Saturday, January 9, 2016

Watercolor and Sorcery

Jamie Wyeth Paints "Inferno" - See the Artist's Process 

I've been thinking about the Wyeths a bit lately. This, because while following YouTube suggestions on Michael Palin, I came across a wonderful hour long video he did quite a while back (BBC Michael Palin in Wyeth´s World) on Andrew Wyeth, son of N.C. Wyeth and father of Jamie Wyeth. Andrew is the Wyeth that almost everyone is familiar with, but there have been 3 generations of brilliant, powerful artists named Wyeth, each of whom made a mark and affected millions.

As a young kid I remember being blown away by illustrations in moldering old books I came across in the public library, classics like Treasure Island and Robin Hood that had beautiful, brooding and highly expressive illustrations in them done as oil paintings by N.C., Jamie's grandfather. As a teenager I'd take myself to the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan once or twice every Christmas and Easter Vacation from school and standing in front of Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World, a truly iconic work of American art, I'd soak in its power and beauty. Wyeth painted Christina's World in 1948, the same year my parents launched me into the world, so maybe there's a sibling-like connection between the 2 of us. There's so much to love about that painting: it's a remarkable demonstration of prowess in representational painting, it's a highly inventive and startling demonstration of the power of Composition, which is the element of 2 dimensional design that is the arrangement of shapes and spaces within an image, and it conveys a powerful and affecting narrative, a story told in a snapshot, no action unfolding, all of it, rather, in the bringing of Christina, the only character, to the place and moment we see her in, as well as in the what's about to happen or may happen (or not) in the next moment.

This video, though, reveals Andrew's son, Jamie, to us. Clearly, an immensely talented and accomplished representational painter in his own right, I've wondered on occasion whether or not Jamie would have had to struggle to break into the art world if he hadn't been born a Wyeth, with a father and grandfather already of artist superstar status. We see in this video, though, that he makes his own brand of exciting art and is totally committed to it. He shares with us his own self evaluation that he's a very boring person, a man who really only wants to paint. One thing that has always irked me is how so many of my contemporaries, including my classmates and professors in my Fine Art major program at university, have been so dismissive of the value of the Wyeths' work. It's part of the snobbish trivializing of realism and nose in the air certainty of the superiority of Abstract Expressionism, and by now 50 years of spin-offs and descendant art movements and trends, which in their opinion offer far purer and more elevated art.

I guess what makes the difference is how you come to Art. As a kid I retreated, some, into my own little world, a world that I could control; a fanciful, wonderful world that I invented as I needed it to be in my drawings. Inventing the world for myself through the act of drawing seemed natural and right and was terribly satisfying. Years later, I discovered through reading, the Neolithic Art of Europe, Cave Art like the magnificent drawings found deep in the bowels of the Earth in places like Lascaux, France. I came to understand through the analysis and conclusions of anthropologists and art historians, that those wonderful drawings of the wild animals who inhabited the pre-historic world of their creators, were magic. Bands of primitive people crawling on their hands and knees along the cold, moist floor of caves by the weak light of tallow dipped torches, followed their shamans deep into cracks in the bedrock of their world. There, using the ends of charred sticks, they materialized animals, fearful creatures of power and benevolence, in front of their eyes - bringing them to life out of what amounted to practically nothing - a little charcoal dust, nothing more. Drawing was invented as, and remains, nothing less than MAGIC. And while the Abstract Expressionists wielded their own power, stripping visual possibility down to its essentials and then playing with them to produce new things of wonder and delight, they were not engaged in the tradition of visual  enchantment and sorcery that was so well upheld by N.C. and his son, Andrew, and now by Jamie, their apprentice and heir.

In this video we see Jamie Wyeth at work on a large scale watercolor. He wields his loaded brushes and smudges the paint with his fingers as he applies it to scrap cardboard. There's nothing precious or delicate about the work. He creates bold marks on a rough and sloppy surface and they coalesce into something that is so much more than the mere sum of the wild and expressive strokes of his dance. And perhaps most importantly, they not only stimulate our eyes and excite our attention, but they TELL A STORY! A narrative emerges. Story is how we humans communicate, transfer, and preserve MEANING. It is how we reflect on and come to understand the very experience of being human...  and one of the most powerful ways that is done is through art. 

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