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Archive for January 2009

Andrew Wyeth, 1917-2009

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I enjoyed Steve Kaplan’s blog on certain art critics’ reviews of Andrew Wyeth’s lifetime of work, after the artist’s passing last week.  I was surpised to read Kaplan’s statement that “deep in the pit of the avant garde stomach is also a gnawing fear that Joe Sixpack doesn’t give a damn for their rarefied, effete mileu, rather choosing to embrace the overwhelming preponderance of coffee table book images and magazine covers by Wyeth, Rockwell et. al.”  I’m going to pull that one out the next time someone brands me as a sentimental provincialist.  Wyeth’s paintings have always roused invisible demarcation lines that exist between economic, intellectual and artistic classes of people.  I’ve found that one always learns more about the writer reviewing Wyeth’s work, than about Wyeth the man, or even the work of Wyeth.
Wyeth’s work and career are particularly interesting in that it has always challenged notions about what art and painting are in the 20th century.  Wyeth continued an artistic line from the Philadelphia area, which at the time was running concurrently to the more rigorous training and professional trajectory coming out of the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, built up by Thomas Eakins and celebrated by the aristocratic class in New York.  He was schooled at home by his mother and taught drawing and painting by his father Newell Convers Wyeth.  N.C. Wyeth studied painting and illustration under Howard Pyle at the “Brandywine School of Illustration” in Philadelphia.  Having a fair amount of skill in draftsmanship, N.C. Wyeth was afforded the literary contacts built up by Pyle, who pioneered an illustration style that publishing firms utilized a great deal.  N.C. Wyeth continued that work, and when Andrew came of age, he also went the route of selling his paintings to magazines and literary quarterlies.   Seeing the popular success of Wyeth’s work, museums gradually came around and exhibited his work due to it’s potential for financial draw at the gate.  
People have used varying adjectives to either marginalize or praise Wyeth’s tempera paintings: “conservative realism”, “social realism”, “American realism”, “classical realism”.  There’s no arguing that Wyeth’s style is an individualist’s, and his work is instantly recognizeable, although often too long on pathos.  The dry, brittle, tactile ochres, browns and grays inspired by the soil he inhabited permeated his work throughout a sixty year career in painting and drawing.  The longevity of his mark making on surfaces and representing the world graphically is hard to critically dismiss, even if his paintings were often considered trite and sentimental by post World War II art critics.  Regardless of his detractors, Wyeth enjoyed a popular perception as being a uniquely American artist, not just for his citizenship but for his chosen imagery.  A museum in New York, Nebraska, California, Maine, Washington, anywhere in the U.S. could mount an exhibition of Wyeth’s work and receive high attendance.  Could the same be true of the Abstract Expressionists, or of any other artist of different movements?  Most likely no.  That counts for something.
Wyeth’s Christina’s World first came into my consciousness as a young fourth grader in an art class at school.  The image haunted me as a young child.  Perhaps because of this early impression I still find his best known works as being very strange.  It seems unusual that these works would be so celebrated by Americans, because there’s something definitely not right about them.  A psychological distance exists in his works, one like that of an experience of  amnesia and a longing for a forgotten sweetness that will never return.  In this way Wyeth’s work exemplifies America’s belief that history does not exist and that it’s people are constantly reinventing themselves and free from any tethering past.
Andrew Wyeth’s work offers an interesting template for artists which exists in a hard to define region between art as craft and art as abstract social testament.  One thing that can’t be denied is his lifelong dedication to painting.

Written by Wes Freese

January 27, 2009 at 4:07 am

Juris Ubans Retrospective

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"Enkidu and His Double", Juris Ubans

"Enkidu and His Double", Juris Ubans

The University of Southern Maine is hosting a retrospective exhibition of work by artist and educator Juris Ubans that opens tomorrow, January 20 and continues to February 15.  Juris Ubans was my painting mentor during my undergraduate studies in art.  I was one of Juris’s hundreds of students that he taught painting to as professor of art at the University of Southern Maine.  The exhibit displays a forty year career in painting, teaching and collecting art.

Ubans was born in Riga, Latvia in 1938 to father Konrads, who was an artist, and mother Elina Ella, who was a textile weaver (she won the Paris Grand Prix for her wall hangings in 1926).  At the age of six Juris, his two brothers, and mother fled Latvia near the end of World War II, two weeks before Riga fell to the Soviets.  Juris’s father Konrads Ubans was ill with typhoid fever and could not leave Latvia.  Ubans’s mother, siblings and he made their way to southern Germany and lived in a camp for immigrants after World War II finished and the Americans occupied Germany.  Eventually, in 1950 Ubans, his siblings and mother made their way to America and came to reside in Syracuse, New York.  He received an undergraduate degree in art at Syracuse University in 1968, and earned his MFA at Pennsylvania State University in 1968.  Juris did not see his father again until 1973, during a visit to Latvia. 

Juris decided to relocate to Maine in 1968 to pioneer a painting department at the University of Maine’s Gorham College  campus.  He was chairman of the art department from 1974 to 1979.  He became Director of the USM Art Gallery on the Gorham campus, and helped develop the art department curriculum when the Gorham campus merged with the Portland campus to form the University of Southern Maine.  He served as a consultant for the Latvian Council of Science and the Latvian Academy of Art.  Ubans was also the chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress, a member of the board of the Maine Commission on the Arts and Humanities, a commissioner for the National Association of Schools of Art and Design and a member of the National Conference of State Legislators.  (Source here.)  During the last few years Juris has created the Foundation Fiore Verde, a non-profit organization aimed at cultural and artistic exchange between the U.S. and Latvia.  Juris also lovingly cataloged the paintings of his father Konrads Ubans, who passed away in 1981.

I came along as one of his students in the mid eighties, where I was taught painting and encouraged to open to new ideas and explore my own creativity.  His tutelage consisted of an emphasis on their being no rules at all to what painting was.  He emphasized that painting could be anything, but that a painter had to address the “integrity of the plane” (or to deal with the nature of painting on a two dimensional surface).  He emphasized tools of design, of color, of repetition, and encouraged the adoption of techniques from prior art movements.  He went to great lengths to not influence my work with his particular tastes or sensibilities.  I don’t think I ever saw one of his works, as he kept them very absent from the campus studio.  I graduated at a time when post-modernism was beginning to take shape.  In my particular case, my study in painting primarily consisted of an emphasis on the craft of painting more so than painting as a conceptual enterprise.  For me, painting has been a vehicle to document and illuminate my own life, which began in my studies under Juris.

"Bitter Fruit", Wes Freese

"Bitter Fruit", Wes Freese

Over the years Juris built a collection of art works from other artists, which will also be included in the retrospective exhibit.  I remember some lovely prints by Juris’s friend and artist Italo Scanga hanging in the USM Art Gallery when I worked there as an assistant, which should be included.  Through Scanga I believe Juris came into contact with a contemporary, Dale Chihuly.  Juris has had a long, productive career in the arts, that didn’t seek critical attention or fame.  I can recall him often exclaiming in a slightly exasperated tone, as the American culture of art entered the 1990’s, that artists are only interested in fame rather than the work and craft of painting.  I suspect that if he saw this blog entry, he’d be somewhat uncomfortable with the publicity and focus on his work.

For the retrospective exhibit, the curator Dennis Gilbert asked many of Juris’s friends, former students and colleagues to write a short paragraph for the exhibition catalog about an incident, memory, anecdote, joke, etc. concerning me and Juris.  I wrote:

“At my class graduation dinner given by the USM Art Department, I received a book entitled “A Giacometti Portrait” by James Lord. Within the book was a handwritten signature from Juris and the message: “Wes – you are destined to meet Dorian Cow – Juris.”  Gary Trudeau, creator of the popular cartoon Doonesbury, had done an amusing drawing in the eighties of a cartoon cow looking into a mirror with the witty inscription below it: “Portrait of Dorian Cow”.  This of course was a burlesque nod to Oscar Wilde’s “Picture of Dorian Gray”.  

I regarded Juris’s written epigram in the book with considerable importance and thought to myself, “there must be some message for me here; one last lesson from my mentor before going out into the world.”  I speculated about the meaning of his note to me for quite some time.  Dorian Gray’s pursuit of beauty and hedonism in life resulted in the portrait of Gray materializing the ill effects of a life of debauchery and aging over the years.  The painted portrait revealed a wretched disfigurement of Dorian, which he eventually could not bear to look upon.  Trudeau’s Dorian Cow, in contrast to Wilde’s gothic horror story,  laughs at the themes contained in the original story and mocks Wilde’s Victorian tragedy.  I wondered, was my pursuit of beauty in painting going to lead me to a tragic disillusionment?  Had I too made some Faustian deal that would one day be my downfall?  Was this a prediction that one day I would truly learn to laugh despite injustice in life?  

It’s been twenty years since my graduation and I’m here to report that I still don’t know what the heck that inscription in my Giacometti book means.  Juris stays with you in that way.”

Juris resides in Portland, Maine with his wife of 43 years, Dr. Mara Ubans, professor of German classic languages.  Although Juris retires from USM in August of this year, his art and work in his other cultural organizations will continue.  The exhibit at USM is a beautiful illustration of what a life in the arts can be.

Written by Wes Freese

January 20, 2009 at 2:50 pm

Michele Valdez Photographs

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Some nauseatingly vibrant photographs by Michele Valdez here.  Valdez photographs colored christmas lights then composes patterns of the lights in Photoshop to create abstract visual imagery, much like Op Art paintings.  The photographs bear on painting, which is confirmed by the fact that Valdez also creates paintings.  Despite the use of lights in the photographs, there’s a darkness to the images.  Day-glo plastic lights flicker and shine and create snazzy patterns, but the overall effect of the colors leaves one green in the gills.  A fitting tribute to urban modern life.


Written by Wes Freese

January 16, 2009 at 2:40 am

Painting and Photography

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A new selection of paintings on my Paintings page here.  These works bring together photography and painting to create an image that deals with both imitative depiction and abstract, gestural mark making. Despite a photograph’s capability for unlimited manipulation, it still is regarded as a faithful portrayer of reality.  But the paint on top of the image possesses a materiality that contrasts with the “reality” being depicted in the photograph.  Combining the two creates a hybrid that is visually challenging in many ways.  The act of wiping the paint across the photographic image is an aggressive motion meant to establish primary importance of painting over photography.


Written by Wes Freese

January 12, 2009 at 4:03 pm

David Maisel’s Library of Dust

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David Maisel offers up another jarring suite of photographs entitled “Library of Dust” on his website, and at Lens Culture.  His photographs of oxidized and rusted canisters containing the cremated remains of patients from a state run psychiatric hospital in Oregon, who died there and whose family never collected upon death, are a richly colorful, yet stark collection of images representing a bureaucratic cataloging nightmare.  A creepy and tidy response to death of people who most likely suffered from mental illness brought about by the complexity of modern life.  I think of On Kawara’s work, only real and without artistic pretense.



Written by Wes Freese

January 5, 2009 at 2:28 pm

Judith Belzer Paintings

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I came across some images of paintings by Judith Belzer at the Room for Painting / Room for Paper website this weekend, and quickly went to Belzer’s website to view her work.  Her most recent painting series, entitled “The Inner Life of Trees”, is a gorgeous set of paintings.  Over time Belzer’s gaze has increasingly moved closer and closer to her subject matter.  These most recent paintings evidence someone who has completely given in to her muse, and who is adrift in a sea of beauty inherent in the patterns of nature.  These works recall Turner and Blake, but while those works were visually fantastic in their use of color, Belzer utilizes a cooler palette and rhythmic repetition of organic patterns.  Her palette of grays, ochres, siennas and viridian green is simply wonderful, and no doubt informed by photography.  While these works read like non-representational paintings, Belzer still identifies these works as landscape, which is understandable.  After years of painting, Belzer has come upon a singularly beautiful imagery in her painting.  I can’t wait to see what comes next from her.



Written by Wes Freese

January 5, 2009 at 10:11 am

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