Monday, August 11, 2008

Early Chinese Landscape Painting

I've been a fan of early Chinese landscapes(c. 1000-1200 CE) for a long time, but I have recently been revisiting them. My current work is involving a similar approach to these paintings both compositionally and in the use of ink and washes on paper. Although my work seldom has any obvious reference to landscape, I've been studying the way the compositions are organized. The way the mountains, trees and streams are laid out on the page is strange and very interesting. The negative space is always equally as important as the positive. Areas of intense detail and linework laid next to empty areas or very subtle washy blends. I am enjoying looking at them more as abstract compositions than representational paintings.

"Early Spring" was painted by Guo Xi in 1072 CE It is one of my favorite examples of interesting use of composition, the negative space actually becomes positive space with the mists in front of the mountains. The detail in the linework is amazing, but the choice of placement of those areas of detail is even more amazing.

This one is by Li Cheng from the 10th century called "Solitary Temple Amid Clearing Peaks". It is one of the earliest examples I have. The comparison of the small frailness of humanity amid the vastness of nature is something you see over and over in these paintings. The detail in the architecture here is worth a closer look.

This is a painting that I wasn't familiar with until I started doing some research recently. It is called "Bamboo Painting" by Wen Tong from the 11th century. The leaves are painted very simply: stark black in the foreground and mid-tones in the leaves behind, and then that beautiful aged amber tone in the background. But when you look at the placement of the leaves and stems, you see a level of understanding of the plant that can only come from actual observation. So many bamboo paintings just look like caricatures of bamboo; this painting shows real understanding.

This last painting is one of my all time favorites. "Fisherman's Evening Song", by Hsü Tao-ning from the 11th century. The subtle value changes in the the mountains show a control of the brush that I am truly jealous of. It is a painting that makes me want to keep looking at it; so comfortable and so much to see. The mountains are impossibly vertical (but actually if you look at photographs, you'll realize that the mountains in these paintings are not nearly as stylized as you might assume). By the way, the image at the top of this post is a detail shot if you want a closer look.

Friday, August 1, 2008


I think architecture might be the single biggest influence on my artwork ever... Maybe except for line... But the discussion of line is for another day...

I love to look at architecture. But more specifically, I love to look at architecture that has an organic quality. I have always loved architecture in which the construction and development has more to do with the way a plant grows than architecture that is consistent with a pre-exsisting blueprint... Architecture that adds new areas as the lack of space deems them necessary... This type of architecture grows from a single point rather than any overarching plan. There are lots examples, but I want to start with my first memory of being fascinated with this... It was one of those psychedelic black light posters from the 1970's and it was called "Tree House"... I was about six years old and I could never stop looking at this poster every time I was in a Spencer's Gifts shop at the local mall... The house depicted was a labyrinthine Gothic mansion built as a tree house in this old and gnarled tree... There was no rhyme or reason to the structure. It looked as if it had been added onto over and over until it seemed to take on a life of its own. It was forced to work with the existing tree rather than against it.

The next example was something I discovered when I was about eighteen. I was a beginning art student at a community college and found an issue of Art in America that someone had left in the room. There was an article in it about a house built by a folk architect named Clarence Schmidt from the mountains around Woodstock, New York between the late 1940's and the late 1960's... He started with a one room cabin built into a mountainside, and then he just kept adding on and never stopped. The house grew into this seven-story monstrosity before it finally burned down in the late 1960's... I was amazed that something like this actually existed, built by one person from salvaged wood and doors and windows over the course of twenty years. It reminded me of that old black light poster and I still wonder to this day if the artist who designed the poster had seen or was influenced by that house? I am hugely influenced by both.

I suppose there is no talking about this subject without some mention of the Winchester House. I do find the story of the Winchester House amazing and the continual building process is very much in keeping with what I have been talking about, but the organic, almost plant-like growth doesn't seem all that apparent in the structure itself. There is just something that is a little too clean about it... I have never been there, so I might change my mind if I am actually go to the house.

My last semester of undergrad art school at UT Austin, I was fortunate enough to visit Italy for a summer session (which I am still paying for in school loans, btw). It was amazing, I was bombarded by historically famous architecture on a daily basis: The Pantheon, Brunelleschi's dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Colosseum, etc... But, ironically, the thing that I found the most amazing was the medieval Italian hilltowns. They came about more as a security measure than anything else. After the fall of the Roman Empire when the country was in a state of chaos, people were building these walled cities on the tops of hills as a form of defense in the lawlessness of the time. The architecture of these cities have a very similar organic ad-hoc feeling that Clarence Shmidt's house did. Most of them have evolved over hundreds and hundreds of years; adding on as space is needed... And because of the hilly terrain, the existing geography must be taken into consideration. There can be no neat and clean grid-based layout of streets.

By the way, the photograph above was scanned from a book called Architecture Without Architects, which is an amazing book about this very topic...

I guess the subject of labyrinthine architecture is simply not complete without some nod to the all time master,Giovanni Battista Piranesi... In the 1750's, he made a series of prints that were based on these fantastical endless cavernous dungeons he called "Prisons"... His "Prisons" series was such an influence to me that I spent the latter half of my undergraduate career making paintings and drawings that were so completely enamored by his prints that they turned out to be some combination of his fantastic architecture and some rotting decrepit fun house. I don't have any images of those old paintings, they would be fun and rather embarrassing to show...A great example of a Piranesi print is this one from the year 1750.

And then, of course, there are the great Art Nouveau architects from the early 1900's... Victor Horta and Antonin Gaudi were among those who brought back a sense of the organic and the curvilinear into an increasingly angular and modular architecture that was a result of the industrial revolution...

But after that, it's interesting that you didn't see that kind of organic architecture come back into play on a commercial level until the 1980's... It seems that all of the calculations needed to make a curvilinear piece of architecture was just not feasible on a wide scale until CAD programs made all of the thousands of calculations possible. Frank Gehry is a great example of organic architecture that is the result of of the digital age. And so now, yes, we are able to make something that has that plant-like growth that I had talked about earlier according to a blueprint... One that is organic and hand-drawn, but is calculated and manufactured down to the tiniest degree.

Anyway, I just thought I would talk a little bit about the architecture that I consider influential to my work.

I'm a Blogger Now

I thought I'd make this first post an informal one... Well, I actually can't imagine any of my posts being formal ones... But I figure you have to start somewhere. This blog is going to encompass anything that crosses my mind... I really don't care about keeping it leashed to any one particular topic. There are lots of things that I find worthy of discussion.