Friday, January 28, 2011

Studio As Sanctum

I love opening the door of my studio and walking in. I'm greeted first by the smell of wax and then by the wall of windows at the end with that beautiful north light. I am very fortunate in having a beautiful, spacious studio that is relatively cheap, as studio rents go. It's a peaceful, welcoming space that allows me to make my work and retreat from the world. I guess it's my version of a temple, but here I am god - or goddess. Actually, I feel more like a high priestess at the altar of art. Sometimes the priestess has to sweep out the temple because the festivities get a bit rambunctious and the lone worshipper has a habit of dragging out all the relics and paraphernalia until she can't walk around without tripping over things.

Walking into the studio

Recently, due to an important studio visit, I cleaned up and rearranged the sanctum. The walls could have used some patching and painting, but it was pretty neat and my work was easily accessed for viewing. In honor of the occasion, I took some photos, so I thought I'd give you a look

I'm not showing you my storage area because it's so stogged with stuff. That's the part of the studio that you walk into first. So we'll just scurry right through there and move on to the larger part of the space, which is where I actually spend my time working. (Note: click on each picture to enlarge it.)

Left wall

Left wall wider view

Moving down the wall

Older work at end of wall

Swinging around with my back to the windows

Work on top of flat file

More work on flat file

Right wall

"Carry On" and "Gateway" on right wall

Two vertical pieces

From end of right wall looking back toward windows

Pin-ups (including Rachel M.) and storage at end of right wall

Wider view of right wall

Small works on table

A little somethin'-somethin' for visitor refreshments

Of course it no longer looks like this because I'm working now and not entertaining. In a mere couple of weeks I'll have 15 students and faculty in from Smith College for my presentation about encaustic and their experimentation with the medium. I'll have to put all my in-process work away and rearrange everything again, but that's just part of life in the sanctum.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Manipulating Media

I was in Boston on Thursday delivering work to Arden Gallery (love saying that) and afterwards stopped in at the ICA to see the Mark Bradford show. I think that there is a resonance between his work and mine, so I was particularly interested to see it in person. The show was organized by Christopher Bedford, curator at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, and is touring to four museums. The Boston ICA is the first stop followed by Chicago, Dallas and San Francisco. Check the Wexner link for dates.

I had seen the videos that the ICA has on line such as Pinocchio Is On Fire and the brief Art 21 clip called "Paper." Bradford says that when he first began making art, he only knew of materials that came from Home Depot. His attitude is that anything and everything can be used in making his work and one of his main sources has been posters found in the Los Angeles neighborhood where his studio is located.

He has developed an unusual method of layering the found posters with caulk or string over the letters, then gluing on layers of paper on top and sanding, tearing or cutting down through the layers until some of the underneath text is exposed.

Here is a closeup image from Joanne Mattera's blog showing letters and numbers exposed after layering

There are some works like this in the ICA show, especially a huge wall of posters with silvery paint advertising PROPANE FOR FEMA TRAILERS. You can guess where those were from; Bradford was in the New Orleans Biennial in 2008 and did several large works for it.

But most of the 45 works in the ICA show are massive map-like works of billboard paper on paper or canvas that really have to be seen in person to be appreciated as the massive undertakings that they are. Apparently they are based on Google maps of particular areas of Los Angeles. (Let me just make a disclaimer that most of the images in this post do not do Bradford's works justice. As readers of this blog may remember, the ICA does not allow photography so I was only able to get images from the Wexner site. But if you watch the videos linked above, you can get a better sense of what the works are like. Also, I was unable to get images online of many of the works in the show, especially my favorite, Black Venus.)

In person the works have a very strong physical presence, not only because of their enormous size but because of the thick layers of paper, the rough surface, their usually tattered bottom edges and the sense of impermanence from the ephemeral nature of their components.

Scorched Earth, 2006, 94 1/2 x 118 inches 

The map works and the massive poster pieces were spectacular, but my favorites were made using two other methods. Strawberry is one of the earlier works in the show and uses the permanent wave end papers that Bradford began making his works with initially. His mother used to run a beauty shop in the building that he eventually bought for his studio. Bradford helped out his mother in the shop and bought the papers for his work because they were so cheap. He would torch the edges of a stack of papers to get a contrasting edge. I really liked the way he made the bright red and orange areas retreat in this work using the delicate-looking white tissues.

Strawberry, 2002, 72 x 84 inches

Smokey, 2003, 60 x 72 inches

Smokey is another work using the end papers that I really loved. The subtle bends in the horizontal lines and the darker colors that come in at the bottom are very beautiful.

Another of Bradford's techniques is to glue down rope on billboard and/or poster paper and then layer over it with more paper. He strips off layers and/or glues down more found paper in contrasting colors.

Potable Water, 2005, 130 x 196 inches 

The works with horizontals are my favorites. I think my absolute favorite work in the show was Grey Gardens, below.

Grey Gardens, 2010, 60 x 72 inches

This piece is actually a soft grey and much paler overall with less contrast than in this image. There is an area of scattered stick pieces on the left side just above the middle that look pink here but actually stand out as the whitest part of the piece in person.

I'm glad that I was able to get in to Boston to see this show (that will be in Boston until March 13th). It was inspiring to see work by someone who has invented ways to manipulate found media and make it his own. What I particularly admire about Bradford's work is the way he has subordinated the found media to his larger intention. By that I mean that he is not timid about destroying or vastly altering the found media. At the same time, while the media has lost its singularity and become part of the greater whole, there are still glimpses of some of the unique, found components. It is a balancing act that I strive for in my own work.

Mix o'Media
I feel a real kinship with Mark Bradford because of his mix of media, and as I was taking a snow day today to catch up on my reading and television watching, I seemed to see reminders everywhere I looked that media is being chewed up and spit out in new configurations - for example:

Ron English
I have a new (to me) cable channel called Ovation that features programming on the arts. Tonight I watched a program on the artist Ron English, apparently made a few years back when he was actively co-opting billboards with posters that slyly mimicked real ads. Most of his subverted billboards targeted advertising aimed at children. His campaign against the Joe Camel figure contributed to its notoriety and downfall, and he has also become well known for his anti-McDonalds supersized figure.

I was out here in the boonies of western Mass. when he pasted up his giant wall of Lincoln/Obamas in Boston's South End in 2008 so I missed the controversy about all the other posters being pasted up in his wake by wanna-bes and wheat paster amateurs.

That's Ron at the right of the picture.

This guy is a really good draftsman and very capable realist painter with an excellent sense of ironic humor. It's too bad he had to stop taking over billboards due to the threat of arrest because he had some very good ones. I can't resist posting a few:

Aural Mix o'Media
The Ron English program came on the heels of two other articles I read this afternoon in the Sunday Times magazine from a couple of weeks ago. Yes, I know - by the time all this stuff gets into the popular culture, it's already old news. And, by the time it gets to me, it's probably ovah already. But just to remind you...

First, Greg Gillis a/k/a Girl Talk who mashes up music samples from "50 years of the revolving trends of pop music."  Here's a MySpace link so you can see what his high-energy sound is like. Then, what should I see on the Ovation channel but a show about copyright violations because of sampling and how music publishers are fighting the mash up trend. This is an old story and a losing battle.

Forever After Mix o'Media 
The second story about media that I noted in the Times was about the lingering virtual presence you will still have after you are long gone. Your email, all those Likes on Facebook, the inane tweets, the Flickr pictures from the summer barbecues, the vacations at the beach, the dogs, the cats, the snowstorms, the garden, your daily iPhone pix, the graduation, the wedding, the new grandchild, the Christmas tree, the blog post about media - all, all, all left behind after you go on to your reward. But, not to worry, the article tells about a new growth industry of people who will take care of it all for you. Just as you may go Up or Down after you die (in theory), you may choose to live on forever with a service such as that provided by or end it all with The choice is yours but one you must make while you can still surf in real time.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The BIG News

I am now able to announce the big news that Arden Gallery in Boston will represent my work starting immediately. Here's the link to my page on their site. This is such a thrill for me that I can't even tell you.

Some Fell Among Thorns, 2010, mixed media with encaustic (click image to enlarge)

Working with Hope Turner, gallery owner, and Zola Solamente, gallery director, will be a genuine pleasure, and I'm looking forward to a long and mutually-beneficial partnership. Arden Gallery has been in business for 24 years at their location at 129 Newbury Street, between Clarendon and Dartmouth Streets, in the heart of the gallery district in Boston's Back Bay. Arden represents friends Joanne Mattera and Kim Bernard and both of them have nothing but praise for their relationship with Hope and Zola. In fact, Joanne very kindly introduced me to Arden after she made a studio visit to see my new Running Stitch work.

A painting by Joanne Mattera in the window of Arden Gallery

Although I have been represented by other commercial galleries in the past, they were not long-lived and went nowhere fast. Arden is so prestigious and well-established that this association definitely kicks my career up another big notch. I've been a long time getting here, but I have kept working and learning all these years. My motto has been: Nothing is wasted and plugging away definitely has value.

or, in the immortal words of the Chinese proverb (from the web):


Translation: The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools.

Art Rockin' Into the New Year

Things are rockin' over here at Natale World with plenty of art happenings. But first, a little real rock: having just finished the Keith Richards autobiography, Life, I'm in a rock 'n' roll mode. Note: If you'd like a soundtrack for this post, click here for a roots 'n' reggae playlist by Keith Richards brought to you by Rolling Stone magazine. You can read and listen if you open up another browser window.)

Keith Richards in performance

I read the Richards bio out of curiosity, not because I'm really a fan. Way back when, you were either for the Stones or the Beatles, and I opted for the Beatles, so I didn't know much about him other than his dissipated and disreputable look. His bio got raves all over (described by Amazon as a "raspy, rambling, raucous detail ...of the artist in situ"), so of course I went for it, being the cultural maven I am. My take: interesting but too long and probably too much detail unless you're a musician and/or devotee. And even though I never bought a Stones record (or tape or CD), I could hear in my mind just about every song Richards mentioned just from having lived through the peak of their fame.

Richards is one of the lucky ones who lived to tell the tale of high life and hard living with addiction to heroin, booze, weed, pills and all the rest. He kicked the heroin habit some years back but continued drinking,  smoking and making music: "Music was a far bigger drug than smack. I could kick smack; I couldn't quit music. One note leads to another, and you never know what's going to come next, and you don't want to. It's like walking on a beautiful tightrope."

The Art Tightrope 
Some good art news came this week - a big career milestone that I'll announce soon. No, the Whitney has not offered me the retrospective I deserve, but it must be just around the corner.

And things are looking up in the teaching area, as my father always dreamed for me. My teaching contract for the two-class session in encaustic for the Smith College course in Historic Methods and Materials arrived today (that will be in February). The post-conference workshop I'm teaching at the Encaustic Conference filled up so quickly that I was asked to do a second day of Making Fine Art with Unconventional Mixed Media and Encaustic.  Now that has also been booked with enough students to make it a go (a few spaces are left if you get on it soon - click here to see the info. And by the way, you don't have to sign up for the conference to take this class. You can just sign up for the workshop on June 9th. See here for the Castle Hill registration link.)

Boys of Liberty, deconstructed book with encaustic, rubber and tacks on panel, 2009

This week the prestigious Surface Design Journal published an article by Joanne Mattera titled "Affinities: Fiber and Wax." I was very pleased to be included with the nine contemporary artists featured in this piece, which began with references to the fiber/wax connections of Jasper Johns and Louise Bourgeois - pretty exalted company to be in! Joanne wrote about "textile sensibility in wax or the integration of fiber and wax in ways that transcend conventional boundaries of textile thinking." The image above of Boys of Liberty was included with the comment: "The geometric patterns she creates are evocative of Ghanaian kente cloth, Navajo wedge weave and Amish quilts. Natale, who graduated from art school with a degree in painting, created what she calls 'an unofficial minor in surface design' but looking at her work, would it surprise you to know that she is the granddaughter of a blacksmith?"

The Surface Design article is not available online, but I believe that Joanne Mattera will post it on her blog or website and I'll let you know when you can read the whole of her interesting observations on the topic.

And for more shameless self-promotion - I've also been asked to be one of four featured artists in the first issue of Encaustic Arts magazine to be published by the Encaustic Art Institute this spring. This magazine should arrive around the same time that 100 Artists of New England is published, in which I am also included.

Ever notice that when it rains it pours? (in a good way)

Monday, January 10, 2011

On Women Achieving Success: Alice Neel

Hitting our stride late(r) in life is something that happens to women, usually because of having children and deferring our careers due to social pressures. While I never had children, I took quite a while to take myself seriously and pay attention to what was meaningful to me. I had to grow out of the influence and (lowered) expectations of my family and become my own person before I could begin my great journey into art.

Alice Neel after she hit the big time.

It validates my own history to read about artists who find recognition later in life. Alice Neel is one of those artists, and I recently finished a new biography about her by Phoebe Hoban called "Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty." I recommend it as a good read about someone who put her painting above just about everything else in her life. This is not the usual course for women but pretty much the norm for many male artists (at least in the past  - maybe there's a difference now?). However, Neel's priorities make for some tough reading in places, especially when it comes to her children, who seem to have gotten very short shrift from her until she was older and more financially independent of the men in her life.

Neel's 1926 portrait of her husband, Carlos Enriquez, a Cuban artist. Carlos was the father of Neel's two daughters, one of whom died in infancy while the other was taken back to Cuba to be raised by Carlos's sisters.

Hoban's book traces all of Neel's "quintessential bohemian" life while proposing her as the archetype of women's coming into their own:

"Neel's life is not just the saga of a great American painter; it is a great American saga. Born into a proper Victorian family at the turn of the century, Neel came of age during Suffrage, struggled through the Depression, and lived through the women's liberation movement and the sexual revolution, reaching her prime in a time when she was finally permitted to do--and even celebrated for doing--just what she had striven to do all along: forge the life of an independent woman who was first and foremost an artist. Neel's personal and artistic growth was often at odds with the century that shaped both her and her work. But when the anti-establishment sixties arrived, Neel, then herself in her sixties, arrived, too. The lifelong iconoclast and rebel against institutional values was finally at one with her era." (pg. 3)

Sam Brody, Neel's longtime partner. He was a "difficult" personality (read: psychopath) who could snap into a rage at a moment's notice. Neel apparently got a sexual charge from fighting with him.

I'm finding it difficult to write about Neel because there are many choices that she made in her life that I think were wrong--and not just wrong but really bad decisions because of the way they affected her children. Not my place to judge, you might say, or how can I know unless I was in her situation? True but that doesn't stop my feelings about her. While I appreciate her difficult artistic journey and admire her painting ability, I finished the book not liking her much as a person. I think that although she made painting her priority, she compromised herself too much and actually sacrificed her children's well-being. From early on in her life, she traded her good looks and sex appeal for support from men, and throughout her life she chose partners who abused her and her children in many ways. Isn't keeping your personal integrity worth as much as making art? Or, how can you make art when you have given your core self away?

Sam and Hartley. Hartley was Neel's son by Sam Brody. Her older son, Richard, had a different father and Brody resented him and made his life a living hell.

One of Neels's neighborhood children in Spanish Harlem

Two girls in Spanish Harlem

Neel lived in Greenwich Village and then Spanish Harlem for a long period of her life. She suffered through a bad first marriage, the death of her first daughter at less than a year old, the removal to Cuba of her second daughter by her estranged husband, suicide attempts, a nervous breakdown and hospitalization in a psychiatric ward, the Depression, the destruction of hundreds of her works by a jealous lover, and the lack of recognition of her painting ability. She lived in poverty for most of her life and supported herself and her children by working as an easel artist on the WPA Program for more than 10 years. When that program ended, she collected welfare for a number of years. She lived with several men who contributed to her support, and she also took in roomers to help pay the rent. She continued to paint all through the many tumultuous events in her life, and her devotion to portrait painting remained constant through Surrealism, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Conceptualism and all the other schools of art to which she never belonged.

A photograph of Alice Neel with her work by Sam Brody

By the early 1960s, Neel's work began to change: her palette became lighter and more saturated, the paint looser, the black outline turned to blue, the canvases got larger and the subjects were no longer neighbors but art world celebrities. And Neel started to show: "Between 1927 and 1964, Neel had only about half a dozen solo shows. During the last twenty years of her life, from 1964 to 1984, she had over sixty." In 1963, at age 63, Neel signed a formal representation agreement for the first time in her career with the Graham Gallery. She remained with that gallery until 1980 when she joined the Robert Miller Gallery.

Andy Warhol after the Valerie Solanis shooting

Art historian Linda Nochlin and daughter Daisy

Porn star Annie Sprinkle

By 1970 when Neel painted a portrait of feminist writer Kate Millett for the cover of Time, she had come into her own as a celebrated woman artist. She claimed to be a feminist before there was feminism, and did not like the label being attached to her, but she benefited from the sweeping interest in art by women that the feminist art movement brought about.

Neel's portrait painted from a photograph, 1970

Neel's daughter-in-law Nancy pregnant, 1971. Neel's paintings of nude, anxious pregnant women were hailed by feminists as portraying the reality of pregnancy.

Nancy and Neel's granddaughter Olivia. Nancy became Neel's assistant and constant companion

After the Time cover in 1970, Neel's career accelerated with national and international shows, magazine articles, speaking engagements, awards, a retrospective and an honorary doctoral degree from her alma mater, Moore College of Art in Philadelphia, and a retrospective at the Whitney. She even appeared twice on the Johnny Carson show in 1984, where she was a big hit.

Neel's nude self portrait at age 80.

Neel kept painting until the very end, even after she was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer and underwent surgery, completing eight paintings in her last six months of life. Several days before she died at age 84, Robert Maplethorpe went to her apartment to photograph her, at her request. She was very ill, after having undergone chemotherapy, and closed her eyes so that she could see what she would look like after she died.

Alice Neel by Robert Maplethorpe

Neel's grandson, Andrew Neel, made a documentary about her life that premiered in 2007, "Alice Neel." Here's the trailer which shows scenes of Alice painting and talking about her work.

Finally, here's an excellent article about women finding success as artists at an advanced age. This link comes from my friend Deborah Barlow at Slow Muse blog.