Category Archives: art exhbitions

Red at the B Street Theatre: Four Stars

When I studied drawing with Dan Samborski at American River College, I had an ongoing argument with him (conducted almost entirely in my own head) about what constituted good art. Not well executed: good. Meaningful. Worthwhile. Samborski’s tastes run to post-modern, and I am far more traditional. He talked quite a bit about 20th Century American painters; about modernism, postmodernism, and how passé Impressionism’s “purple shadows” are; about meaning and the impulse to create; about what the artist was trying to express. It was good stuff, and my silent argument with my teacher energized me long after I completed his classes.

Mark Rothko No.14 San Francsico Museum of Modern Art
Mark Rothko, No. 14, 1960, 1960; painting; oil on canvas, 114 1/2 in. x 105 5/8 in. (290.83 cm x 268.29 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Helen Crocker Russell Fund purchase; © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Samborski’s words came flooding back to me as I watched the B Street Theatre’s production of Red by John Logan on Saturday night. Winner of the Tony Award for Best Play of 2010, Red focuses on artist Mark Rothko in about 1958, as he worked on a series of paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York. The play is an interpretation of Rothko’s struggle about whether his own work was meaningful art or commodity. Rothko is hugely self-absorbed, but eventually admits to his assistant, Ken, his fears of dying and, in the words written on the wall in the Book of Daniel, of being “weighed in the balance and … found wanting.” (Isn’t that what we all fear?)

This two-person play is a brilliantly conceived and, in the B Street production, finely executed portrayal of both the art world in transition and an individual artist’s struggle to make the work all it can be: to engage the viewer, to resonate emotionally, to communicate—something. The conversations between Rothko and Ken swirl around and through vast territories of human experience, from what they teach in art school nowadays to murder. Meanwhile, the action on stage (such as it is) revolves around the everyday acts of stretching canvas, mixing colors, getting Chinese takeout. One of the plays lightest scenes comes as the two prime a large canvas together, to music (Handel, I think).

One of Samborski’s contentions was that few movies (or, by extension, plays) capture at all well what it’s really like to be an artist, to create for a living. On that point I agree with him. Happily, profoundly, Red is an exception: it fiercely captures both the mundaneness of studio work and the feeling of, in Samborski’s words, “walking on ball bearings” as one brings each piece to life and imbues it with one’s hopes and fears for its existence, even as the world marches on.

The B Street Theatre’s production, featuring Brian Dykstra portrays Mark Rothko and David McElwee as Ken, is definitely worth seeing. Red runs through September 22. Four stars.

 

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Into the Blue

Here’s a new painting I’ll be showing at High Hand Gallery in Loomis, California, starting in September. It’s called “Into the Blue.” I had the opportunity to paint last spring at Oest-Clementine Preserve, one of the nature preserves in the Sierra Nevada foothills owned and maintained by Placer Land Trust. PLT sponsored a series of plein air events at their preserves. This one is outside of Auburn, California, near the American River. (If you know the area, Lake Clementine is in the gap between the second and third ridge in the painting, and the Foresthill Bridge is offstage right about, oh, maybe half a mile.)

Into the Blue ©2012 Stephanie Benedict
Into the Blue ©2012 Stephanie Benedict. Oil on canvas. 400 mm x 1000 mm.

One of the things I like to try to portray in my work is distance. Where I live in Sacramento, we like to say that on clear days you can see the Sierras. Montana may call itself Big Sky Country, but the vistas here are huge as well. So when I saw this view at Oest-Clementine, I had to paint it. Ridge after ridge after ridge disappearing into the atmospheric perspective.

I look forward to going back next year to Oest-Clementine, and trying again with some other composition.

Into the Blue will be on display at Artstock 2012 at High Hand Gallery through October 21. As always, I will donate a percentage of the sale price to Placer Land Trust.

 

What I Learned About Gilbert Stuart

One of the (many) treats of my recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston was the chance to see Gilbert Stuart’s “unfinished” portraits of George and Martha Washington. The president’s portrait is the one used for the dollar bill. It’s a very famous painting, which many people know already, but I hadn’t been to the MFA in over 20 years, so it was fresh for me. And the last time I saw it, I wasn’t a painter, so I could see if with fresh eyes this visit. And seeing the portraits in person is different than seeing them in reproduction.

Both paintings are unfinished, apparently because Martha Washington didn’t like them. Martha’s is the head only, the president’s portrait includes the head, the beginning of shoulders, and a start of a background in the upper 2/3 of the canvas. The heads are exquisite: lively, beautifully rendered, subtly detailed. One of the little signs at the MFA says that Stuart captured those subtle, lively colors in the skin tones by glazing very thin layers of paint. So the heads in these paintings are virtually complete.

And the rest of the canvas is blank. A halo of dark around Martha’s head, and the beginning of a background in the 2/3s of the piece around George, both painted in a burnt umber-ish color, and after that—blank. Stuart knew what he wanted to do. Martha’s face is off-center. But there are no sketch marks, no blocking in, no marks of any kind. Just what appear to be stains on one of the canvases.

Detail showing the blank canvas on Martha Washington's unfinished portrait.
Martha Washington (Martha Dandridge Custis), by Gilbert Stuart (detail). 1796. Oil on canvas. Jointly owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Wikipedia says this was Stuart’s frequent practice. I’m no expert (and certainly not of portraits)—but that blank canvas speaks volumes to me about the confidence Stuart had to complete these paintings: to eventually fill in the clothing, the backgrounds, to keep proportions and light-and-shadow consistent, to make the paintings seem like one complete whole and not like bits stuck together. I know some painters today who work that way, but I was taught to fill in the entire canvas, to bring all the areas of the canvas to completion together, so they will all hang together as a single painting.

There’s another benefit to working this way. Stuart could give his clients an idea what the finished portrait would look like without spending the time or paint on the completed work before the client decided they wanted to keep them. I have no idea if that’s what Stuart was actually doing—he was apparently rather impulsive—but still. Who knows?

If you’re an artist—how do you work a painting? Do you work the entire canvas as a whole, or do you finish the focal point first, then complete the rest?

 

A Visit to the MFA

I recently had the chance to spend two afternoons at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. (An admission is good for two visits within 10 days.) I was visiting Massachusetts for a cousin’s wedding, and decided to indulge. I know museums can foster a strange perception of art—that good art should be in museums, not in homes—but I love them. Whenever I travel somewhere, I seek out the local art museum to see what I can learn.

MFA Boston Main Entrance
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This is the main entrance along Huntington Avenue.

That visit—and thinking about this blog post—got me thinking about the role of museums in today’s culture. I’ll probably post more about that in the future. But for now, some first thoughts:

An art museum can show you want good art can look like*, and what to look for in art. Think of Sargent’s “masterful” brushstrokes—everyone call them that—or Monet’s use of color or the energy behind Joan Mitchell abstracts or Jackson Pollock drip paintings. Museums can be repositories of culture, from ancient Greek ceramics to Franz Bischoff’s paintings on porcelain vases. And they can educate you on the history of art or of a country. One of my biggest surprises at my visit came when I recognized the name of an American painter I’d first heard of only a week or two before—on Antiques Roadshow. After that, I started seeing other things by artists or companies I’d seen on the Roadshow: a giant ceramic jug made by a former slave named Dave; fine early American furniture, revolutionary period silver (this is Boston!). And then there was the Tiffany stained glass and East Asian Buddhas.

So, as a first impression, art museums can give you an idea of some of the things a culture values: the kind of artwork, furniture, jewelry, porcelain. They can teach you about taste and style and perceptions in other eras, other places, before photography or even lithography made it possible to reproduce images inexpensively. Gilbert Stuart, for example, is said to have made many portraits of George Washington from the one that was used for the dollar bill, the “unfinished” portrait.

And, for an artist, if you look closely, you can learn a bit about how other artists tackled the subject matter that challenges you. The advice to young writers is to “read everything.” I’d say the same for painters and sculptors and jewelers: look at everything. Learn what’s been done before, learn from the best.

And I can’t forget the goslings.

Goslings napping on a sidewalk in the Fenway. Photo by Stephanie Benedict
These goslings had decided to take a nap in the middle of the walkway in the Fenway. Photo by Stephanie Benedict

The second day I visited, I walked for a bit along the Fenway behind the museum, where I encountered this family of geese. They had decided to take a nap in the middle of the sidewalk. I’ve no idea why. They all woke up a few minutes later, but were still on the sidewalk when I left.

Do you visit art museums? What do you like or dislike about them?

(*) except they are vested in modernist art, too—more on that in a future post.

Rivers of Gold

Full disclosure: I am an associate artist member of the California Art Club, and my painting was not accepted for this show.

The California Art Club finally came to the greater Sacramento area in the fall of 2011, when it established its Greater Sacramento-Sierra Chapter. Although the club is over 100 years old, it had never had an inland northern California chapter before. (And already the chapter has more than 90 members!) To celebrate, the club is currently holding its inaugural exhibition for the chapter, Rivers of Gold, at the Bank of America Gallery at Three Stages, at Folsom Lake College, east of Sacramento.

South Fork-Cosumnes River by Annie Fountain
South Fork-Cosumnes River by Annie Fountain. Oil. 6″ x 8″. Used by permission. On display in Rivers of Gold through September 2.

This is, as expected, a very strong show. The California Art Club is dedicated to supporting traditional painting and sculpture—that is, representational art. Rivers of Gold, themed around the rivers of Northern California, showcases 17 artists and about 25 paintings in styles that range from semi-abstract to very traditional tonalist works to impressionist styles. Many are plein air pieces, though not all. The artists represented include some well-known painters, such as Kathleen Dunphy, Susan Sarback, and Michael Knepp, to newcomers Annie Fountain, Tatyana Fogarty, Jane Welles. (I wonder if it’s significant that there are 5 men and 12 women represented in this show.) It’s great to see so many excellent pieces from around our region all showing in one place.

The gallery itself is fairly new. It’s part of the Three Stages complex in Folsom, which opened only in 2010 or 2011.  The gallery space is quite small, a triangular room tucked between the building’s exterior wall and an interior wall surrounding one of the theaters. While I’m glad to have another art gallery in the region—the space could use some sound muffling. The maybe 50 people who attended the reception July 21 filled the space with the kind of din you get at modern restaurants, where you almost need to shout at your companions to be heard. I am sure that lots of attention went into the acoustics for the theaters, but it seems they overlooked this gallery space.

And the gallery is open very limited hours. So if you’re planning a visit—and I do recommend the show—be sure to check the website or call first, to make sure it’s open. Rivers of Gold runs through September 2, 2012.