Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Loving Vincent

Loving Vincent
seen @ Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, New York NY

I threw out most of my oil and acrylic paintings prior to my move to Ohio, in an attempt to straighten my closets and unburden myself of non-essential material, but I remember some of what they looked like. They were from my high school and college years, which also includes the summer I spent in a painting class in Barcelona. None of the work - none of what I remember, anyway - was anything special. My artistic talent has always manifested itself better in pencil and pen & ink and watercolor; oils, and especially acrylics, were a different animal.

I remember painting something on canvas and then painting something else on top, and then something on top of that, letting the layers show through in spots; "painting" with turpentine on a rag, picking out highlights on a dark canvas; painting a portrait of a friend and overlaying a checkerboard pattern on top, in two-point perspective. Some of these experiments were inspired by my teachers, others sprung from my own head.

I would go to the Met, to MOMA, to the Guggenheim, to look at work that has stood the test of time; different eras, different styles. Sometimes I was assigned to draw a painting of my choice, or to write about one, or even both. I was told why certain paintings were important, how specific artists approached their work.

Despite all of this, I can't say for sure why none of it took. I used to have the idea that being a visual artist meant being skilled in a variety of media, perhaps because so many of the Old Masters were that way. I dunno. I like to think I understood what to do and how to do it; that if I had kept at it longer, I might have made some sort of breakthrough - but then I rediscovered comic books and I switched gears. I don't regret that decision; I'm only speculating how my life might have been if I had stayed on that road.

Vija has only minimal training, yet she turns out terrific paintings all the time. I must have talked to her about her process at some point in the past, though I can't remember. When we were in Barcelona, I would see her paint, along with everyone else in the class, but I didn't pay her any special attention. She was still a stranger. I can tell you her style leans toward the traditional side, though she usually finds some way to tweak her images that makes you conscious of the art as art, such as leaving entire sections unfinished.

As fate would have it, she had an opening for her latest exhibit days before we and the rest of the crew saw Loving Vincent, the animated film about Vincent van Gogh fully painted in oils. Vija was part of a group exhibit of self-portraits: some simple paintings on canvas, like hers, others that took a more metaphorical approach. Hers was a basic head and shoulders shot, only she left her shirt and the background unpainted. There's no doubt it looks like her.

While I've seen her do more abstract work, I couldn't imagine her as an impressionist, like VVG; her style is too polished and refined for that. Looking at this film - in which 125 artists painted over 65,000 frames based on live-action footage, in VVG's style and incorporating a number of his more famous images within the narrative - I wonder whether impressionism was as easy as it looks. It's still a matter of choosing which colors you think work best, with what kind of brushstrokes: fat or thin, long or short, a bunch or a few. The difference is you're not going for a realistic look.

I can't speak for Vija on this point, but I know my inclination is to think about rendering a painting realistically, or as real as I can get it, anyway. To paint impressionistically would require a conscious shift in my mindset, my approach. That would be tricky.

Vincent is a marvel to look at. The story follows the Citizen Kane template: a year after VVG's death, the mystery of how exactly he died is assembled from the testimony of those who knew him, whether at a distance or more intimately. It was hard to focus on the story because I wanted to look at the art. Naturally, every time you take in one image, it's replaced by another; this was one time I wished I watched with a pause button. The story was good; it's just that the art really is the story here. Kudos to directors Dorota Kobiela & Hugh Welchman for pulling off this feat.

The Loving Vincent website
"Starry Night" in the age of selfies (thanks Debbie)

Lust for Life

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