly masculine for a man to wear a pink silk suit with floral embroidery," says fashion scholar Valerie Steele, director of The Museum at the Fashion Institute Technology and author of several books on fashion. Steele says pink was initially "considered slightly masculine as a diminutive of red," which was thought to be a "warlike" color.

As I seem to be using pinks and lilacs as a part of my colour palette, the response is interesting. A man who came to the opening of a show I did a couple of years ago in Claremont, looking at my "Lotus Series" predominantly using pink hues,  said something like "its too pink for me" , subtext "its too feminine" I think this is an interesting response to a colour, especially given that our associations with the colour have been very different at times of our history. How strange to have a colour totally allied with one sex. I notice its very strong this division especially in the US, my American husband will not wear a pink shirt, my brother, a Brit living in London, will. Maybe that's why gay men often take on this colour, to own their feminine side. I find there is a subtle misogyny in this dismissive labeling of pink and will continue to work with it. A new batch of work , the "Whitehot Series" which continues this exploration of "feminine" colours.

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"Hunger makes me a Modern Girl"

I just finished Carrie Brownstein's memoir "Hunger Makes me a Modern Girl", she was in the band "Slater Kinney " for ten years, and I think they have reformed. Although I didn't know a lot about music in the Pacific Northwest, it was an interesting read, especially about the rigors of touring, which I could relate to a little ,having toured with a band myself. She is a good writer and certainly didn't sugarcoat the difficulties of playing and touring. One thing she talked about was the way that albums, songs and creating them, form a body of work ,that over time becomes the history of the band. This thread of events and creativity form an amazing tapestry . Brownstein may not individually like certain parts of her songbook, but as a whole, each part, is a necessity. Sometimes the unfavorite songs, lead to the songs that are highly regarded,  it is a process. In a way, its impossible ,to have the light without the dark , this duality in a way is only the half of it, it is all needed to move everything along.

This struck a chord with me as it seems like the only way to work, I take today and try and make something visually, that may or may not be successful. Over time this forms the story or history of my work, I cannot predict the trajectory, but I have to accept,  this is the way I work. Sometimes I like where its going, sometimes I don't, but I have to be patient with myself and nurture my gift. I need to have the courage to continue on. Below are some sketches from the early 1980's.

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Lately

Since I started working with DNA imagery ,earlier this year , everything has changed again. I am having less doubts about the work I am doing. I am feeling less of the need to explain and more of the just keep working, its why I seem to be not writing as many "Notes from the studio". Usually I would be taking on some complexity and puzzling over it , doing a lot of questioning. Lately that seems to have gone away. I am continuing to mine an idea, that seems simple and maybe repetitive, but also it seems endless and fruitful.

I have always felt so critical of artists that seem to repeat themselves endlessly. The pieces that started with the "Bladderwrack series" seem to be continuing in many variations, for right now I am enjoying this. I do not expect it to last.

Well indeed, that series has come to an end, back to complexity and puzzling over it. I have been in my super hot studio, no A/Cand a heatwave here in California, temperatures over 100 oF. I am working very slowly. I started with an idea about the five elements in Chinese astrology and how they relate to each other. The five elements are fire, earth, metal , water and wood,. It is interesting to me to understand how they relate to each other. So wood feeds the fire, the fire needs the earth to exist on, metal comes from the earth, the water cools the metal and helps it to be extracted from the earth, the water feeds the wood and here we are back to the beginning. As I started to work I was thinking about the Hans Christian Andersen story "The Tinderbox", its about a soldier that comes home from the wars and finds a magical tinderbox, a little like Aladdin's lamp when rubbed it grants wishes. It takes him to a cavern with three dogs with large saucer eyes guarding a huge pile of treasure , one is copper, one is silver and one gold. The series of three drawings proceeded and unexpectedly turned into the finished pieces see below.

Honour

Listening to NPR about the death of two people who worked for them in Afghanistan a couple of weeks ago, one was a photographer, the other a local fixer. It has become a very risky profession to bring news and information to the rest of the world.Listening to a colleague talk about the photographer she mentioned that he was not a talkative person, reserving all his energies for the task of looking. That really struck a chord with me, to be able to focus on one sense , sight ,and translate that sense, into a vivid language, takes a lot of focus.

Sometimes I feel as though as an artist ,what I do is taken for granted, by me and others, and I focus on all that I cant seem to do as well, namely promoting myself and selling my work. Yet the gift I have been given is immense , I need to honour and respect that more than I do, and more importantly have great gratitude, honour the gift.

These are two sketchbook drawings form the 1980's when I was at RISD, I was obsessed with boats, as a new immigrant it was a perfect symbol.

Courage

One thing that struck me about the death of Muhammad Ali , was a comment by a young man who revered him. He said he was the first black man he ever heard who was exuberant and confident about his accomplishments. He did not cower or play nice, "float like a butterfly , sting like a bee".

Reading Ta Nehisi Coates book " Between the World and me", the idea of having to write a letter to his son to warn him of the realities of being black in the US , to constantly tell your children diminish yourself, follow the rules so closely or you might be killed by the police, is an unimaginable thing to me. The idea that I would have had to coach my son, through a possible encounter with law enforcement, as he hit puberty to try and protect him.

So thank you Muhammad Ali for providing an outrageous example of confidence and outspokenness ,that is true courage.

The series below is called "DNA Violet Eyes", its an attempt to do a smaller series

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Why technical knowledge never trumps humanity

I always think that when people talk about robots, as though they will save humanity in the future, that it is a foolish idea. When I found out that they were working so hard to come up with a robot, that could do housework , but try and they might they couldn't get the robot to fold clothes. Frankly I was not surprised and I know that most of these efforts at creating the technological future never seem to consult the people, who may end up using it. What does move us along always seems to be a mixture of accident and chance, why Beta-max did not win over VHS for video tape formats for example, pure fluke.

In my life I have met basically two types of techies -- I will always think of them in terms of the woodwork technician and the metalwork technician, that I knew when I was an undergraduate at Trent Polytechnic. The woodwork guy was a skilled carpenter, but his knowledge had made him very rule bound ,when it came to trying to give advice to me, he was the NO techie. The metalwork technician was the opposite, he wanted to solve the problems I presented with an open minded approach, this was also probably because he had been to art school himself, he was the YES techie.

Humanity will move forward when we all appreciate how simply amazing human beings are, we are beautiful , sensitive , skillful creatures, we cannot ever be replaced by bits of metal and plastic, and we can fold clothes, and we need to say yes.

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Visiting Artists

I was thinking today about a visiting artist Italo Scanga, he came to my studio when I was at the Core Program , affiliated with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. He was such a large robust energetic man, very Italian, with a certain sensitivity. He talked to me in my studio offering some insight about my work. The thing he said that had a real impact on me, even now ,all these years later. He talked about how the male energy in the world forms the structure of things, the female energy is everything else, the breath, the dust , the stuff of the universe . I found that comment immeasurably helpful, I cannot really explain why or how , but thank you Mr Scanga and all the amazing artists that came to visit my studio and offer their perspective.

I think often of the Artist who visited me early on when I was at RISD, she was Haitian, married to a well know Haitian artist ,who worked in Giacometti's studio for a time in Paris. I wrote to her for a while and lost touch, Nicole Turnier Dorceley , she lived in Petion -Ville . With all the turmoil in Haiti where she lived with the earthquake some time ago I think of her and wonder if she is still around. We had Roni Horn as a visiting sculpture critic, Lynda Benglis and so many more when I was at RISD. At Trent Polytechnic I remember Gerard Scarfe and William Wegman doing lectures, not visiting us individually. Anyway it made for a lively counter to working in the studio , to think that what we did, somehow mattered to these visitors.

Looking back through some older sketchbooks lately , found some from when I first arrived in US so 1984, here's a page from then.

 

 

Recreating the Past

We went up to Portland for a week, my son graduated from Lewis and Clark, or at least he walked with cap and gown , he needs to complete one last French requirement, despite doing Physics. Its a Liberal Arts College and I am glad they have a language requirement, makes for a more rounded education. While we were there, we visited the Pittock Mansion, built by a newspaper magnate who owned "The Oregonian". As we walked through this huge house, there was much debate about the furnishings , not all of them were original to the house, some true to the era, were from different families in the locale. If you didn't have this information ,you might assume walking through the house that it was all historically accurate. It struck me that our memories are very similar, in our own lives we recreate the past and change the stories and refurnish sometimes with other people's belongings.

What memories are truly ours? We have all had the experience of seeing photographs of ourselves as children and having memories around that photographed event, did we truly remember or was this a created memory. For me there was an oft repeated story about how as a very young child ,I ate rat poison from one of the cowsheds on my Auntie Maribel's farm, there was much panic and amazement ,centered I think on the fact that this poison was bright blue and did not look at all appetizing. I now believe I remember this story, but truthfully I am not sure.  I really think that this interest in alternative viewpoints is why I am so interested in series in my work , because I can show more than just one version of the truth.