Warning: this post has pictures of bare-naked ladies.
My newest piece, Boudoir II, may be called something of a "boudoir painting"- a bit of campy fun for me. I find myself drawn to appropriating and playing with traditional forms of displaying the female form.
What is a boudoir painting?
It is a painting of an object of desire, for the purposes of private viewing, rather that public display. In other words, for the bedroom, not the drawing room.
However prurient the motivations creating and owning such art may have been, boudoir painting has an august history, and are often considered to be some of the worlds greatest works of art.
The examples of boudoir paintings shown below differ from Boudoir II in one important way: my lady has got clothes on. But what it does have in common with them are: a prominent female figure, who usually addresses the viewer directly, in an intimate setting, that includes props that infer meaning. The trappings and props create a narrative, and often, the artworks raison d'etre.
At any rate, the inclusion of "Venus" in the title provides the necessary bona fides that made this an acceptable work to own.
"Orientalism" is another way that western painters could legitimize depicting the female nude. Imperialism and colonialism created a blank canvas upon which a European artist could depict sensuality not permitted by polite society in Europe.
Grand Odalisque by Ingres is one of the most famous examples of this.
Interesting fact: the word "Odalisque" means an enslaved woman, or a concubine in a harem. It's French, derived from the Turkish word, odalık, which derived from the word oda, meaning "room". As in, you can't leave your room.
Then things started to get really interesting.
In 1865, Edward Manet painted "Olympia". It was transparently referring to The Venus of Urbino, shown above, but with oppositional elements. It was shocking to society at the time, not because she was naked, but because of her frank, direct gaze, and accoutrements that indicated she was a prostitute, not a goddess or an exotic "other". She is depicted as a woman in charge of her sexuality, not a receptive, docile plaything. (An interesting and related subject is the difference between "nude" and "naked" in traditional art- but that is for another blog post!)
Though the veil may have been ripped off the pretense of female nudity, the racist depiction of her black maid, who literally disappears into the background, was entirely conventional.
For some interesting background about both of the models in this painting, go to these articles: Victorine Meurent and Laure.
As time went on, the ability to mass produce imagery developed, so the boudoir picture moved from the salons of the privileged few to the Everyman. Depictions of nudity, and specifically female nudity, became more and more acceptable in fine art and in popular culture.
For a great example of this, check out Vixen Pin Up Photography, whose tag-line is "Be the Girl of Your Dreams"
In 1975, Laura Mulvey, feminist film and culture critic coined the phrase "The Male Gaze" to unpack the phenomena of the preponderance of female nudes in visual culture.
In 1985, an anonymous group of female artists called The Guerrilla Girls formed to fight sexism and racism within the art world.
So, what does this all mean? I don't pretend to be particularly enlightened when it comes to feminism and art. I am still very beholden to The Male Gaze myself. But part of being an artist is following where our inspiration leads us. My relationship to sexualized images of women is an inexorable part of who I am. The question is, what do I do with it? How does it reflect my individuality? Does it resonate with others, and if so, how?
Whenever I want to relax, I turn on the Science Channel to watch Unearthed, or Mysteries of the Abandoned.
I have two magazine subscriptions (Archaeological Institute of America, and Current World Archeology) and look forward to them like a kid waiting for his Captain Midnight Secret Decoder Ring to arrive in the mail.
On my last vacation I brought books to read and some drawing materials. One book in particular grabbed me and wouldn't let go; The Sutton Hoo Story by Martin Carver. I felt moved to produce drawings inspired by what I learned and saw.
I find myself so fascinated by archeology that, at some point, I may create an entirely new body of work. It's all very speculative, but it is very exciting for me, and I wanted to share it now.
What is Sutton Hoo?
It's a burial site in England, with many types of burials, from royal barrows to gallows graveyard, dating from the 6th to 7th centuries. They appear as mounds on a flat landscape, next to the River Deben. There is a really great movie based on a novel, both called The Dig that dramatizes the excavation of Mound 1, where some of the most impressive and beautiful artifacts ever found in Britain were discovered.
But while I like jewels and treasures, it is the dirt and bones that really intrigue me.
My next sketch was of another, very different type of grave.
After the region had converted to Christianity, this sacred ground, populated with rich burial mounds for esteemed community leaders, was used as a place to execute convicted criminals. A gallows was erected on one of the mounds, and the site is littered with shallow graves of the disgraced and condemned.
But the thing that makes it all the more more fascinating, is that there is actually no body there at all. The acidic soil of the area consumes organic material.
It's sad, it's haunting and it's beautiful.
This is a rough idea of what I might do. It is a composite image of things from the famous Mound 1. Below the sketch are images from the book that I have woven into the sketch.
Mound 1 was covering a large ship. Within the hull of the ship there was a wooden burial chamber, containing a coffin and body, and many stunningly valuable grave goods. It is one of the most famous archeological finds in history.
But, like the "sand men", the actual ship, chamber, and body have long since dissolved. But the wood of the ships hull, again, changed the make up of the sand, and what was left was a ghostly impression of a ship, along with the corroded iron rivets, in long, graceful, curving lines.
The third image is a schematic map of the area, with black dots depicting the location of various burial mounds, and the three hypothetical routes by which the mourners transported the ship from the River Deben, up the bank, to the burial site, to inter the deceased.
I'm really not sure where this is headed. It's very exciting and a little scary.
I will continue with my current series of art based on film noir until it feels right to commence on this new path.
Maybe I never will get to it, or maybe I will start next week.
Arvie Smith (born 1938) is a nationally recognized African American painter based in my hometown of Portland, Oregon.
There is a nice little bio of him here on the Hallie Ford Museum website, where he is having an exhibition from January 22- March 26th, 2022.
Smith's work is so, so, so many things.
The figures in his paintings shift from being vivid individuals, to embodying biting racist tropes, and back again. He celebrates Black culture and tradition, and in the same image crams racist symbols from the larger, white dominated culture. These images live side by side in the same painting, which is what I imagine it may be like for African Americans every day, all day long.
Seeing these paintings on your tiny phone or desk top will in no way indicate what it is like to see them in person. They fairly leap off the wall at you, and they seem to pulse with color and light.
His website is here:www.arviesmith.com
She glances out the back window at a waiting yellow taxi. Who is it that pursues her and why?
This is a piece that went through many changes. Originally I had multiple people in the street scene as if there where a bunch of people milling around. But as things developed I could see the figures were just a distraction from the real drama. I even considered taking out the figure near the door and just leaving the car- I still don’t know if I made the right choice. Don’t be surprised if you see another version of this one. (I often feel compelled to do certain images again and again.)
This one was just really fun. I loved working with the street light creating a cone of a lighter color. The back window of her vehicle creates a frame within a frame, and the dark color flows into her silhouetted profile and the buildings on the street. I tried to make a contrast with the bright yellow, the cool watercolor blues, and the flat dark brown/black.
Keep your eye open for a woodcut version of this piece!
In conversation about classic film noir, a common subject is that actors and actresses of color were relegated into narrow stereotyped roles, often as domestic servants of white protagonists. But of course, this didn’t just happen in the movies, it happened in real life, too. African Americans had limited opportunities and were often employed as domestics in white households. What individuality was denied or hidden?
And... who knows what she may know about her employers…?
Today is the last day of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. In celebration of this, I am featuring Marc Chagall.
His subject matter is wide and free-wheeling, and although he was not a practicing Jew, he wove images of the memories of his Hasidic upbringing in Belarus when he was young.
I love the air of mystery, sadness, joy, romance and spiritualism that his work combines. Maybe someday I will get there, too!
I'm on vacation, and I'm having a wonderful time. It's a paradise. Beautiful room, white sand beach, gorgeous view.
And yet, I find myself having a difficult time relaxing entirely. I'm relaxing, but not completely relaxed. I find that I am suffering from a case of the "Shoulds".
Here are a list of my "Shoulds":
- I really need to take advantage of my time here!
- I should make a drawing or painting everyday.
- I should keep posting and staying engaged on social media.
- I should NOT post, and disengage completely.
- I should go I to a deep state of contemplation so I can start developing concepts and imagery for my next body of work.
- I should start collecting words and images for my next body of work.
- I should do paintings of the coastline so I can include coastal scenes in my next body of work.
- Furthermore, I should barely eat anything, so I will still feel okay in my bathing suit.
- I should drink less/more.
- I should swim in the ocean.
- I should go for a hike/sample authentic local cuisine/learn to paddleboard...
Get the idea? So much to ponder and worry about.
I heard a while back that the word "should" can be very toxic. It is a good exercise to replace it with the word "want" and see what happens.
Actually, I have done a number of my "Shoulds", because they seemed like fun at the time.
But what have I done mostly?
Mostly, I have gone on a deep dive into some really nerdy books on archeology.
Yes, archeology is my way to relax.
- I have two magazine subscriptions (World Archeology and The American Institute of Archeology Magazine).
- I am a fan of Patrick Wyman's podcast, Tides of History
- I watch archeology themed shows on TV and YouTube incessantly. (My favorite, which is not exactly about archeology, is Mysteries of the Abandoned on Discovery)
So I'm on a geek-fest, learning about how the Proto-Indo-European language, a theoretical language that became extinct around 2500 BCE, was the root from which most of the languages spoken in the world today evolved from.
What can I say? It's what I want to do.
A bibliography of my vacation:
Three Stones Make a Wall, by Eric H. Cline
The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, by David W. Anthony
Tales of Valhalla, by Martin and Hannah Whittock
Beowulf, translation by Seamus Heaney
The Dig, by John Preston
There is something so very intriguing and mysterious about viewing someone’s back.
A lot of images in my art depict people’s backs.
First of all, they are interesting visually, because they are the least body-like body-part. They are like a wall, or a blank page. There is an inherent tension created by being in someone’s presence, yet not being able to discern their expression, like they have closed eyes, or are wearing a mask.
I recently found a postcard I have had for years. Before the internet, anytime I went to a museum, I would buy a slew of postcards to take home with me, because collecting images didn’t just happen with the click of a button.
This postcard says it was produced by The Louvre. This means I bought it around 1998. I’ve had it in my possession ever since. I was drawn to its elegance, simplicity and mystery.
It came from Out of the Past- from 1947, to be exact. This scene from the famous film noir inspired images in my head that I couldn't shake.
So, in April 2021, I took a video of myself in costume walking down the stairs. Then I created a large drawing from that video. From that I developed a painting... But, like many worthwhile endeavors in life, there were twists, turns, and backtracks along the way.
I love working off of colored, textured grounds. So, in early May, I got off to an interesting start by using purple watercolor and allowing it to drip down the panel.
I sized the image of the drawing in photoshop, printed it out on sheets of paper, and transferred a light image of it onto a panel. Then, using the drawing and the photographs as a reference, I started the painting.
I spent a bunch of time creating a wood grain effect on the stairs, thinking the reddish tone would enhance my purple shadows.
I also "closed up" the space, by making sure all walls, stairs and shadows were touching each other, enclosing the figure in with no way to "escape".
This all happened from early May to late June. I set Exit aside. I worked on other projects, such as The Hanged Man and Watch.
There may have been a beach trip or two as well...
All the while, I kept looking at Exit out of the corner of my eye... June ended... July ran its course...
I kept thinking... this could be better.
It doesn't have the glossy dark depth I had envisioned...
It needs... blue.
Here I am, paintbrush in mouth, glazing a layer of Prussian blue over my painting.
I also repainted the exit sign and made it larger.
I changed her shoes from black to white.
I even painted over the precious wood grain stairs I had worked so hard on.
Then, after all this, I realized the exit sign was no longer needed. In fact, it had become a distraction. Now that I had all my moody blues creating atmosphere, I wanted the woman to be the focus, as if a spotlight were shining on her. So, using a razor blade, I scratched it out.
With a tiny scrap of red paper and a bit of tape, I was able to see where to put my lovely vintage exit sign.
As I write this, the exit sign has been redone for a FORTH time-
Finally, finally, I believe it is done. It started in May, and ran off and on until September.
We live in a world of expediency, instant gratification and digital wizardry. But along the way, there has been a growing appreciation of the slow. For example, slow foods, artisanal cheese, vintage wine, and hand-made crafts are all important social and financial movements.
By sharing the process of my art, I hope to celebrate the slow and deliberate. Just like life, many artistic pursuits take a long and winding road. Part of what makes art, art, is that the artist takes the time to follow that road wherever it leads.
This little book was a staple in my house, as it was in many peoples’ houses. It was a book that was used to gently, or not so gently tease me when I was small.
I was a very poky little puppy.
It was an affectionate and perhaps slightly desperate attempt to get me to look up, to focus, to walk faster, and stop dawdling! The rest of my family seemed to be endlessly charging ahead, onto the next, and the next, and the next activity.Attention Deficit Disorder, Inattentive Type. Much of my middle age has been spent trying to manage my errant mind with new found understanding, and to making up for time lost drifting through my almost rudderless young adulthood.
Frustrating, yes, but ADD is closely associated with having a creative mind. No one really knows why. I think it is because all that wandering brings one to unexpected shores and vistas. I heard it once described this way; if one doesn’t think linearly, (marching forward along a path), then one tends to think laterally, that is, back and forth and side to side.
A curious feature in many folks with ADD is called “hyper-focus”. This is when my normally wandering mind suddenly gets into gear, and I become completely engrossed in one activity for long periods of time. This is what happens when I make art.
I have come to recognize that I am a slow, deliberate artist. Each new attempt takes a long process of conceiving, sketching, drawing, transferring, painting, maybe collaging. When I am “done” with a piece, I will set it aside for weeks, months, and peer at it as it sits in the corner of my studio. I glance at it over the rim of my coffee cup, send it sidelong glances as I work with another piece. Then, often, it hits me. “It needs this…”
I will go back into the painting, and it will transform, like a make-over or a mid-life crisis. It will deepen and mature. Having that time to let it hibernate and incubate will often make a good piece into a great one.
One such slow transformation unspooled during the creation of Exit, one of my latest pieces of art. You can read about the creation of this painting here, in The Saga of Exit.
Here are the hotsheets with the sordid details, the true confessions, and the inside info on my artistic process. Learn how it all happens right here!