Thursday, February 22, 2007

An artist as storyteller

Charles Bonenti, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Saturday, February 17

WILIAMSTOWN — Painter Mark Mulherrin is a man of words and images.

He draws on multiple narrative traditions for his paintings, layering historical Western and Eastern mythic and poetic imagery with imagined and experienced situations. And he writes about what he does with a penetrating, philosophical wit.

Of oil painting, for example, he says: "It is an odd, and perhaps ironic accident of our language that the word pain takes up most of the room in the word "paint."

And he likens the studio to "an uptown sandbox for grown-ups, a context for intellectual delight and a place where the spirit can play."

A native of Boston, who studied painting at the Pratt Institute in New York, Mulherrin worked as a musician and performance artist at places in the city like Danceteria; then was a painter and set designer in the Caribbean before moving to the Berkshires, where he now lives in Williamstown and teaches painting at the Austen Riggs Institute in Stockbridge.

An exhibition of his most recent work, most of it done in the past year, is the subject of a solo show through March 3 at the Plum Gallery on Water Street.

  • These new paintings are a departure, he told to me, in that they come entirely from his imagination.

    As a result, they appear far more spontaneous and loosely drawn than earlier work I've seen, which tended to appropriate figures, animals and birds, recognizable from medieval and classical art, and arrange them in poetically themed situations.

    The new paintings carry forward this thread of interest, but the brushwork is far looser; and the paint, itself, has become a starring player — textured and frenzied, often in warm tropical colors — rather than a means to creating an illusion.

    Yet Mulherrin never completely abandons his narrative inclinations — part myth, part dream, part superstition. The titles he conjures offer intriguing, if contradictory clues — "Fish Holding Cloud Up," or "It Snowed in Malibu," or "Bird Who Drank the Sea." Others are clearly based on myth or the bible: "Icarus," "Lazarus."

  • While the situations depicted may seem ambiguous, the shapes of animals or trees or humans or land features are always recognizable, if only symbolically.

    Mulherrin is at his best here in the larger canvases — like "Fish Holding Cloud Up" — that offer a scale to match his energy. These works come off with assurance and a compelling presence.

    His smaller paintings — an all-yellow "The Butter King" and a murky blue-black "Recreation of a Constellation" for example — many of them in frames painted to match, seem, by contrast, overworked and self-conscious.

    Mulherrin has taken a big step with these newer works and while he wavers somewhat in direction, he shows himself as a bold and imaginative artist/storyteller.

    Thursday, February 15, 2007

    The visionary of vision

    By John E. Mitchell, North Adams Transcript

    Thursday, February 15
    WILLIAMSTOWN — A new exhibit at the Clark Art Institute argues that 17th-century French painter Claude Lorrain is pivotal in the way modern Western society looks at the world.

    Lorrain spent much of his life around Rome and is renowned for his landscape paintings. Prior to Lorrain, myths and biblical stories ruled the content of artists, with narratives being a major goal of the works.

    "After Claude, landscape was suitable for artists of the higher ambition," said Richard Rand, who curated the show and wrote the accompanying catalog.

    It wasn't that no one ever painted nature; it was just that no one painted nature as the main subject. Focusing on a landscape probably meant that the artist was lending his energy to the work in a way that had previously been reserved for paintings of, say, Jupiter or Jesus.

    "Before Claude's time, people did make landscape paintings, but they were often decorative, small, they made landscape murals as decorations for country villas," said Rand. "At times, the background could become important to telling the story, but it was always secondary. An episode from the Bible or from Roman mythology is always played out by the
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    figures, that's what was important. Claude reversed that in a way, he made the landscape more important than the figures. His landscapes always have figures in them and his paintings often have small figures that are enacting a narrative, but they're small. For him, the depiction of the atmosphere, the depiction of the trees, the light, all these were more important than the figures."

    Beyond Christian views

    It's certainly no accident that Lorrain's did his work in and around Rome — it drew from a world that no longer existed, a world that didn't focus on man as the spiritual center of the universe but, rather, as a part of it.

    "The landscape around Rome really embodied the greatness of historical times," said Rand, "and you could imagine the ancient ones still roaming the landscape. He tended to focus on that side, the pagan world of Imperial Rome and not the current Christian world."

    Lorrain's focus on the landscape does, however, reveal another side that is very much of the times and quite in line with Christian theology. It was the sort of attitude that would culminate in the 19th-century belief in "manifest destiny" and it began, like many things, with the idea that rich people wanted to control those things they had no control over.

    "In the early 17th century, the landscape around Rome was really wild, dangerous, there wasn't a good road system," said Rand. "This was a way for Claude and, by extension, the patrons who bought these pictures, the very elevated aristocrats, to control the land. They wanted to control nature according to their ideology. They were projecting their power."

    In many ways, this was the beginning of the notion of parks, where, in a controlled environment, people could visit nature, but nature tamed. Lorrain's painting didn't quite do that, but they did provide an analytical structure to the wild of the world. His work gave nature a bit of man-made order that Western society would take to its logical extreme.

    "I called him the quiet revolutionary," said Rand, "because, while his art is very peaceful and pleasant and shows the landscape in perfect harmony, idealized, he really did transform the way people look at art in the Western tradition."

    Hidden passion

    In the Clark show, Rand takes this a step further — he gives order to Lorrain's work by showing his own process of calculating nature's order. Lorrain's paintings are paired with his sketches to show that his cool studies are forged from more passionate and personal moments and reveal a scrappy side to a painter who can come off as rather mannered.

    "I think a lot of people will be amazed at how modern his drawings look, how fresh and beautiful," said Rand. "They're 350 years old and they look like they could've been done yesterday. They're incredibly accessible for an artist who comes from a distant time and place. You can gain a lot of insight from his drawings, more so than his paintings. His paintings — while beautiful — can often seem a little bit remote and overconceptualized."

    Lorrain very rarely sold or gave away his drawings. For the most part, he considered them very personal. In this way, the work is very revealing in regard to the passions that fueled the man, as filtered through a precise visual mind.

    "Even a quick study of bushes and trees created a picture that was very organized," said Rand. "Some of them look like Chinese brush drawings, very quick. You get the sense that he enjoyed doing these drawings, he took great pleasure in going out and capturing an impression of the landscape very quickly."

    Too often with classical art — particularly a genre like landscape — the joy of making the art can be hidden in the final product, which often seem to exist mostly as paeans to precision. Laying out the process, Rand believes, reveals the man.

    "I think this show really helps visitors get inside Claude's head," said Rand. "You really do feel like you are in his head, following him as he explores nature on his way to making these beautiful paintings. The show is all about his process and that's the way it's organized."

    Once the man is revealed alongside his passion, the revolutionary might also be better understood — and, equally, his link with everyday modern vision.

    "When you take a snapshot of a family picnic," said Rand, "you tend automatically to organize the composition such in a way that really can be traced back to Claude's drawing, framing it with a tree on one side, that kind of thing. You do that without thinking about it."

    The irony is that, 300 years later, Lorrain's legacy is scattered in the landscape that he once chronicled — so much so that his revolution seeps into the style of even the most questionable of his modern contemporaries who mine the same territory.

    "You see Claude's vision of nature wherever you look," said Rand, "whether it's Central Park in New York or your back yard or American painting in the 19th century, even Thomas Kinkade. He is one of Claude's descendants in a kind of kitschy way."

    "Claude Lorrain: The Artist as Draftsman" will be featured at the Clark Art Institute through April 29. For more information, visit bitions/claude.


    By John E. Mitchell, North Adams Transcript

    NORTH ADAMS — The exhibit "Unhinged," currently on display at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemp-orary Art, features artist Peter Garfield's photographic images of houses being swept through the sky. Blurry, at times lacking in basic composition and focus, Garfield's work appears to be a collection of impromptu snapshots in the tradition of UFO photography more than any kind of gallery art. Garfield says that is entirely the point.

    "I've always been alternately fascinated and amused by UFO photos," said Garfield, "because you want to believe it, but then you also question it — that's very much what I was trying to do, they are like UFO photos. I was playing on that."

    Part of Garfield's method is to embrace the most important component behind the UFO phenomenon — the fakery of it. The photos are not real photos of houses flying in the sky, but there is a back story to the images that extends perception of fiction as reality, the idea that Garfield's photos reflect a larger effort to take houses and drop them for the purpose of art.

    "I found that people were always asking me how I did it," said Garfield. "This was just before Photoshop, so people were very intrigued and bothered by them - disturbed, amused, all these different things. They always wanted to know how I did them and I guess I was taken a little off guard because I didn't realize that would be such a big issue."

    Garfield's method of utilizing the iconography he had created to expand into an entire mythology was similar, also, to the way information about UFOs is passed around popular culture — he made a book that put the images into their fictional content in the form of his artist catalog for a show.

    "I figured that most artists' catalogs are kind of boring, they have the boring art-speak essay, very few people actually read them," said Garfield. "I thought about how I do it so it's not just a throwaway object, I wanted it to be an artwork in itself. So I started thinking that I'm going to answer all these questions about how I do it, but I'm going to answer them in a different way. I explain how I do these houses, but it's going to be totally fiction."

    Garfield fabricated a process by which he and a crew of helpers took real houses and utilized helicopters and cranes to drop them and photograph them. Gar-field even used Photoshop to fashion some fake documentary images of the big machines dropping the houses for him, totally false "behind the scenes" photos — and he created text that pushed this official story through interviews and artist statements.

    "At no place in the catalog does it let on that all this is a fiction," said Garfield. "It's a totally straightforward artist's catalog that is actually an art piece in itself."

    Garfield's actual process is the exact opposite of the "official" one. He puts to-gether tiny scale houses — about 4 cubic inches — and, over a period of time, transforms them into the destroyed state they require for the resulting photograph.

    "When I go somewhere, I find a stick, use some nylon thread, hang it from the end of the stick, and, with my other hand, I'm holding the camera," said Garfield. "I just hold it out in front of a landscape - but I take a lot of pictures because I need to get one where there's enough blur so that it looks like it's moving and also so it's not too clear. If it's really clear, you can see it's a miniature right in front of the camera. So it's this trick, an illusion of depth, then the angle, where you're looking up to it. You see the bottom of the house and it makes it look like it's far away and up in the sky. Through trial and error, I learned how to create this illusion - and create this fantasy."

    The documentary photos featured in the catalog were created with similar fakery. The crane shots were fashioned in the exact same "nylon thread and stick" method, while the helicopter images were other photographs where the houses were digitally inserted.

    The end result of the flying house photos began in the early 1990's when Gar-field was more entrenched in, first, abstract painting and, then, representational ones. He did some flying house paintings, but those didn't satisfy, nor did photo/painting hybrids in which he would situate models in fronts of backdrops of his own creaion.

    "It took literally almost two years of me playing around with this stuff to get to a point where I realized that I wanted it to look like a snapshot," said Garfield. "It's got to be kind of grainy, a little blurry, maybe shot at an odd angle as if somebody just saw this and they happened to have a cheap throwaway camera and they just pulled it up and took a shot. It's not very well composed, it's not a real high-quality photo, because if you plan it out, then it looks like a professional photograph."

    Through those two years, Garfield had little clue where he was headed with this idea; it wasn't as if he had a moment of epiphany where he came up with the whole idea. First, the photographs themselves were completed and, later on, the fiction of the artist catalog. He knew what he wanted to do, but he didn't quite know why. At times, he was sure he was just going mad.

    "When I was doing the phony catalog, there were some shots where I actually build a piece of house," said Garfield. "It's one thing to build a tiny, little model, but I was building this piece of a house and I was going to drag it out to the corner of this park right by my studio and the cops came by and they're questioning me, there were all these things that made me wonder 'Am I totally insane? Why am I doing this?'"

    Once all the pieces came together, Garfield understood and now feels a lot more comfortable with his own process — and since the original photos were done, the world has become more comfortable, as well. The ascendance of Photoshop as the digital imaging standard has meant that a lot more very strange images have become something that ordinary people encounter on a regular basis. This has upped the ante for what Garfield tries to accomplish in his work, second guessing the perceptions of viewers who will just recognize photos of flying houses as fake. On the other hand, the catalog still does its work and Garfield says there are plenty of people who encounter his work who are convinced that he hauls houses onto cranes and drops them.

    Garfield now uses Photoshop more readily in his work and that has created another challenge — maintaining the illusion of authenticity. Even as he prepared old negatives for the current show at Mass MoCA, he found he had to fight the urge to go too far with digital delights like color correction.

    "That's the thing about Photo-shop, you look at a lot of the images and they're too perfectt," said Garfield. "I thought that I wanted to resist this impulse because I want to maintain a certain kind of rawness to the images. Too much of the imagery we see now is so polished that it loses the kind of edge of bad lighting or weird color that you get from a Polaroid or you get from cheap film. So I stopped the process. It could have been a more beautiful image, but I think it would have diminished the authenticity of the moment."

    In his more recent work, Garfield has actually gotten to the point where he not only fakes a fake, but allows the clues that the work is fake to be revealed in the photograph. With so many layers of fakery, it becomes hard to discern the authenticity of any given aspect of the image.

    Garfield has also been working in video that goes back and forth between sets that he builds and reality, creating an entirely subjective experience of the so-called reality being captured in the images. It's just another leg on the journey for Garfield.

    "A student recently asked me when I had the idea to do all this, and I think he had the impression that I just had an idea and I did all of it," said Garfield. "I wanted to make it clear that it was such a long process, it was lots of little ideas that I experiment with, a lot of them fail, some of them go on and morph into other ideas."

    Peter Garfield can be found online at His video work can be viewed at

    Arts community hosting forum

    By Jennifer Huberdeau, North Adams Transcript

    Tuesday, February 13
    NORTH ADAMS — At one time, immigrants moving into the city could easily be identified by their customs, languages and even appearances. Nowadays, those cultural markers aren't evident in the newest wave of immigrants — artists.

    "On some level, we're the new immigrants," artist Jane Hudson said Monday. "Unlike other groups, we don't have identifying qualities. We look like everyone else, but we suffer the same discriminations and the same need for integration into the broader community."

    Integration into the broader community, as well as the needs of the arts community, will be the focus of a forum tonight from 6:30 to 8:30 at the Eclipse Mill gallery, 243 Union St. (Route 2).

    Hudson, a co-founder of last year's Open Studios, said the forum is a continuation of a public dialogue started at the November meeting of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition.

    "It's open to whomever wants to come out — members of the wider community or those from the arts community and institutions," she said. "It will be interesting to see how many people show up. In November, the forum happened after the monthly business meeting of the coalition, so there were a lot of service agency members present."

    Alan Bashevkin, executive director of the coalition, said the arts community is a small society existing inside of a larger one — a gap that needs to be bridged.

    "In some sense, they are like the Jewish or the Italian community that is part of its own community at the same time," he said. "We talked about making them part of the broader community and how to make those linkages between their community and ours. We want to try to do the best we can for them. There are many artists who are very new to the community."

    Hudson said she hopes some of the subjects discussed will include not only ways to integrate artists into the community, but also ways for them to introduce themselves to the community.

    "There's this idea that we might have reached a point where we have enough presence in the local community to have a voice in the city's affairs," she said. "I didn't want to set the agenda. Perhaps there will be discussions about practical issues like health care or about events like Open Studios."

    She added, "I feel there is a chasm between the arts community and the rest of the community. People feel ambivalent toward art. On one hand there are people who feel Mass MoCA is excellent, and on the other hand, there are people who don't know or don't care to understand art. But, I think this is true in general, not specific to North Adams."

    Hudson said the national interest in art is "not great."

    "Maybe more than anything else, we need to persuade people we are just normal folks, instead of the great unwashed, starving artists or the kooky ones," she said. "I feel Open Studios is one way to do that."

    In case of snow, the meeting will be rescheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 27, at 6:30 p.m.