Giorgio di Chirico, Surrealist Painter

His Surrealist Landscapes Are Endlessly Fascinating

The scene is a port somewhere. You can see the unfurled sails of a ship just over the wall while two muffled figures hover around the entrance of a building. There is a tower just over the wall that could be a lighthouse, but maybe not. Note the conflicting shadows: The building on the left is casting its shadow in the 4 o’clock position, while the unseen structures on the right have shadows that are closer to the 10 o’clock position, I love these strange Mediterranean landscapes which seem to suggest so much but say nothing clearly.

Giorgio di Chirico (1888-1978) was, to my mind, the greatest of the surrealist painters. Although I prefer the landscapes, he painted other subjects as well:

Miscellaneous Objects Suggesting Strange Geometries

In one of his writings, the painter states, “What is especially needed is great sensitivity: to look upon everything in the world as enigma….To live in the world as in an immense museum of strange things.” The above image certainly qualifies.

Another Chirico Landscape

The flags atop the facing buildings show a strong wind blowing from right to left. The steam from the locomotive beyond the wall in the background, on the other hand, is going straight up. Again, we have two muffled figures in the middle distance and a strange statue of a reclining male in the middle of the square. Again—not unusual with Chirico—the shadows are a little inconsistent. Where, for instance, is the shadow of the tall phallic tower.

 

Outliers: James Castle of Idaho

Outlier Artist James Castle (1899-1977)

When I look at the recent history of art in, say, the last hundred years, I see a host of reputations I would like to see toppled. Enough of the Mondrians, the de Koonings, the Pollockses, the Rothkos, and their ilk! That’s why I am interested in exploring the outliers, who explored the boundaries of art without trapping themselves in some movemen such as abstract expressionism.

Today, I look at James Charles Castle of Garden Valley, Idaho. According to the Wikipedia entry on him:

Castle was a self-taught artist who created drawings, assemblage and books throughout his lifetime. Castle was born profoundly deaf and for at least some time attended the Gooding School for the Deaf and the Blind in Gooding, Idaho, but it is not known to what extent he could read, write, or use sign language. Castle’s artworks were created almost exclusively with found materials such as papers salvaged from common packaging and mail, in addition to food containers of all types. Castle mixed ink using soot from the woodstove and saliva and applied it with tools of his own making, including sharpened sticks, and other found objects. His drawings sensitively depict interiors, buildings, animals, landscapes and people based on his family’s rural Garden Valley homestead as well as the architecture and landscapes of the places he lived and visited.

Homestead

Like many of Castle’s works, the above obviously used a folded sheet of paper that had come his way with a tear toward the lower right corner. Created as it is of spit, soot, and found paper, it beautifully balances shapes and tones.

Artsy

Even when his own work approaches the abstract, Castle manages to make the viewer stop and think. What is this? A tree, a person, a skyscraper, a computer printer—all drawn at the same scale? And what of those geometric designs in the lower right corner? And the picture is in the form, basically, of a horizontal landscape.

 

“The Hostility of Life Outdoors”

Gustave Moreau’s “Triumph of Alexander the Great”

This poem by the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño is based on the above painting. I thought it was interesting to match a poem with a painting, especially when the poet is as interesting a writer as Bolaño. The title of this poem is “The Outsider Ape.”

Remember the Triumph of Alexander the Great, by Gustave Moreau?
The beauty and terror, the crystal moment when
all breathing stops. But you wouldn’t stand still under that dome
in dim shadows, under that dome lit by ferocious
rays of harmony. And it didn’t take your breath away.
You walked like a tireless ape among the gods,
For you knew—or maybe not—that the Triumph was unfurling
its weapons inside Plato’s cavern: images,
shadows without substance, sovereignty of emptiness. You wanted
to reach the tree and the bird, the leftovers
from a humble backyard fiesta, the desert land
watered with blood, the scene of the crime where
statues of photographers and police are grazing, and the hostility of life
outdoors. Ah, the hostility of life outdoors!

 

American Car Culture

1934 Ford Model 40 Deluxe Roadster

One of the reasons I enjoy visiting automobile museums—of which there are five that I know of in Southern California—is that classic American cars represent a culture that is so uniquely different from that of our European cousins. That 1934 Ford Roadster from the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar is brash, yet built along classical lines. Compare it with a Rolls Royce, Voisin, Maybach, Talbot Lago, or Bugatti and you will see it different from American cars in pretty much the same way that American literature is different from European literature.

There are some classic American car designs that are characterized by some restraint, but for the most part Detroit says, “Here! This is what you want! It’s you!” One feels one has to grow into a Bentley or a Hispano-Suiza: It is something to which to attain. The American model is much closer to the Id, whereas the European model is closer to the Superego.

The Pep Boys: Manny, Moe, and Jack

I was enthralled yesterday by this Pep Boys plastic logo at Oxnard’s Murphy Automotive Museum. I compare Manny, Moe, and Jack to the automobile repairman in Patrick Modiano’s novel Villa Triste: cool, detached, intellectual.

It is possible, perhaps, to carry this McLuhanesque comparison too far, but it does seem to make sense. Look, for example at the logos.

Plymouth Barracuda Logo

Can you imagine Rolls Royce calling one of its Silver Phantoms a Phan’? Or Talbot Lago, a ’Bot? Even though Rolls Royces are affectionately referred to as Rolls, the company would never abbreviate the name on one of their automobiles. Yet, Plymouth gladly adopted an abbreviated name to put on the rear bumpers of their later model Barracudas.

Now then, is the American approach any worse? It appears to sit well with the American automobile-buying public. Of course, it would be far better if the American automobiles themselves have not declined so precipitately. I have owned nothing but Japanese cars since I began to drive. Yet, looking back at Detroit products of the Golden Age, I would have had no trouble with Packard or Pierce Arrow or Duesenberg. They were beautiful cars that compared favorably with the best that Europe could manufacture.

 

Outliers: Rick Bartow, Mad River Wiyot

Deer Spirit by Rick Bartow (1946-2016)

Today, Martine and I visited the Autry National Center, which was putting on a show of the late American Indian painter and sculptor, Rick Bartow, entitled “Things You Know But Cannot Explain.” I was enthralled by Bartow’s vision of people and the wild animals whose spirits have invaded them. A member of the Mad River Band of Wiyot Indians, Bartow  lived much of his life around Newport, Oregon.

The deer spirit illustrated above is typical of Bartow’s depiction of human verging on totemic animal. Another is the drawing that gave its name to the show:

“Things You Know But Cannot Explain”

Note the face seeming to emerge from the upper right behind the foreground figure, who appears to be paralyzed with fright. Much more traditional is the drawing of three hawks below.

“Three Hawks”

I may not have a drop of Native American blood in me, but I am always delighted to see creative depictions of animals I consider to be my own personal totems, among whom I include the coyote, the raven, and the bear. Because I live at the edge of the desert and Bartow lived in the wet forests of the north, he did not depict my other totems, the frog and the turtle, both of whom I associate with life-giving rain.

Some of Bartow’s most impressive works are his sculptures. Perhaps I will do another posting on those later on. They are usually formed of wood, nails, and various found objects.

At a time when much of the art work is ruled by abstract expressionist garbage, I find Rick Bartow to be rooted in an ancient tradition that manages to speak to me today.

 

Outliers: From Slavery to the Art World

Alabama Artist Bill Traylor (1853-1949) Surrounded by His Works

Bill Traylor was born in Benton, Alabama, where his parents were slaves of a white cotton grower named George Hartwell Traylor. It was only when Traylor was in his seventies that his work began to be noticed. His first show was in 1942, when the artist was in his eighties. By this time, he had only a few years left to him.

Community Building a House

An American primitive, Traylor painted both rural and urban scenes containing people, animals, and plants. Some of his works are on irregularly-shaped backgrounds, as you can see from the top photo.

Black Couple Dancing

Some people get enthusiastic about abstract expressionism. I for one do not. Bill Traylor’s drawings speak volumes nto me. Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko do not.

 

Outliers: Czeching Out the Women

Miroslav Tichý (1926-2011) with Home-Made Junk Camera

This is one of an occasional series on alternatives to the “giants” of modern art, particularly the abstract expressionists whose work I so dislike. Today I write about Miroslav Tichý of the Czech Republic, who made his own cameras. His subject? The women of Kyjov, the town where he lived. None of the pictures for which he is noted are sharp. He seems to be intent on seeing how fuzzy his pictures can be and still communicate what he wants them to.

Women at Swimming Pool

The above photograph is a good example. It shows three young bikini-clad girls walking around the edge of a swimming pool.  It is framed by surrounding foliage including the trunk of a tree at left and bushes and leaves on three sides.

Nude with Frame

Here we have what, in the hands of a realist painter, would be a classical nude partially obscured on the lower left by an unidentified object. At first, I thought it was her leg; but it couldn’t be.

Looking at his pictures, I cannot deny that they have a certain elegance and beauty. Tichý described his methods tersely in two unconnected sentences:

  • “First of all, you have to have a bad camera”
  • “If you want to be famous, you must do something more badly than anybody in the entire world.”

As American urban slang shows, you can be bad and good at the same time.