For the past while our good friends Gil and Marion Dyck needed a medium sized abstract to go at the top of the stairs in the entrance to their new home. Over the past two days Gil and I got together and made one. Gil is a medical doctor who works in emergency in the local hospital and had no previous experience in painting. While both he and his wife are well informed about art, and are serious collectors, he doubted his potential contribution as a co-painter. But when he got the brush in his hand he began to see the possibilities.
The Dycks had in mind a strong-impact vertical 36 x 48 inch acrylic. We decided on a 2-inch stretcher gallery canvas so the work could hang unframed. After a grey primer the early strokes were augmented with a roller. A dark tone was chosen to give spotted and blended effects and a strong vertical presence.
Various brushes and cardboard spreaders were used to add serendipitous colours and shapes. Paint squeezed directly from the tube was scraped and formed to add significant texture. Without too much planning, a motif began to form. Gil and I alternated work on the canvas.
The next day the paint was dry enough to tone down with a glaze. Then we scumbled here and there to add casualness and mystery. We worked more patches of colour back into the motif. Decisions were made to cover the less desirable passages and to leave those of greater interest exposed. While individual gestures and motifs were somewhat arbitrary, we found these decisions were often difficult to make. We agreed that toned-down surrounds were needed to play against higher-key centers of interest. We tried to avoid specific detail and went for overall graphic soundness. Including interspersed acrylic isolation coats and slightly forced drying the second working lasted about an hour.
We discussed several titles. As the work had evolved into a sort of enigmatic monument, we decided to call it “Totemic rise.” As the effort was a co-project we signed “Gennovese Van Dyck.”
The work was shortly on their wall. After a few days we’ll put on a coat of final varnish to make sure our efforts stick around.
PS: “Our responses to the world are crucially moulded by the company we keep, for we temper our curiosity to fit in with the expectations of others.” (Alain de Botton)
Wikipedia entry: Van Dyck, Gennovese, b. 1948 in the Occupied Territories to a Protestant father and a Catholic mother. Moved to The Netherlands, 1986. Van Dyck is a popular Dutch Neo-Renaissance abstract painter and bulb grower. Noted for never selling, always giving (some 18,000 paintings to date), Van Dyck is totally supported by his bulbs. Family motto (roughly translated) “It’s better to give than to receive.” Married to Virginia (nee Putz), home economist. The Van Dycks have three boys, Donder, Blitzen and Rudolph.
by Paula Christen, Winthrop, WA, USA
Welcome to our world, Gil! (Now you know the reason behind the artist’s smiles.) When you birth something from your heart and your eye to canvas or paper, then stand back to take it in, it is a soul-deep satisfaction. Thanks for sharing your co-op adventure.
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Can anyone do this?
by Susan Avishai, Toronto, ON, Canada
Am I the only one offended by this letter? Are we to assume, Robert, that anyone can produce their own “abstract” painting if given the materials and a helping hand by a pro? (As though abstraction means ya don’t hafta draw so great) To be a good teacher is one thing, a noble calling indeed, but this seems to be a one-time class to produce a finished piece for a specific wall in the “student’s” home, and that’s that. I daresay the reason Gil might now considering a career in art is because it’s so much easier than medicine! Hmm. Maybe the next time I need a doctor for my kid I’ll call Gil and he can hold my hand while I stitch up a laceration or diagnose a disease. What the hell — I can do this!
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Greater appreciation through participation
by David J. Veres, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
From time to time I will have people in the studio who insist they have little creativity. Recently, my brother was invited over to create an abstract for his home. After a long career as a Treasurer, he had not ventured far off the analytical path in life. One way to guide someone to mentally leap across the left/right brain barrier is for them to have lots of fun. Of course you may find yourself tidying up the piece at some point. As an abstract painter, I have some serious play time in the beginning, yet there is a point where all elements must come together to “formally coordinate” — just as in any well painted landscape! Doing one is fun, getting really good takes a lot of time and dedication. I find anyone who participates in the process, goes away with a greater appreciation for my abstract art and this genre as well.
by Abby Goell
Your “imitation” abstract painting is very familiar. I’ve seen variations on that cruciform image for decades, on one restaurant or apartment wall or another, occasionally in a bad gallery group show. If the point of the exercise is to prove that it takes less technical ability to make a poor abstract work than a poor realistic work, you have certainly succeeded. But it is still an “imitation” work and has nothing to do with original art. The fact that you would bother with this elaborate joke indicates that your grasp of art issues, ideas, history are tenuous to non-existent. I enjoy your newsletter. I think you write well about matters of materials, studio practices, marketplace, etc. They are worth reading, but they don’t ask, let alone answer ,aesthetic questions; imagery, style, how a visual idea translates to paint, how to develop an original voice, the relationship of color, texture, form to each other, to scale, techniques, etc.
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by Georges Nolte, Nimes, France
While there is certainly something to be said for “spirit” in all its varying forms, this co-painting exercise gives an insight into the formulaic aspect of creativity. There are abstracts and there are abstracts. The world is full of abstracts where there is little or no formula evident, or if there are formulas they are so basic as to make the resulting works trivial, no matter how the experts gush about them. The twice weekly letter mentions “decisions,” — some of them “difficult.” I’m surmising that Mr Genn, an experienced and capable painter in several forms, made many of the difficult decisions for the good doctor. Thus we have the production taking place under the surveillance and encouragement of an inspired eye. The actual brushing and scraping may be of minor importance. Also, the result may in some ways be “derivative,” and something we have all seen before, but the same would be true if Gil and Marion “needed” a painting of a babbling brook or an old mill. The result produced by these two friends working together with a kind of sophisticated innocence and obvious joy is decidedly above average for the genre, and I’m sure in Mr. Genn’s mind it’s just another opportunity to shine a light into the great mystery of human creativity.
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The decorator trap
by Terry Rempel-Mroz, Ottawa, ON, Canada
I subscribed to your newsletter a few years ago, and have for the most part been entertained and enlightened by both your viewpoint and readers’ comments. Generally it seems to me you espouse hard work, training, and practice-practice-practice as the road to artistic success and ability. Given some of your comments on mastery (“…when I look at what I consider to be masterful abstraction, I also see an underlying understanding of conventional academics — in other words, a hard-won grasp of the basics. ” from Back to the Basics, September 26, 2008), imagine my surprise when I see that you have fallen into TV land’s decorator trap — “anyone can make an abstract with a roller, some paint and cardboard” mindset. Unfortunately the proliferation of decorating shows and do-it-yourself specials has created an excess of false mastery — and what better way than to do abstract art — after all, if you can’t recognize it, it must be good.
Many of the world’s best known abstractionists had traditional training in realism — and both their realistic works and later abstractions can be seen on the web. Their work evolved from realistic to abstract. Examples — Picasso, Kandinsky, Lawren Harris to name a few. Abstract art is an ART — just like realism — and has both good and bad practitioners. Guillaume Appolinaire described the evolution of cubist art into abstract as “the art of painting new structures out of elements that have not been borrowed from the visual sphere, but had been created entirely by the artist… it is a pure art.” Would you have done the same thing if your friend had asked for a large landscape — paint-roller fields and cardboard scraper mountains?
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by Nina Meledandri, New York, NY, USA
I honestly have to say I don’t know how to respond to this letter. The subject “Holiday fun” is not lost on me and I am a huge fan of the DIY approach to home decor but I am not sure what is being said here about abstract art. I suppose it is the line between decoration and art that has become blurred and I am not sure which of those things this exercise was meant to address. This is particularly confusing because the Dyck’s are described as serious collectors which implies commitment to and respect for the role art plays in our cultural and spiritual development as well as an appreciation of the dedication that is necessary to make meaningful work in any genre.
The description of the process shows that certain basics tenets of painting were observed: a concern for balance and composition, evaluation of color, consideration of texture and a nod to preservation, all which are dutifully recorded. Yet, a crucial element, one especially integral to abstract expressionist art is completely missing: the desire to evoke emotion and/or to create an expression of the human experience. These things reside deeply in the base of most abstract painting and yet the project as you describe it seems to have been conducted without any concern for the very thing that separates abstract work from the notion that “my child could have done that.”
In faithful representational painting, skill of draftsmanship, mastery of technique, control of light can all be easily evaluated and a skilled painter can often compensate for a lack of emotional content if their technique is sufficiently refined. Expressionistic work involves a leap of faith and a willingness to balance a seeming lack of representational qualities with the benefits of an emotive response, but abstract work is at the other end of the spectrum and its power lies in its ability to seduce the viewer into abandoning concepts of the world as it is perceived it to be in order to venture into a deep, rich, collective unconscious of emotions, fears, dreams and visions. I find it unfortunate that what a “well informed” collector “needs” in a medium sized abstract is a work that seems more about functioning as a pleasing surface than the experience of having access to a doorway that opens into the mysteries of life.
In all fairness you have refrained from defining what was made (art/decoration/whatever) and I can imagine that the thrill and joy of creating this piece will bring much happiness and light into the Dyck’s home. But, while I am sure Gil “can do this” I hope there is some understanding that it might take as much time and effort to achieve genuine proficiency as it would for me to become a medical doctor in the ER.
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Painting to avoid the soup
by Molly Mooney
I love this painting! I have one in similar colors, maybe a little wilder with footprints walking across it, and a little larger. It was done by my Mother and her friend, both artists. I am contemplating putting it in my dining room on a large wall. Can’t decide if that is an appropriate place, but it would keep people from falling asleep in their soup.
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by Pepper Hume, Spring, TX, USA
Here’s yet another unworthy descendant trading on a great ancestor’s name. Remember PDQ Bach, the last and oddest of Bach’s twenty odd children? Soooo derivative. This thinly disguised reworking of the tired old “Boy Walking His Dog” is saved only by Gennovese’s exquisite drawing skills. Tell him to stop slavishly copying old masters and do something original… say, something nonrepresentational. He needs to just slog some color around, let himself go. Give those fine sons something to be proud of.
(RG note) Thanks, Pepper. Gennovese (with spelling liberties) was actually the name of a great American Mafia family. The last Genovese to be locked up drew twenty years. It was the feds that were proud.
Anything is possible
by Paula Timpson
When the expectations of others cross over our initial ideals we find grace bestowed upon us all as we lift a hand to paint silently in the darkness, touch others through pure gift of music or engage the dreams we see awaken in life. It is how we live, not what we have. In stillness hearts dance and flame. In purity of breath we give energy and joy. Receiving happiness is when the expectations of others meet ours. We hold hands and waltz through scent of lavender fields, winters soft hush in whiteness, in the light all comes clear, life moves into rhythm of song, soul opens up, lifts toward freedom anew.
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Red cape and all
by Nonny Kudelka, NC, USA
LOLOLOL Thanks for the best laugh of the day. I loved the Wikipedia bio!! See? Making art and enjoying it needn’t be all toil. Art can be fun! (Can I tell you what I see?) It’s a little Hippo Super Hero, red cape and all, standing in the “superhero stance,” cape blowing out to our right, his super powers belt not around his middle, but hanging over his shoulder.
(RG note) Thanks Kordelia, and thanks to everyone who wrote to tell us what they thought the painting was all about.
Instilling confidence in others
by Courtney Lurie, Austin, TX, USA
I have been receiving your emails for several months now. I just wanted to let you know that I think your writings are fantastic. When I do choose to embrace them at the moment I receive them, I’m always surprisingly enlightened and moved and often find a chuckle in there somewhere too. I just wanted to let you know that as a fellow artist, I so appreciate dialogue with other artist folk as we blaze the unknown terrain of daily creation. Thank you for sharing your inner thoughts and presenting such vivid and insightful prose.
Also… I love the new abstract. Nice work instilling your doctor friend with enough confidence to approach a blank canvas. That is a tall order.
Enjoy the past comments below for Holiday fun…
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Chris Darlington who wrote, “I was thrilled with the results or your collaboration with Gil. Thanks for sending out inspiring and motivating creative energy.”
And also Marge Rood who wrote, “This will be the most prized painting in the Dr’s collection.”
And also Paul and Katherine Hough who wrote, “We have now finished our house on the bluff. Would it be more cost effective to have Gil whip something up for our entry — or could you be competitive? Happy New Year!”
And also Elizabeth Keizer who wrote, “Please tell Gil not to give up his day job.”