Friday, December 8, 2017

POST #151: PRESERVING PORSCHES


I know very few people who are comfortable speaking in public. They might be articulate in private conversation, but freeze up when faced with an audience. It’s usually from lack of experience but over the years, I have known dozens of people who speak in public all the time and yet are terrible at it.  Without bragging, just being honest, speaking in public is one of the few things in life I’m really good at. Even when I don’t know what I am talking about, I manage to give a convincing performance and people are always telling me “how much they learned.”

7'x7' Vision Created by the Overhead Projector
I honed my craft in the gulag of the South Bronx when I was in my early twenties, teaching art to fidgety, inner-city twelve year olds at Junior High School #98.  I never quite recovered from the experience. They were worse than any Comedy Club audience; you held their attention or you died (figuratively speaking). Out of necessity, I became a performer, a mesmerizer of the highest order. The quality of the artwork produced by my thirty classes per week (yes, I taught thirty classes with thirty five or more students every week) was awesome.  Once you unleashed the creative potential of my semi-literate subjects, there was no telling what would emerge. The main problem was that I had to first establish “order” in the class, not so easy since I was not much older than my students and far less worldly. I accomplished this by bluffing them into thinking I actually had some power. In the end, I loved them; they loved me and the work they turned out was remarkably good. I taught them they could succeed at something and they taught me how to hold the attention of an audience, no matter how rowdy or disinterested. When I returned to teaching a couple of decades later, it was on the college level and I couldn’t get over how the class sat quietly and wrote down my every word. But the techniques I had learned teaching Junior High School served me well; I was, as they often put it, “the most interesting teacher they had.” Little did they know what had gone into acquiring that skill.

7'x7' Vision Created by the Overhead Projector
About fifteen years ago, my daughter who lives in New York City found herself on a city-wide preservation council that put together an annual forum at the New York Historical Society. The council had decided that the theme of that year’s meeting would be  “Preservation in the Suburbs” and they were looking for speakers. “How about my mom?” my daughter asked. All heads turned in disbelief. “Your MOM???” Eve proceeded to explain my role in preservation in Fairfield County and, based on her assurances, I was invited to participate. It turned out that there were about 300 in the audience, not a familiar face (except for my anxious daughter), but having once faced down students from Junior High School 98 in the South Bronx, I was confident I could handle the situation. I knew my subject well and threw in lots of laughs. My opening line was: “Preservation in the suburbs is an oxymoron.” The speaker who came after me muttered in my ear something about my being a tough act to follow.

The subject of public speaking came up recently when a friend’s husband parked his Porsche convertible in my garage for the winter. “I have a great Porsche story for you,” I offered, and it went as follows:

One year I was asked to give a talk to the Greenwich Garden Club about a book I had written entitled “Preserving Porches.” I had given the same slide talk to clubs all along the east coast. This was their annual dinner meeting, held at a posh country club. Husbands were invited. At the pre dinner cocktail party, I got into conversation with a stray husband and told him I was the guest speaker. “What’s your topic?” he asked. “Preserving Porches” I replied. He looked puzzled. ”Why is the Garden Club interested in cars?” he asked, assuming the topic was “Preserving Porsches.” I thanked him for giving me my opening line; it broke the ice, made everybody laugh and I have used it ever since.





Friday, November 10, 2017

POST #150: ONLY AN ONLY CHILD…..

My late husband (he died ten years ago) was a Clinical Child Psychologist. He would walk into my studio, take a look at the cast of characters I was working on and declare: “Only an only child would do this!” And he was right. Growing up, I longed for brothers and sisters, not realizing until much later that all my friends who had brothers and sisters considered them pains in the neck and would have gladly been ‘only’ children. I think about his comment a lot now that I live and work alone.

"Celestial Figure"
2017 oil on canvas 68"x44"
For many years, I used artwork to create “company,” people to talk to. Because of that, the figures I paint, while not realistic in a photographic sense are very “alive”; that’s my goal. They have to “talk to me,” make eye contact.  It’s a magical process and I honestly don’t know how I do it: at some point I’m looking at the figure I have just drawn on the canvas and that figure is LOOKING RIGHT BACK AT ME! It’s weird! We make eye contact and TALK to one another. (No, I am not going mad from being alone) I used to fill my studio with paintings of people to make up for the siblings I never had and now it’s for the friends and family I have lost.


"Street People"
oil on canvas 55"x24" each
For the past year or two, I’ve largely abandoned figurative work for architectural fantasies, imaginary urban landscapes built on years of teaching art history and living in New York. When people do appear, they are shadowy, mysterious figures that haunt the rooftops, often astride imaginary pre-historic beasts, as if the city were a giant painted cave. Every once in a while I long to come back to the real world and do some ‘people painting’. The figures I am working on now are a warm up for a series of paintings of 125th Street in Harlem that I plan to work on this winter.  I started exploring Harlem over a half century ago when I attended the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan on 135th St. At the time, it wasn’t the best neighborhood in New York, but it was definitely among the most visually interesting. Then came the drug plague and Harlem was out of bounds - especially after dark. Fortunately, it’s once again a safe and colorful place. I can walk around with my unobtrusive IPhoto camera and nobody notices they’re being preserved for posterity. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

POST # 149: Starters and Finishers


I once had a friend who owned a highly successful, state-of-the-art engineering firm in Greenwich. He employed about 40 people, mostly brilliant eccentrics conventional companies would never hire. He once told me that they could go for a year or two without producing anything, but then, all of a suddenly come up with an idea that more than justified putting up with them. He also understood that his employees fitted into two categories he referred to as “starters and finishers.” The creative types (like me) lost interest once the idea was worked out. In order to get something done you needed to pair them with “finishers,” who were patient and detail oriented but incapable of originality

I am definitely a “starter.” I’m filled with creative ideas.  I am capable of making new and original connections. The problem is that once the creative part is over, I’m ready to move on. This leaves me with lots of brilliant beginnings (if I have to say so myself,) However, the past year or two, I have been lucky enough to latch on to a couple of wonderful “finishers,” assistants who are perfectly happy to develop my ideas. They do not consider themselves artists but are good at what they do and I wish I could afford to hire them full time.


But meanwhile, what do I do with my attic full of starts that never went anywhere. I’m like a novelist with unfinished novels in a desk drawer. If you like, I’ll give you a tour of the attic. There’s a men’s bathhouse series consisting of 4’ paper cut-outs of unsavory naked men with removable towels around their genitalia. There’s a Seven Deadly Sins series of paintings (incomplete, a few sins are missing.) There’s a wall of cardboard boxes, assemblages of local street scenes and people.  There’s a stack of giant cardboard figures of the developer types I deal in my non-art life along with their thuggish  “entourages.” They are waiting for me to come up with a Brechtian play for them to perform. Plus, I have a box of cardboard masks (perfect for Halloween), and a rack of marked-down paper clothing from a thrift shop. And, I forgot to mention the giant Xeroxed photo enlargements of metal detritus from Vulcan’s Scrap Metal yard along with the small assemblage collages I did from pieces of metal left behind on the ground. And, while I’m thinking about it, what will become of all my theatrical pieces for the overhead projector? There’s the Lower East Side one, and one I call “Dance to the Music” where the audience gets up and dances with the projections. Plus, I’ve got 200 paper plates and cups with faces on them stored in the studio cupboard,

 HELP!!!


Friday, September 15, 2017

POST # 148: A CAT’S TALE



A couple of months ago I acquired a new cat. Her name is Ellie and she is a beautiful spotted Calico, white with splotches of caramel and black. I’ve owned cats for over four decades but just assumed that the cat who died about four years ago, was my final feline.  When I was in my early twenties and still living at home, I asked my mother if I could have a cat. Intuiting my underlying motivation she said: “Get yourself one on two legs.” And I eventually did, a 6’3, 230 pound cat followed by three, two-legged kittens, eager to be cuddled and stroked, like cats. When we moved to a house in the country the children begged for a cat so I answered an ad in the local Shopper offering “free kittens.” I had never owned a pet before and nervously asked if I would have a problem raising it. The cat owner, noting my litter, laughed ”If you can raise three children, you can definitely handle a kitten.”

And so began a long line of cats, mostly offspring of Puma, my best friend Dina’s coal-black Persian who produced two to three litters a year.  Dina had a foolproof method of insuring that Puma’s kittens would be adoptable. She interviewed all Puma’s suitors when they came to call, enticing the good-looking studs while chasing away the uglies. We ended up with two of them, long-furred beauties named “Cat Stevens” (after the rock star who lived up the road) and “Paws” (huge white paws.)

 The last of our family cats was a domestic shorthair, Lily, beautiful but feral. She never allowed anyone to pick her up; you could only stroke her at arm’s length. In fact, we never could get her to the vet in the 21 years we owned her.  “The Vet? Not me!” and she would disappear for days until we gave up and put the cat carrier back in the attic. However, she was there for me when I needed her after my husband died, and, in gratitude, I do not begrudge her all those years of Friskies. After Sam’s death, I would frequently wake in the middle of the night, crying. She would hear me no matter where she was, rush to my bed, climb in next to me and put her head under my hand so I could stroke her until I calmed down and went back to sleep. Then she would leave, her job done.

After Lily died, a decided I didn’t want another cat. Too much work. And besides, given my age, what would happen to it if I died or got sick, My friend Meg offered to take the cat if the time came when I couldn’t care for it and another friend told me about a non-profit cat adoption service a “saintly” woman runs out of her house in Springdale. It’s like a matchmaking service, okCupid for cats. After you contact her, she e-mails you photos of the cats she has for adoption. You pick the one or ones you might be interested in and she will bring them to your house to see if you are “compatible.” I chose Ellie from a half dozen prospects; she came to visit and ended up staying, the best, most intelligent and loving cat I have ever had, a perfect studio companion, napping inside a gilt frame on the drafting table, watching me while I paint.

She and I recently had a battle royal over whether or not she could go outside. It seems my next door neighbor was accusing her of leaving paw prints on the top of his cherished Mercedes convertible. He said that if she scratched the cloth top he was going to make me pay $6,000 for a new one. Apparently, he had already called the police about her and next time he saw her on his property, he would tell them to cart her off to the Animal Shelter He also informed me that he owned a gun for protection against “burglars” (was he referring to my cat?)


Like it or not, Ellie is now an unhappy “indoor” cat, constantly racing me to the door begging to be let out. We’re just both going to have to live with that. If I only could train her to critique my art work, things would be perfect!
Paw up (painting good). Paw down (get the turpentine.)


Renee Kahn

Friday, August 25, 2017

POST #147: MEAT ON MY BONES

I was having Sunday brunch at Curley’s Diner with two menfriends when the subject got around to optimal ratios for women’s bodies. One of them had previously sent us an e-mail with a chart. Apparently, the determining factor, both for health and attractiveness, is not a huge bosom or how much you weigh, but the ratio of waist to hips.  From a childbearing point of view, that makes a lot of sense and if you look at “ideal” women from Ancient Greece to modern times, it’s the hip to waist ratio that counts.  Anyhow, I got around to telling them the story of a lunch date I had a while back with a former (thankfully former) male friend. As we were leaving the restaurant, he whispered in my ear that he liked me much better now that I had “meat on my bones.” We won’t get into what I thought about the meat on his bones!

Growing up, I always wanted to be well endowed, have long lines of lusting adolescent boys outside my door. It was hard to be slender in an era where the reigning goddesses (Marilyn Monroe, Anita Ekberg, Jane Russell) all wore DD bras. During my late teens and until I started having babies in my mid twenties, I was 5’6” and never weighed more than 114 pounds, great for slinking around or modeling clothes, but not for being a “goddess,” my ultimate goal. And that may explain why I love to paint ample women, the kind that hang out at Curley’s Diner and struggle to get their weight down from 180 to a meager 150 pounds.

Artists have always liked models with “meat on their bones”; skinny doesn’t translate very well onto canvas. What would Titian or Rubens ever see in the hipless, belly-less “clothes hangers” (with surgically augmented breasts) in fashion today?  Would Renoir ever look twice at a woman in a Size 6 dress? In past eras, thinness meant famine, an insufficient supply of food. Today, the reverse is true; the upper classes strive to be as waiflike as possible, eat as little as possible while the Working Poor (most of the country) verges on obesity and the serious medical issues that go with it.

I like myself a little on the “ample” side; it gives me what my late husband, a Clinical Psychologist, used to call “Body Armor.” It was a term psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich used to describe people (like Donald Trump) who bulk up to appear invincible but are actually quite fragile. They acquire thick bodies as a protective layer of defense. You see it a lot in men who radically alter their physiques by lifting weights. As for myself, I don’t miss being 114 pounds with a 24”waist. Just as I enjoy painting “ample” women, I personally like the comfort I get from having some “meat on my bones.”  When my voluptuous sister-in-law who was built like one of those goddesses on an Indian temple would try to lose weight, her husband would whine: “You’re taking the joy out of my life!” I don’t plan to take the joy out of anyone’s life, especially my own.


Friday, August 11, 2017

POST #146: Art On the Bowery

I’m no longer much of a museumgoer. It’s not that I have anything against museums, they’re important educational institutions, but it’s a case of too much ‘been there, done that.’ However, if I don’t linger too long or go too often, a museum visit can be enjoyable and worthwhile.

My friend Elena recently offered to drive me to New York to a “museum of my choice” and I was happy to accept. I suggested we go to the New Museum on the Bowery, having just received an enthusiastic report about the work of Carol Rava an Italian woman artist who died two years ago at the age of 95.  It’s hard to categorize her since she’s basically an “outsider” artist, but a “faux” outsider, a highly sophisticated one influenced by several important 20th century movements including Dada and Arte Povera. Her elegantly framed water colors (frankly, I found the frames more interesting than the art), are uninhibited, scatological, and obsessed with sexuality and bodily excrement, She was quite a character. During her long life she knew ‘everybody important’ in mid 20th c art and, now that she is dead, is finally being recognized.  The best part for me, I have to confess, was the way her work was framed.

I’ve reached the point in my life where I don’t want to be influenced by anybody else’s art! It’s just a distraction. What I do get from seeing other artists’ work are ideas on technique and presentation: how to frame and organize the images, what new materials I can use; basically, ‘the tricks of the trade.’ In Rava’s case, the frames were more interesting than the art they enclosed, transforming what would otherwise be slightly obscene water color sketches into museum quality art. Where did her gallery find them? They looked as if they had been hand carved back in the 1920s. Something else I saw in this show helped me figure out how I could frame some oversize linoleum blocks I carved decades ago. I’ve been struggling for years for a way to display them and found the perfect solution at Rava’s show.

The other exhibit I found interesting (for similar reasons) was the work of a West Coast artist (another woman, but much younger and still living), Kaari Upson. What interested me most was her roomful of oversized pencil drawings on sheets of 8’x5’white paper,  I could make those large charcoal drawings I’ve been doing on brown wrapping paper that size! Then maybe the New Museum would give me a show! 

On our way out, I paid my obligatory visit to the bookstore, filled as usual with overpriced and poorly reproduced tomes on artists you barely (or never) heard of.  I doubt if anyone ever read past Page 5 of anything on the shelves; I no longer even try. But again, something practical and useful came out of the visit. The store had a glass case containing a set of ceramic dinner plates designed by artists of minor repute. As my readers know, I’ve been ‘making plates’ for a couple of years now, only mine are paper and don’t go in the dishwasher. Every once in a while, someone suggests I find a place (like China) to get them produced as real ceramics, and maybe (the Holy Grail I’ll never reach) make some money off them. What shocked me about the Museum Store’s plates was their price. A set of six was priced at $600 (reduced to $520. for museum members). Could you eat off them? Not at those prices!

As Elena and I walked out of the museum into the bright summer sun and the noise and disorder of the street with its hawkers and hippies and Chinese storekeepers, I looked up at the awning on the rundown store next door. It had beautiful rust patina-ed iron gears that moved the awning up and down but looked like something Kurt Schwitters would have assembled in the 1920s.  On aesthetic quality alone, it beat anything we had seen in the museum.


Renee Kahn

Friday, July 28, 2017

POST #145: LOST IN TRANSLATION

I’ve discovered that there are very few artists who can write intelligibly about their art. Some of them don’t want to give away what they consider “trade secrets,” while most are simply unable to explain what is largely an intuitive process that takes place on an unconscious level. That, however, doesn’t stop anyone from trying, unfortunately leaving the poor reader befuddled by lots of verbiage signifying practically nothing.

It’s even worse when the writing is translated from one language to another. Recently, I have been trying to read some of the copious writings on art theory by the Russian/German artist Vasily Kandinsky. I remember my struggles with his major opus, “Point and Line to Plane;” I’ve tried (unsuccessfully) to read it several times. I think I keep at it because I like the way the title sounds in German: “Punkt und Linie zu Flache.” It’s not for the faint of heart. I presume it was originally written in Russian (his native language), then translated into German and then, in 1947 with someone’s help, into English. The multiple translations, to say nothing of the inherent complexity of his ideas with their basis in Theosophy and Spiritualism, guarantees the reader a tough time. Writing about art is always difficult, but when translated multiple times, it’s like telephone tag where someone whispers something in your ear, you pass it along to the person next to you, they do the same and what comes out has no resemblance to the original message.

I am sitting here at the computer with a pile of art books next to me. I’ve got Kandinsky’s “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” (his first.) I’ve got several books on or about Paul Klee (a favorite) including his “Pedagogical Sketchbook” used for teaching art at the Bauhaus, translated into convoluted English by Sybil Moholy-Nagy. Let me give you one example, the title of a chapter picked at random:

“Chapter 1, Section 9: The natural organism of movement as kinetic will and kinetic execution (supra-material) (illustrated with a drawing of bones, muscles and tendons).”
I have no idea who is at fault, Klee or his translator; probably both. I also dug out a book from my library containing a translated copy of an essay by Klee on Modern Art, written while he was teaching at the Bauhaus.  I’d like to quote from the introduction by Herbert Read, a prominent art historian in the mid1900s. 
The Bolds are mine

Nevertheless, the reader must be prepared for difficulties. These are partly due to the cryptic, aphoristic nature of the writing; partly to the structure of the German language (aha!), which is more abstract or conceptual than is English, and therefore cannot always be exactly translated; but chiefly to the inherent difficulty of the subject. An art like painting is itself a language – a language of form and color in which complex intuitions are expressed. The necessity for the plastic* symbols of the art of painting is to some extent dictated by the inadequacy of our linguistic means of communication. To explain art, therefore, is often an effort to give words to nameless processes, to actions otherwise confined to instinctive gestures.

P.S. * I hate the term “plastic.” I presume it doesn’t refer to a polycarbonate. Art writers love to use it when they’re stuck for a word. A friend who taught art at a prominent university for decades says she never understood it either, but “was afraid to ask for an explanation.”

RK




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