I’m not much of a reader any more; not the way I was when I was young when I could devour three or four books a week. Now, if I have free time, I want to do artwork. Reading seems such an indulgence. But I still have my favorite authors and I keep returning to their work, finding something new in them all the time. At the top of my list of “serious” writers is Italo Calvino, an Italian writer of magic realist short stories, usually not my favorite literary form. Unfortunately he died about ten years ago and it’s hard for me to accept that there won’t be a new book every year or so for me to devour.
My favorite book by Calvino is probably the most unreadable of his work, “Invisible Cities,” an imaginary conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan in which Polo describes the incredible (imaginary) cities he encountered on his journey from Venice to China in the 14th century. It’s not “light” reading and two or three “cities” at a time are about all I can absorb (there are about a hundred of them in the book.) For example, he describes cities made of cobwebs; cities of dust, thin cities, cities of the dead. What appeals to me most about these phantoms is the visual images they invoke. The artist in me responds to the surrealism in Calvino’s work, allows my imagination to take over and create paintings in my head.
In Post #19, I described the drawings I did many years ago from my daughter’s 11th story window on West End Avenue in New York City. Oddly enough, the view was actually quite interesting, full of fanciful rooftop structures: water towers on spindly legs, pergola -like arched elevator shafts, stepped facades and so on. When I went back to the drawings a few months ago, I saw them as surrealist, dream states, more like the work of DeChirico or Magritte than copies of actual buildings. I turned out around eight oil paintings based on these drawings and lately, I’ve been pushing the images even further away from visual reality, much like Calvino’s “Invisible Cities.”
I wish I could say that this was deliberate on my part, but it wasn’t. I start with a piece of charcoal and an empty, brown-stained canvas. Out of my subconscious come all these buildings; often just empty, stage-set facades. The perspective is off; nothing goes to a proper vanishing point, but somehow, there’s a visual reality to them. When I finish, I put human beings in the paintings, although I rarely saw them when I did my original drawings. What are they doing, you ask? I don’t actually know. They are like DeChirico’s mysterious figures, only without the elongated shadows he loved to use. When I’m finished painting the buildings and the sky, I cut little figures out of black craft paper and move them around until I’m satisfied with the composition, Then I re-create them in paint. Let the viewer decide what they’re doing up there, all alone on the rooftops. Art needs mystery; it shouldn’t give up its secrets easily.