Babette’s Feast: An Artist Is Never Poor

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 9.09.11 AMAfter I came back from the gallery show, I met Ken driving up at the same time as me, and since he’d already eaten dinner, I warmed up some of my 96/4 meatloaf and sat down in front of the tv to watch the rest of Babette’s Feast, a movie in Danish, taken from a famous story by Isak Dinesen, one of my favorite writers.  BTW, it was fun listening to the movie and reading the subtitles because it’s amazing how much Danish you can understand — I’d say about 25%.  Sounds sort of like the Swedish chef.

I’d already watched part of the movie and hadn’t paid much attention to it, because I’d already read the story and I sort of remembered what it was about. Babette, who has lost her husband and son in civil unrest in 19th century France, comes to the home of two elderly spinster sisters who live in an isolated village dominated by a harsh, barren shoreline in Denmark (Jutland, actually, I read on Wiki).  The sisters have devoted their lives to their widowed father, a minister in a strict religious sect.  Both of them were beautiful and talented young women who could have married well and left their father; both fell in love and were loved in return but they remained with the old minister, helping with his dwindling flock.  Babette cooks for the sisters and for the old members of the church.  They appear to eat very little except some awful breadcrumb porridge.

After 14 years, Babette receives word that she has won 10,000 francs in the lottery in France and she makes plans to spend her winnings to prepare a wondrous feast.  When the ship docks and she goes to fetch her live turtle, cage of birds, wines, and truffles the sisters fear the worst:  Babette’s feast is surely from the devil.  But the feast is marvelous beyond words and somehow heals all the old enmities between the members of the dwindling sect.  The soldier, now a retired general, who loved one of the sisters, is also a guest, and the feast seems to erase all the years that have passed.

BabettesFeast1987Babette, it seems, was once the greatest chef in Paris and the general, along with the other sister’s lover, a famous singer, were among her patrons. After the dinner, the sisters learn to their horror that Babette has spent every penny of her lottery winnings on the food, but Babette says, “An artist is never poor.”  When I heard that I put down my fork and started listening carefully; it had been years since I had read the story and I had forgotten this completely.  Babette explains that the artist’s heart cries out to give the world the very best. They embrace and the sister, who could have left her father to become a famous opera singer with the man who loved her, says, “In paradise, Babette, you will be the artist God intended you to be.”

Somehow hearing that healed something in me, the part that feels like a failure because I never made a lot of money.  In some ways I’ve been very selfish in my life;  I was willing to be poor as long as I got to be an artist, or try.  Some people might not see that as selfish, but it was, because my children suffered.  But I always tried to give the world my very best.  That is true.  I hope I don’t have to wait for paradise to be the artist God intended me to be. Maybe it is not too late for me to create my Babette’s Feast.

Edgy Is As Edgy Paints: Michael Vasquez and Rose Freymuth-Frazier at the Cress Gallery

A few weeks ago I got a postcard in the mail about a new show at the Cress Gallery at UTC by up-and-coming painters Michael Vasquez and Rose Freymuth-Frazier. Vasquez’ half of the show, “It Comes With the Territory,” and Freymuth-Frazier’s “Whispering Sisters and the Female Figurative Image” use their figurative art to explore gender roles and identity in their own lives. The show and artist lectures are sponsored by Friends of the Gallery and are part of the UTC Diane and John Marek Visiting Artist Series, which has brought a number of exceptional artists to Chattanooga in the past few years. Curator Ruth Grover should be commended for her work in getting these first-rate shows to UTC.

WhisperingSistersA couple of years ago, New York figurative painter Steven Assael  had a show at the gallery, and his work blew me away. When I realized that Assael had been in town and I’d missed the reception and the chance to meet him, I was filled with angst: The postcard had only shown a rather fuzzy detail of one of Assael’s monumental works, and not being familiar with his name at the time I foolishly tossed it into a pile of junk mail. When I saw the much nicer reproduction of Freymuth-Frazier’s 60″x52″ oil on the postcard invitation for this show, and read that Freymuth-Frazier had studied under both Assael and Odd Nerdrum, my current painting deity, I made plans to attend this reception. Plus she’s a woman doing figurative work. I’m there!

It would be fair to say that Vasquez’ work didn’t initially draw me as Freymuth-Frazier’s did. The postcard shows his impressive 48″x36″ Guarded Entry, from 2008, an image of two tattooed African-American men, arms crossed, facing down the viewer with hostile and suspicious expressions. I hope I can be forgiven if Guarded Entry is not a painting I want in my living room. For many years, I lived in a neighborhood with a gang presence and twice witnessed family members held at gun point. The painting calls for a large foyer in a much more upscale neighborhood where it could bestow a fashionably avant-garde aura and yet be as far removed as possible from anyone like the men pictured.

2010-09-20-031It’s hard to tell if Vasquez is a gangbanger wannabe or the real thing; although an article on the internet described his time in the Young Bloods, at the lecture he appeared to be a fresh-faced young man, perfectly groomed, dressed in nicely pulled-up baggy pants and a spotless ballcap. In his slide show presentation, he started out showing unexceptional early student work: installations with representations of his missing dad, and explainations of his personal symbolism of fences and houses. Engaging and open, Vasquez spoke of his close relationship with his mom, who was in the audience. He moved on to more recent and much more fluent work on canvas and paper, with a lot of overlaying of spatters and streaks over the figurative work, but it didn’t really grab me from the screen. When he talked about looking up to the gang members in his neighborhood because he didn’t have a father at home, that rang true, but the audience shifted nervously when he said the models were his friends, then dodged questions about how, or if, he got out of the gang.

Then Freymuth-Frazier took the stage. Like Vasquez, she started out showing early work that appeared unexceptional, although charming, and talked about her general themes of women’s roles and beauty, with a lot of her models being women who seem to have been roughed up by life in one way or the other but have fought back.

Bruised

The artist, a striking young woman, seemed more guarded about her personal information than Vasquez, so I couldn’t tell if her painting of a woman with a black eye [Bruised, 2009]  was merely formulaic  “woman as victim,” real empathy, or a reflection of personal wounds I couldn’t see. Caregiver, also from 2009, a woman in profile wearing a hospital mask,  struck more of a note with me since it reflects my life right now, but maybe also because it  was more subtle.

When she described Nerdrum’s idyllic farm in Norway with its miniature horses and goats, a painter’s utopia that sounds like Mary Engelbreit channelled through Rembrandt, I hope no one caught me drooling. I asked her later during the questions about Nerdrum’s palette, but she wasn’t very forthcoming, telling me pretty much what I knew from my internet wanderings: he uses juane brilliante for flesh, and mixes a warm gray out of burnt sienna and another color she couldn’t remember. Rats, foiled again in my fruitless quest for someone who will actually tell me something!

At the reception, the artists were busy talking to everyone, and I realized that it would be necessary to stand in line to speak a word to either of them. I decided to relax, drink some lemonade, and let the crowd thin out. In the meantime, Vasquez’ mother was standing alone and I talked to her. She told me that her son had originally wanted to be a comic book artist, which didn’t surprise me at all. Comic books provide the only place most kids can see the human figure drawn well now, if only in miniature and reproduced on newsprint. She said his friends were nice boys, always courteous and not in trouble.

2010-09-20-028When I talked to Vasquez, I asked him if he was influenced by urban figurative painter Kehinde Wiley  and he bristled a bit. Wiley’s works are, like Vasquez’, larger than life-size portraits of urban subjects, but less painterly in execution, with classic influences from Italian Renaissance sources. After I spoke with Vasquez for a minute, I went into the gallery to check out the paintings again (I’d quickly cruised the gallery earlier when I’d arrived). A huge wall sized depiction of two men with an automatic weapon (The High Flag, 2009), the canvas running with Bloods color, involuntarily engaged me — the painting triggered my PTSD and actually made my heart pound.

When I forced myself to approach closely, the almost photographic rendering from across the room suddenly dissolved into fluent masses of mark-making. Nice. It reminded me of when I visited the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. a few years ago and saw the John Singer Sargent show. Sargent’s huge society portraits melted before my eyes as I walked up to them, transforming into masses of dazzling virtuouso brushwork. So, OK, maybe I don’t know if the kid’s a poser or a thug, but he can paint. I hope he doesn’t get too entranced with the mark-making — it’s a little less successful in the smaller works where it can begin to overpower the figurative aspects, but he’s already been a semifinalist in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Exhibition, so maybe he won’t get derailed at this point.

Then I talked to Freymuth-Frazier and mentioned how happy I was to see really good figurative work by a woman, and we had a nice discussion about the percentage of women artists to men. She thoughtfully disagreed when I asserted that only 1 in 10 figurative artists are women, if that; she said that most artists of any kind are men! She’s right when you are talking about big galleries in big cities, but I think there are more women in the lower echelons of the art world. The higher you go, the more artists are men, whether in the world of illustration or fine art. Smaller galleries are clogged with polite work by genteel ladies, little of it figurative. It’s just too easy to get shows without it. You have to want to “paint real” really bad. When Freymuth-Frazier said during her presentation that she didn’t give many talks because she was always painting, I knew she spoke the truth. Learning to paint figurative work even passably well takes a great deal of time, and a lot of “painting hunger.”

2010-09-20-027Later, I looked up Freymuth’s work on the internet. I had been a bit puzzled when Matt Greenwell, the head of the UTC Art department, had asked her about the sexual themes in her work: She had one hermaphroditic nude in her presentation [Reclining Hermaphrodite, 2009], not so shocking if you know she studied with Nerdrum, and her female nudes are voluptuous and have tattoos. So what? Or was I missing something about the fish in Woman Caught Fishing (2007)?
I can be awfully naïve sometimes. On her website, though, she had a much more blatant hermaphroditic image, or maybe it was a dildo [Shortest Distance Between Two Points, 2010], and then an amusing sort of “Still Life with Dildo” [Artificial Insemination, 2007]. Skimming her reviews from the big art journals and papers, I scanned the words “sensuous confections” and “feminine.” Acck!  Splutter! Then I recalled how during her talk she had shown a painting of a tightly swaddled newborn, influenced by Nerdrum’s somewhat disturbing images of infants lying swaddled on the ground. Freymuth-Frazier’s painting shows an infant alone on a flat surface, its face barely visible. Yet when it flashed on the screen, the entire audience swooned and emitted an “ahhhhh” in unison. She might as well have painted a basket of kittens. That, folks, is why a woman figurative painter with any dignity at all who wants to get noticed has to paint a still life featuring a dildo. Sigh. Suddenly I understood the sly wit in her other work, too: Until then I hadn’t  really picked up on the 76″x40″ Woman Fighting Bull (2007).
Like I said, sometimes I can be kind of dense. Monumental humor is hard to pull off, but she manages it with a po-po-po-poker face.

2010-09-20-026Freymuth-Frazier, as a matter of fact, possesses a dazzling talent — dare I use that maligned word?  Her images of woman battered by life and caregiving or woman as grotesque mechanized milk cow [Litter, 2009] can be a little pat, and betray her wariness about her roles as a woman and artist. And she is wise to be wary, because woman as artist is a tricky balancing act no matter what anyone says. Her wariness brings with it a certain lack of engagement at this point: Sometimes she seems to be groping for her real subject in a way Vasquez is not. But he is only showing us flashes of the real world on the other side of town; Formuth-Frazier gives us intruguing hints of the ability to create her own world, a world that the viewer can inhabit, as Nerdrum has. Creating a world that seduces the viewer requires a seductive paint surface, but so many critics are profoundly distrustful of beautiful painting, because it can be cheaply used. But not always. World-building, in the end, might be the only reason to spend years learning to paint well;  certainly, it’s the reason that appeals to me the most, for what that’s worth. An artist’s own inner world is a different thing than pop psychology; it springs from the unconscious and is valuable and interesting because it is timeless. Although Freymuth-Frazier has not fleshed her world out just yet, I am sure she will find her way.

I painted a kitten once and I was very, very sorry. People are still asking me to paint more kittens. Edgyness, meaning just shocking enough, just a tad transgressive against traditional values, decisively non-bourgeois, is the only place to be if you want to be taken seriously in the big city, and it’s harder for a woman. A talented young man who paints flashy “society portraits in the ‘hood” can position himself as edgy quite easily: He hints vaguely that he just might have been taking resource snaps with his cell phone while out carjacking tourists. Odd Nerdrum painted his self-portrait with an erection [Self-Portrait in Golden Cape, 1997]; after that he could live on his bucolic farm and paint any number of swaddled infants if he pleased. But what does a powerful woman figurative painter do to get out of that satin-lined, coffin-shaped trap labeled “sensuous confections?”

Leonardo Exhibit in Birmingham

davinci-studyLast week, my husband Ken, Theresa and her boyfriend Conrad, and I drove to Birmingham, Alabama together to see the Leonardo exhibit at the Birmingham Museum of Art. I woke Ken up early, because it was election day, worried after turning on CNN and hearing about long lines already at 7 AM. We hadn’t voted early, partly because I didn’t make up my mind until the day before (yeah, I know, I’m one of those middle-aged independent voters and anyway, I don’t like to vote too early because something might happen to change my mind at the last minute). We drove to the polling place at 7:45 and there was a line but not too bad. It was a very diverse crowd — an elderly Asian gentleman in front of me, along with an assortment of young and old black and white voters. Very America. Ken and I cheerfully cancelled out each other’s votes and were out of there by 8:15.

The weather was great — coolish with blue skies — as we stopped to pick up Theresa and Conrad. We ate a nice lunch at a small Mexican restaurant, and found the museum without much trouble. This was the first time in a long time I’d actually gotten off the freeway in Birmingham, although over the years I have driven through many times on the way to Mississippi or New Orleans. When we arrived at the museum the street was lined with dozens of school buses, but it was still lunch time and they were on their way out. The museum is beautiful and really big, as big as the High in Atlanta. On the way to the special Leonardo exhibit I checked out their extensive Pre-Columbian collection, which made me wish I had brought a sketchpad. There was one small sculpture in particular that I loved — a man wearing what appeared to be a fitted doublet in every way like an Elizabethan garment, except that Ken and I couldn’t figure out if it had sleeves. A bit of remaining paint suggested that it might have been made of jaguar skin. He was wearing a tall brimmed hat that was very Elizabethan too. In the next room I stumbled on a statue of a short Incan girl wearing another amazing hat, a close-fitting helmet, parti-colored in blue and tan (not right down the middle but cleverly off-center) with floppy earpieces that hung to the shoulders. She was completely nude otherwise except for jewelry. Theresa didn’t like the Pre-Columbian stuff because she said it creeped her out, and it does have a lot of death imagery and scary demonic faces, but it also is very humorous and whimsical and reminds me in some ways of modern gaming art. I found a scrap of paper in my purse and sketched the Incan hat. (Later: what did I do with that damn sketch?) Note: I finally found the scrap of paper in 2011, and used it to make a tiny little 3″x5″ painting for Chattacon, a science fiction convention. Then I lost the scrap of paper. Then I found it again and I figured I’d better scan it quick before I lose it again. Here they are:Bhamhat1 Bhamhat2

Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 2.57.27 PM

After we looked at the Pre-Columbian art we found the Leonardo exhibit and stayed there about an hour. It consisted of many silverpoint and chalk drawings on prepared papers, displayed behind glass, of course, some of them in windows that enabled the viewer to look at sheets drawn on both sides. Many were familiar, and so beautifully and smoothly executed that I found myself losing the immediacy of the experience and reacting as if I were looking at a picture in a book! I kept having to shake myself from my museum-trance, realizing over and over that these were actual drawings made by Leonardo! I looked for scratches and erasures but even then it was hard to stay present. We were given large magnifying glasses to look at the incredible detail but I just took off my glasses and bored right in. Usually when I draw at work I take off my glasses, and find that I can see a huge amount of detail that way. I don’t know if other people can do that or not. I got as close to the drawing as possible, nose about 1″ from the glass, with my hands behind my back so the museum guards don’t think I’m trying to touch anything. They usually don’t mind me.

davinci-figural-sketches

I enjoyed seeing the drawings of the human figure in which Leonardo was obviously marking out the muscle groups, something I have done myself in figure drawings. His mastery of the horse was astonishing. He must have spent many many hours drawing these beautiful animals and carefully observing their musculature and motion. The papers were prepared with glue size, pigment, and bone ash, although they appeared to be thinly washed. The colors were very restrained — a grayish pink and a bluish gray. The metalpoint had more substance and depth than I have been able to achieve myself. I know that metalpoint darkens with time but his lines just looked softer. I don’t know if they were silverpoint or lead point — lead point looks more like a soft pencil. Some of them were mixtures of red chalk, black ink, and metalpoint with additions of white paint, once again used in a very restrained manner. I think I have been laying everything too heavy in my silverpoint drawings.

If Leonardo had lived in the 20th century, I think he would have been a science-fiction illustrator or a scientific illustrator, with his eye for detail and his interest in science. He would probably have loved computers too. He wouldn’t have been a fine artist because no museum in the mid-twentieth century would have been interested in his work. I can hear those of you who like abstract painting saying, but he would have been so creative, he would have just painted wonderful abstract paintings. Hmmm. Nah. After we wandered away from the Leonardo drawings I found the European collection, which includes a large number of Renaissance and late-Middle Ages minor masters. There were many panels on wood in tempera and once again, I was able to get really close to observe the brushwork. There were roomfuls of Baroque and Rococco paintings and lots of American 19th century art, which I think is so undervalued. So much stuff that after a while I wore out and my brain started to buzz and I couldn’t absorb anymore.

Two or three rooms were devoted to abstracts and postmodernism. They don’t interest me and so I just kind of wandered through. The abstract movement in the early 20th century was a reaction to the excessive rigidity of 19th century academic painting. Academic painting was exquisite technically, but already the first cracks of the 20th century’s existential crisis of meaning in the West had appeared. Most abstraction, to me at least, is the very essence of meaninglessness, and they had a point, but they threw the baby out with the bathwater; thousands of poor art students wandered through art school in the 20th century and no one could teach them anything, because no one knew anything. I was one of them. “How do I paint this?” I would ask, and be told, just express yourself. You’re free to do anything! Bah.

Then, a wonderful surprise: On the way to the gift shop, a gigantic Bouguereau, a wonderful nude, so large I could only inspect the hands and feet. I know Bouguereau is eye candy, but I don’t care. It’s not his fault that Darwin undercut the religious foundations of the Western spirit. The man could paint. How I wish I could have visited his studio: I read that the children who posed for his putti played at his feet as he worked. How did he manage that? An awful spotlight put a glare on the center part of the painting and I found myself wishing for a ladder so I could look at the face, but I could only back away and see it from a distance. I looked at his flesh tones for a long time. The edges were quite clean, not carefully fuzzed as so many of the 18th and 19th century academic painters did to make the flesh look soft, and yet his flesh is lifelike, even more than lifelike. A master, and if you had been alive in 1955 when the abstracts were being painted, and had been able to write a check for about $5000 or even less, you could have owned a Bouguereau! Ken and I wandered out to the sculpture garden , where a large Botero bronze made me feel as if the artist had been spying on me. There were some interesting Salvador Dali drawings in the hall too. My brain finally stopped processing information completely and Conrad, Ken and I sat down in the lobby and waited on Theresa, who was still looking. I found a kid’s name tag in the restroom, and Theresa was able to find the right school group and get it to them in less than a minute. The woman is amazing.

On the way out of town, we saw lots of schoolkids in the neighborhoods around the museum and I thought about how far our country has come since the little girls were killed in the church bombing so long ago, but still in my lifetime. That night we elected our first African-American president but I was too tired to stay up for the election results and just read about it in the paper the next day. All the old white guys like Leonardo are long dead and gone but Quality — Quality remains.