Above: Debra Yoo, “Brothers III,” casein, oil and metal leaf on wood panel, 24 x 60 inches (diptych), 2019
Over the past few years, I have found myself moving away from painting landscapes outdoors to spending more time reflecting on and revisiting the existing work in my studio. However, my attempts to pare the landscapes down to their more abstract essentials have felt stilted and somewhat stale, and I had little enthusiasm for simply resuming what I already knew how to do.
I have found that my interest in painting has been stimulated mainly as a result of studying great paintings in museums, and “appropriating”—or absorbing—what in the painter’s method has attracted me to look at them closely and repeatedly, whether it was the way Matisse used space, or Sargent made brushmarks, or Hodler designed clouds over the Alps.
I’ve been profoundly drawn to Russian icons since college when my student work consisted of paintings and prints that were abstract interpretations of icons in reproduction. Over a subsequent twenty-year period of realist still life painting, pictures of icons found their way into my compositions. I’ve taken classes in traditional Byzantine icon painting in egg tempera, a rigorous process in which every step from preparing the board to the choice of colors in each of many layers has symbolic meaning and is a liturgical act. I had a deep appreciation and respect for this ancient spiritual practice and didn’t want to trivialize it by doing it without complete conviction.
Last year, feeling the need to shake things up, I decided to wrestle with the icon thing head on and took a trip to Russia with my husband. To see so many powerful works by Andrei Rublev and the Novgorod school that I had only known mostly through books, to experience the wonder of ancient cathedrals teeming from floor to ceiling with icon screens and frescoes, was completely intoxicating for me, just as it had been for Matisse a hundred years ago.
What could this mean as far as making my own paintings? I returned wanting to explore some of the intense colors and formal relationships found in icons, not to make an icon in the Orthodox manner, but to feel free to alter or let go of the image and/or the subject—or not. Through playing with the photographs I had taken in Russia, accidental juxtapositions began to suggest new compositions that kept aspects of the source materials, yet strayed gently away from them. Washes of dry pigment bound with casein on traditionally gessoed wooden panels, along with oils, allowed for the kind of layered mark-making I was looking for. Oh heck, why not throw in some metal leaf as well? Why not just let go, play, fail, have fun?
This new way of painting over the past year has produced reflections and variations of the visual and narrative elements of icons that I have adapted in an intuitive and improvisatory way, and it has definitely rekindled my enthusiasm for the process of painting. It is a joy not to know exactly what I am doing. They are connected with my previous work in many ways, yet feel very new.
“And I feel in these days that Russian things will give me the names for those most timid devoutnesses of my nature which, since my childhood, have been longing to enter into my art!” —Rainer Maria Rilke, in a letter dated 1899.
THE LOOK TO THE LOOK
— Ruth Sylmor
Painted for himself, Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of Mona Lisa in the Louvre is considered “the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world.” Time is the theme of the painting—a meditation on time, passing. What exactly has impregnated itself on me that draws me to her happiness, her contentedness? The mysteries of that look? Her eyes? The enigmatic smile? The ephemeral smile that lasts more than an instant.
I’ve passed the souvenir boutique on rue Lagrange many times, but this time the eyes of Mona Lisa printed on the apron seemed to follow me. The light was right, and I, eager to finish the roll in my camera and process it, paused, framed her, clicked the shutter, and rewound the roll.
When I saw the image on my contact sheet, I passed over it as a sort-of lark. La Joconde is everywhere and has become more of a joke than anything else—a painting famous for being famous. However, in the following days when I walked past the boutique, I found myself, not compelled, but oddly interested in the arrangement of aprons, bags, and scarves. Consciously returning her look, I noticed how the Mona Lisa apron hung on the rack, centered, or was it askew.
Walking in Le Marais, la rue Verrerie, I was startled by this image of the Mona Lisa pasted on the wall. Street Art speaks to our values, our culture, and hopefully opens a dialogue with passers-by. Here is the free zone of process that challenges us. It is precisely the breadth and depth of possible interpretations that make the Mona Lisa unique. An inescapable icon, something from a postmodern novel, this femme fatale is a challenging meditation on time passing that will intrigue us for years to come.
Appropriated/displaced—In winter 2019, MaineHealth corralled me in the ER and told me that I could not be medically treated anymore, that I could not leave the ER without an acceptable plan. Either voluntarily goes into a nursing home at age 67 or they would “section” me as unsafe to myself and others. My only choice, really, was to leave Maine forever and go back to my medical specialists in Boston. So I did, losing Maine this way.
It’s a displacement like no other. I want to die there. My mind was formed and shaped in Maine, my choice. The taste of the water, even the tides aren’t right here.
As I’ve lost function, I’ve tried to adapt to expressionist gouache via digital constraints.
And not be a wimp about it.
Burglary and Wellness
— Amy Bellezza
When this assignment came up, I immediately thought of Kurt Schwitters (1887– 1948), the German artist, who used appropriation in his collages.
I visualized my finished piece instantly and had to work backward to create it, layer by layer.
The symbolism of Burglary is as follows:
It is painted and collaged on unprimed raw wood to keep these ideas and symbols in a raw state. There is nothing cohesive or neat or clean about this piece, the situation is in a “raw state.”
The cross I bear from this is upside-down because I am the poorer and less authoritative one, and I was blamed at first until the police got to know me. So I carry a cross that is upside-down. It is also receded to symbolize the lack of attention I have gotten for these burglaries. The color orange shows I still have maintained my optimism and determination and it is attention-getting.
The two photographs are of my security system I was forced to get because of these intrusions. The house numbers are the three locations of my apartments that these people invaded, in New York, Delaware and Maine. The address numbers also get bigger to symbolize that the thefts and behavior escalated.
There are two pink printouts. The criminally insane definition from urbandictionary.com, symbolizes the type of people they are—urban and crazy. The second passage about pathological jealousy is why they have done what they’ve done to me. The pink paper symbolizes the color used with prisoners and insane people; it is supposed to keep them calm. In large amounts, it can cause physical weakness.
The photograph of my cat, Winchester Eloise, is supposed to symbolize another security feature I have taken by purchasing a Savannah cat who is descended from an African Serval. She is partially wild and is hoping her lineage will be a deterrent.
Winnie watches a fly fall and has her paw on two grubs, which is how I view these low-lifes, as annoying and disgusting pests. She is looking down which is how I perceive these people too. The fly is a green bottle fly and the grubs are mealworms. They bring death, decay, annoyance, disgust, and fright into my home. What is she going to do with these insects? Catch and eat them and get rid of them, or do they getaway?
The chandelier spike goes to the heart of these perpetrators.
My home was broken and shattered never to be put back together perfectly. The glass pieces may look like they fit but they really don’t. It was and still is shattered and broken—traumatized. This is an ugly, clashing piece for an ugly, clashing subject.
This burglary was of my home, in three different states, by the same two to three people. They didn’t just steal; they left “mementos,” destroyed some of my clothes and sent “gifts” in the mail. They also got a hold of my car keys and vandalized that, too. My “person” had also been attacked by one of them, who carries a knife.
These people slipped through the cracks of failed law enforcement attention and got away.
Wellness is another appropriation piece I did. I chose Schwitter’s Hansa (1931) to make a likeness of because I was struck with the simplicity and power of the image. I saw it in a catalog I own of Schwitters’s work. I have no idea what it looks like in color.
I used unprimed, raw wood to give it a feeling of “natural,” like how I am raising Winchester Eloise.
I painted a black pillar just like his only the dimensions are taller, also I did not tilt the bottom and painted alongside it a purple stripe to complement the Wellness kitten food label.
I chose the kitten food label because that is what I’m feeding my kitten and because the design and colors of the label are striking. I feed my cats exclusively Wellness and have always been impressed by their designs on their products. They say to me—Quality.