Lovely parts + ugly parts = gorgeous whole? • February 23, 2015

Quite some time ago, I began to realize that most of art I see and particularly like has ugly in it; in fact, sometimes it’s REALLY ugly. This is still an evolving revelation for me, especially apt right now, since I continue to be in one of the more profound creative slumps I’ve experienced. What has been happening is that the harder I try, the harder it seems, the more critical I get – and the less sensitive my effort becomes. If you’ve kept up with my latest posts, you know I’ve been doing a lot of quick, almost throwaway, cats in an attempt to maintain at least some headway. Now even they are getting ugly! What’s puzzling is that I have this nagging suspicion that some of my ugly isn’t half bad. Is it beginning to become something else?


Oh dear, confusion of this magnitude makes my head feel like it might pop. Don’t worry, it won’t. I must understand and get through this – and will. Right now, I’m flattening 30 more awkward kitties, with the hope that I’ll see them differently afterwards. Whether I do or not, I’ll scan and post a few for you to see too. And I promise that I’ll start putting up work besides cats again soon!


Meanwhile, I’ve been looking at art by others that speaks to my present state. I want to understand why ugly works.


EXAMPLE 1: here are two of the most horrible, carelessly realized figures I could imagine. I would be appalled if I had done them, yet these guys are in the middle of a famous etching by one of the finest artists ever to work within that medium. Can you guess who?



Here’s the whole thing, by James Abbot McNeil Whistler. It’s one of a suite of etchings portraying the Thames, is surprisingly small in real life and obsessive in its detail. What’s more, that detail is where you would never expect or instinctively put it. If Whistler had fully rendered this image, we would have been overwhelmed. Instead, everything in the river and on this side of it (except for some aspects of the fellow in front) is, well, crudely done! What demands particular thought, is that our gaze skips right over that, when you would think it should stall! I don’t know why it doesn’t, but my guess is that there’s not enough to hold our attention until we get to the far side of the river. Whistler has lured us in, and given us a supreme sense of space and breathing room within an image that could all too easily have become claustrophobic.



EXAMPLES 2 & 3: up front, I’ll tell you the next two pictures are by Albrecht Durer! This guy could draw and paint anything, yet his brushwork here looks muddy and clumsy as hell. Some of his foliage in the second image looks as if it was done by a kindergartener with poster paint and a sponge. The stonework is cockeyed, and I don’t know what that post-like thing at left is supposed to be. Yuck.



Okay, these are the full views. Both are clearly sketches or studies, thus some looseness or lack of concern on Durer’s part must be allowed. What so strikes me though – and keeps me coming back time and again – is how utterly unenchanting these pictures are. It’s as if Durer went out of his way to make them so. In his hands, muddy marks and dull, rough painting were the honest way to capture truth.


I’m encountering similar scenes in my own exploration of Paterson, NJ. They’re not pretty, yet they’re bleakly, perfectly real. I must work especially hard to appreciate anything in them. I try, and keep discovering powerful poetry that surprises and perplexes me.




THE LAST TWO: if you work with ink and a brush, folks are gonna tell you it looks Japanese. I kind of hate that. A hand and brushes, plus ink and paper, equals marks anyone might make, but a whole lot of Japanese artists have done great things with this simple medium, so you get what you get. I just give up when people make such comments and say they may be right. I thank them too, because they’re always trying to genuinely engage in dialogue (and usually trying to compliment me) when they could instead choose not to. Besides, I too admire Japanese art. I look at, collect and study it because there is much to learn.


What follows are two of the most breathtaking examples of ugly I’ve ever come across. The first (just below) is the kind of mark making I salivate over. When you see the whole picture, you’ll agree that in the dash and squiggle of a few moments, this horrible set of moves so brilliantly nailed what they became, that it could never have been done better.



This is a close up of a BIG area of drawing, done with brushes large enough to paint walls with. What inarticulate, ill-favored, sloppy looking marks these are. Or maybe not?



When is the last time you saw turtles practicing archery, or encountered one so generous that it took off it’s own shell to serve as the target? I’m numb with wonder at this drawing, which actually no longer exists. Yep, that’s right, this photo is really of two pages from a Japanese woodblock printed book entitled Sonan gafu (The Sonan Picture Album), by a nineteenth century genius named Onishi Chinnen. He did the original drawings, which were then pasted facedown on sections of cherry plank. Once the glue had dried, the backs of the drawings were moistened and the paper rubbed and rubbed, until the merest skin of it remained, through which the drawings were visible from behind. The block carvers could then see what they were supposed to cut away, and destroyed the drawings even as they used them as their guide. Much of the Japanese ink work we have record of, has come down to us in printed form created in this manner. I look at this scene often, and am profoundly moved both by Chinnen’s economy and the confident sensitivity of his rendering. It has just the right blend of mastery, humor and happenstance. You can tell this guy was fiercely engaged in his work, and loved to draw.



This last photo is a screen-shot of I took while cruising the Internet years ago. It’s of a six-piece folding screen, painted in the 1780’s by an artist named Rosetsu. I know no more, because I can’t find more. In fact I don’t even remember what the original source for this was. What I do know, is that this painting must be at least 15 or 20 feet long (the screen would have acted as a room divider). It’s one of the most astonishing blends of mismatched rendering that I’ve ever seen. In a way, it’s like Whistler’s etching; stunning detail and crudity coexist. The combination – which you would think tragically at odds with itself – is instead seamless, so much so that you don’t question it unless you look long and hard. The monkeys are completely realistic, the stylized, falling water is utterly not, and the rest of the brushwork is huge and at best, vaguely suggestive. This painting ought to fall apart. Why then does it work so well? I wish I could understand it. Maybe one reason I’m struggling with my own work right now is that it’s beginning to present me with similar problems!



Here is one more, mid-sized detail view, to help you truly appreciate just how schizophrenic this painting is.



Most of the time, I feel as if I have such a long way to go, and I’m thrilled by it. Right now, however, I’m just hoping for new baby steps. I’m still standing, albeit a bit lost, as I keep trying to make them. There will be progress to report soon, I’m sure.


Your Buddy Bill ———————-


PS: to expand these images and study them in much larger detail, click READ FULL ARTICLE, immediately below.