Copying Caravaggio

August 30, 2013 § 1 Comment

Every year, I look forward to the end of the year student sale at Gage Academy Of Art. Not only is it fun to show my husband the works of art that result from my job as an art model (which are always out of our budget), but I love the prospect of finding an exciting piece at a really great price. Investing in the artist’s of the future is a beautiful experience. I wonder if my husband and I will end up like Herb and Dorothy Vogel – on a beer budget while living in a place where art rules the house.

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This year, I fell in love with Helen Bouchard’s value study of John The Baptist, by Caravaggio. The young boy looks decadent and satiated, nuzzled by a lamb that he embraces. In Helen’s simplified version the mastery of the composition truly comes to life. I can’t stop looking at the left foreshortened leg, and the way the pose circles around on itself.

My obsession with Caravaggio began with that study, which now hangs on our bedroom wall. imagesSince then, I noticed

at the museum, how Georges de la Tour was influenced by Caravaggio’s contrasting darks and lights. I read how Caravaggio was possibly influenced by the religious theatricals of his youth. Through his love for life study, he brought a realness to the characters that he depicted, which was previously unheard of. Sunburned skin, a deformity of a finger, an angel that actually touches St. Matthew. His scenes are caught in the middle of an action, not before or after, which was an influence on filmmakers like Martin Scorsese who captured real people of the streets in action with grit and humanity.

I decided to take a class this month called Copying the Masters: Caravaggio. On our first day, we were asked to choose a color copy of a Caravaggio painting to work from for the entirety of the class. I had gone in hoping to paint a Bacchus, but instead I was drawn to a brooding shepherd boy with the shadow of dark thoughts.

JohnTheBaptistWhen I got home, I realized I had picked a later version of John the Baptist. It seemed meant to be. John the Baptist was a messenger. I view myself as a messenger – though my messages are of an entirely opposite nature.

We prepped our canvases with a burnt sienna gesso (I had also pre-prepped with two coats of oil grounds which gives the canvas a smooth and slick base). We drew the basics with chalk, and then began with an under-painting of burnt sienna thinned with linseed oil, as we built up the lights and darks.

In the style of the masters, an oil painting begins with Burnt Sienna and Cremintz White, where the shading is developed. From there, the painting goes into grayscale. And then finally, the intense colors are glazed over the top. This is an extremely structured way of working, and I struggled not to rebel. I love color, and I impatiently added too much too soon. Oils are naturally translucent, so the style of the masters can almost seem like watercolor in the final stages.

Insight into the layering technique - by Mattia Preti

Insight into the layering technique – by Mattia Preti

Cremintz White is hard to find. The only line of paint I found that still carries this lead-based white is Winsor & Newton. It goes on silvery and thin, and is built up over many layers. Our teacher, Michael Lane, told us when they exhumed Caravaggio’s body, they found a high level of lead in his remains. Michael relayed how the 19th Century Russian artist, Fechin, thought nothing of licking his palette knife as he worked (for the perfect mixture of water and oil in saliva), double dipping as he spread paint across the canvas. Fechin spent a fair amount of time in the hospital for this toxic habit, but probably never gave it up. Michael has a few toxic habits of his own, never wearing gloves, and using his finger to push paint around the canvas – refreshingly old school. As for me, I wear vinyl gloves when I work.

I am learning a lot as I try not to struggle against the structure of the old masters. Generally, I am an independent learner. I’ve absorbed an enormous amount just from being a model, voyeuristically taking it all in as I watch from afar. Usually, I get paid to be there, so it’s hard to swallow how much I’ve spent to be a student. Interesting to be on the other end. Three hours go by so quickly, in comparison to when I’m working.

This summer, painting has become my escape from the pressures of having my writing published and “out there” in the public eye. I’ve learned that whatever happens with released work, it has no real bearing on my actual life, and what really matters is my own daily personal craft. Painting has reminded me of that. It’s brought me back to the happy place. In front of a canvas, time disappears. Six hours seems like one. My brain goes into full focus. I get lost in line, form, and color while playing Beethoven. I don’t have to do it, but I love to do it. It soothes me.

Writing is something I have to do. It’s who I am. I never grow tired of it. Ideas push to the surface and flounder until they find expression. I have a message to share that I’m compelled to spread, like John the Baptist who may or may not have existed. He’s a legend. Eating locusts and wild honey, wearing camel fur, subsisting in the dessert. He seems to be my archetype this summer. A summer where I’m coming to terms with the Bible as literature rather than as the facts I was taught as a child.

Strangely enough, today I rescued a locust-like insect from the elevator, and who knows why, I released it onto my balcony (where it disappeared before eating the garden). For a while, I watched it scratch itself with it back legs, and clean its front feet. Tiny little eyeballs, and off kilter antennae. Perfect yellow green – Terre Verte mixed with Indian Yellow.

To understand Caravaggio more, I picked up Caravaggio – A Life Sacred And Profane. The book was less about his life, and more about his paintings and the time in which he lived. He lived from 1571 – 1610, around the time of Shakespeare. He spent much of his life on the run for violent crimes, and found success through patrons in the church. He expressed his sensuality through Biblical themes. His models were courtesans, workshop assistants, and painter friends, all posing as the elevated figures worshipped in the Catholic church. I like the irony of his models. Sensuous boys and prostitutes, bawdy people of the streets – some who eventually found fame in their trade.

BacchusIn Caravaggio paintings, life does not imitate art, art imitates life. A thought so
scandalous, that his sunburned Bacchus disappeared in the collection of the Medici (so much was the embarrassment of a peasant in a painting) resurfacing 400 years later in the basement of the Uffizi.

Every other painter of Caravaggio’s era has faded over time. He was an embarrassment in his lifetime. But artists ever since have been influenced by his style. A style that came from within, and certainly wasn’t taught by his limp teachers. He sent the message of what painting could be, and no one could turn back after what they saw.

Now that the air is growing cooler, I am ready to be fully immersed in my writing again. But my journey with Caravaggio has brought me back to painting for good. The two seem to be in perfect balance. Writing searches the brain for problems and answers, while painting releases the brain, disappearing into meditation.

Beyond Gender

August 4, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Around eighteen, I read Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, and absolutely hated it. I don’t remember what it was about, I just know that I found her voice irritating. But lately, friends have been raving about her. One said that To The Lighthouse is so much a part of who she is, that she rereads it every year. Another raved about Orlando, saying that with my interest in gender studies, it’s a must-read.

So I bought both books at warehouse sales, and dove into Orlando. I was surprised to find that I hate Woolf’s voice just as much now as I did back then. I haven’t arrived at some place of maturity and understanding where I can finally “get” her. Woolf has wit, and some stunning observations, but she talks in circles, and goes for pages without saying anything. I never find the intensity of her person within her writing.

A mock biography, Orlando begins as a typical spoiled nobleman, the darling of Queen Elizabeth in the sixteenth century. Through the course of three hundred years, Orlando never dies, and while on an ambassadorship in Turkey, he mysteriously transforms into a woman.

“She remembered how, as a young man, she had insisted that women must be obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled. ‘Now I shall have to pay in my own person for these desires,’ she reflected; ‘for women are not (judging by my own short experience of the sex) obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled by nature. They can only attain these graces, without which they may enjoy none of the delights of life, by the most tedious discipline (Woolf, 156-157).'”

Despite the tedious hours spent in front of the mirror, very little changes about Orlando’s life. She retains her independence and remains devoted to poetry. She finds the Victorian obsession with marriage and romantic love amusing, and eventually gets swept up with the times when she falls in love and marries a sailor, who is never around much anyway.

DSCN3409Most enjoyable are the fictional photographs of Orlando. I was struck to find, that as a woman, Orlando has similar features to my own (though with a more sloped forehead). Woolf’s taste in women was from the standpoint of the 1920’s, and I think my looks are more suited for the style back then.

The book had me wishing that Woolf could have lived for three hundred years (like Orlando), to witness the world in which we live today. Men change into women, and women into men everyday. It’s so common, that there are days when I pass at least five transgendered people in an afternoon walk.

There is the middle-aged man turned woman with a red bob, straw hat, and crisp pink dress shirt tucked into acid washed mom jeans above white sneakers; the one with scraggly black hair and bright pink lipstick selling papers on the corner of Broadway and Thomas; and the one who looks like a New York Doll in really precarious platform shoes and long flowing dresses with ruffles. Then there are all the people who have had so much surgery, and such mastery of the art, that we’ll never know unless they tell us.

I’ve written before about how some of the artists of my generation believe that gender no longer exists. Part of the idea comes from how much has been done in regards to gay rights and women’s rights. But if gender doesn’t really exist, then why do people feel so strongly identified with an opposite gender, to the point of spending thousands of dollars, in painful transition, to get there? And when it comes to equal rights for all, we’re not quite as far along as we say we are.

The truth comes out on a Friday night at the bar. I used to work at Teatro Zinzanni, a local circus dinner theater. Sunday nights were like Fridays, and every week, performers and servers would all go out for an end of the week celebration. But the gays and lesbians never wanted to join us for karaoke at a bar called Ozzie’s.

I found out why a few weeks ago. It was our friend Oscar’s birthday. Oscar is from Peru, and is an openly affectionate person. Everyone was a few shots in. My husband, Michael, kissed a male friend on the neck as a joke. The guy behind them had a look of shock and horror on his face. Oscar was hugging all of his friends.

Security approached us, and actually said, “No guy on guy action here. You have to leave.”

I really couldn’t believe what was happening. I felt completely disgusted with the people working at Ozzie’s, and I’m never going back, not that I ever really wanted to be there to begin with. Meanwhile, it was no problem for another friend of ours to practically molest women on the dance floor.

A couple of weeks later, Michael was out for another birthday.¬† A large guy stepped on a woman’s foot, so she pushed him. He came back with, “Oh really? You want me to put my big black dick up your ass?”

Here a man took a nonsexual argument, and used his sexual power to intimidate a woman who just wanted respect for her personal space.

If you’re gay (or presumed gay), and out at a bar, you might get kicked out for showing affection. If you’re a woman, the fact that you’re just standing there makes you fair game for a random male stranger to molest you or threaten you sexually.

I should mention, that the one time I was in a gay bar in the last two years, a young gay man did his best to intimidate me to get the hell out, by getting extremely up close and personal. So it all comes full circle.

Suffice to say, I rarely ever go out drinking anymore (though it used to be my favorite pastime). So when I go out now, I’m amazed by how completely stupid everyone gets. All of the impulses that people hide by day come to the raging surface at night. Nights become a place of conflict and aggression. The rich against the poor, the door guys verses the patrons, men verses women, gay verses straight, black verses white, young verses old.

“No passion is stronger in the breast of man than the desire to make others believe as he believes. Nothing so cuts at the root of his happiness and fills him with rage as the sense that another rates low what he prizes high (Woolf, 149).”

If in an instant, you became the person standing across from you, what would that reveal to you? What would change? Could we all get along?

I’m not an idealist, but I feel tired of all the conflict I experience on a daily basis. I live on a busy street, and working in building management we are fully aware of all the crime that goes down. In the last week, we’ve dealt with three different incidents. On the morning of July 5th, an untreated neighbor behind us was shot by the police for brandishing a Glock from his window. I’m never going to understand everyone, but my emotions are exhausted from feeling what everyone around me feels. Sometimes, I just want to escape.
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“… while fame impedes and constricts, obscurity wraps about a man like a mist; obscurity is dark, ample and free; obscurity lets the mind take its way unimpeded (Woolf, 104).”

Obscurity is nice for about a week, but then it’s good to get back to reality. I would just like a little bit of distance from the reality I live in. I feel that I am going through an enormous shift, and I have no idea where it will lead me. With it comes exhaustion and hopefully transformation. I am becoming something beyond what I am today; like Orlando, who sees beyond both genders, and knows that she is just a poet either way; a poet who loves solitude.

I’m not going to fill my coat pockets with rocks and drown myself, like Virginia Woolf did at the onset of World War II. She was going mad, and the only goodness left for her, was the love of her husband.

I believe that out of the worst, comes the best. If you watch nature closely, you see this happening over and over again. A natural disaster can unify people like nothing else can. A grit of sand can irritate an oyster into making a pearl. And when you send a radical new thought out into the world, it’s often met with hatred. But slowly over time, hatred abates, and new ideas become old ideas that are finally accepted. Life is a process.

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