Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Guitar in painting and sculpture

I'm an amateur guitar maker; a hack, really. But I enjoy the challenge, the feel of the materials, and most of all, that amazing sensation when this thing of wood and glue and bone and metal, this oddly shaped box you've been toiling on for months, suddenly starts making sound, then music, and becomes...a guitar.

There's something deep in this process, for humans have been making music since we found a voice, and possibly before that, when we beat two rocks together and started tapping our feet. Yet the guitar is a relatively modern instrument, as these things go. The modern classical guitar goes back to Torres in the mid 1800's, and the modern steel string even later than that. But these forms that feel so natural to us were the product of hundreds (perhaps thousands) of years of work by talented craftsmen, the shapes and styles of the time dictating their product, evolving with those times to lead us to where we are now.

I'm not an art historian by any means, but while on this New York trip I keep finding myself photographing the guitar (and it's ancestors) in various forms and paintings. These are a few highlights.

The intarsia from “The Studiolo From the Ducal Palace at Gubbio (1478 – 82)” is a true masterwork. Four full walls have been painstakingly inlaid with contrasting woods to create hundreds of small vignettes that relate to the life and interests of its patron, Frederico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino. Surprisingly, several panels depict the Italian ancestors of the guitar. In the example here, we see several instruments, with a lute (perhaps an oud), prominent in the upper panel. (Just a guess, but with its thin neck and raised bridge, I think that the lower panel shows something in the viol family.) The wood work is superb, and though the colors have mellowed over time and are hard to see in the dim lighting of the exhibit, the three dimensionality of the work shines through.

Moving forward to 1649 with Laurent de La Hyre's, “Allegory of Music,” we find a woman tuning a Theorbo, or Arch Lute. (Think of a lute on steroids.) Next to her shoulder sits a songbird, suggesting the interplay between natural music (the bird) and modern, human music. What I find interesting is what is around her. The mess of other instruments, the sheet music strewn haphazardly over her desk, the constant fiddling with the tuners. For all of its classical trappings, it's a very human scene; change the instruments and you might as well be in my office.

We jump ahead over two hundred years to Edouard Manet's, “The Spanish Singer” (1860), where we find a young man playing something very recognizable to us. By this time, the modern guitar had come into being, with six strings, sized perfectly for salon performance. He wears a dashing wide-brimmed hat and billowing shirt with his leg up in the air, as if he's just about to hit a perfect power-chord. But here's a startling thing. Compare this image with the late, great rock guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn, and tell me there's no similarities. The “rock-god” goes back a long, long way, doesn't it? (I can't help but mention all the things that are wrong with the player in this picture. His fingers are all over the place, the pose completely unsuited for actually playing a guitar. He's even holding it the wrong way around! After all, Manet painted a model, not a guitarist. But then again,
rock stars don't need to know what they're doing, do they?)

Picasso's “At the Lapin Agile” (1905) is rightly celebrated as a masterwork of his early period. Picasso himself sits clutching a glass of Pernod while his then girlfriend, Germaine Pichot, looks away, bored and indifferent. Behind them, the club's owner, Frede Gerade, plays a guitar. Striking for it's bold use of color and innovative perspective, I've always been struck by the ennui of the characters. Once again we see the guitar prominently figuring in what we would now describe as, “Too cool for school.” The main figures are listening to the music, particularly Germaine, but they certainly don't want to show any interest in it. That would be so un-cool.

Through my travels I kept wanting to find a piece of sculpture depicting the guitar. But it was when I came across these two instruments at the Met that I had a vision. These are the two most famous classical guitars of all time. The one of the left built by Manuel Ramirez in 1912, the other built by Hermann Houser in 1937. These were the guitars of the great Andres Segovia. And as I stared open mouthed at the pair, I realized that the guitar itself IS sculpture. Of course it is. With flowing curves reminiscent of a women's body, carefully planned and delicately executed intarsia, the colors of the woods blending and playing off of each other to create a beautiful object, this is functional sculpture at the highest level.

My work in building guitars may not equal the masterpieces depicted here, but I feel much more grounded in my quest. People have been creating, playing and enjoying the instrument for centuries, and if I can bring a beautiful sound to others, and perhaps create a worthwhile sculpture in the process, I am only adding to the history and tradition of the great and nobel beast: the guitar.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Blown away at MoMA

When I came to NYC I had three specific goals in mind. First, to drum up new business, since the Seattle market has tanked faster than Nicholas Cage's career. Second, to visit Coney Island and ride the Cyclone (probably doing that this weekend). And third, to visit the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

Oh. My. Goodness.

I arrived about five minutes before they opened at 10:30 am, and spent the entire day in the museum, not leaving until they kicked everybody out about a quarter after five. I even ate lunch in one of their cafes. (That one hurt the pocketbook, let me tell you.)

The depth and breadth of the art is astounding. From Pollock to Warhol, O'Keeffe and Stieglitz, to Hopper, Lichtenstein, Picasso, Monet, Van Gogh, Weston, Miro.....on and on it went. Every time I turned a corner there was something amazing, something I had only seen in books, something I had no idea was there.

I remember glancing across a hall and seeing, no, it couldn't be... Monet's “Water Lilies.” But it was. Three immense panels of genius, and on the opposite wall another huge panel, all of different seasons in his gardens. Gentle, serene, warm. I could feel the breezes of France and smell the musty odors of the pond. He took me to a very special place, one I won't soon forget.

Then there was Jackson Pollock's “One: Number 31.” This nearly brought me to tears. I know it's easy to dismiss Pollock's work as just paint splashed on canvas, but it's so much more. Those drips and drabs are carefully placed and perfectly balanced, and it all comes together to create....anger? Perhaps. To me it spoke of the dark places in my mind that want to do everything at once, and wind up tangled around themselves, preventing anything at all from happening, leading to panic, frustration, and eventually, catharsis, as I find my own way to overcome those inner obstacles.

So much more. Van Gogh's “Starry Night,” perhaps the most famous painting I've ever seen in person, is just as dramatic as you'd expect. The paint is layered on thick, with slashing, agitated swirls that are somehow controlled. You can literally feel him fighting against his pain and resentment as he worked the pallet knife.

Picasso's “Three Musicians,” which made me miss my guitar that much more.

My biggest discovery was Ellsworth Kelly's “Line Form Color.” Some of you may remember “Squares”, a small book of Pop Art inspired abstract photographs I put out several years ago. Well, I was standing on the shoulders of giants, even if I didn't know it at the time. Kelly painted these in 1951, nearly 60 years before my exploration of the subject.

So much. Just so very, very much. I'm exhausted and elated, humbled and buoyed, discouraged and inspired, and those aren't contradictions. Those are the emotions of humanity; light verses dark, pain verses pleasure. Those are the emotions of great art.

I Come to New York for work, and find the Caribbean instead

So I'm on my New York adventure, seeing the sights, enjoying the sounds and smells (?!?) of the big city, when I discover that I'm staying in Crown Heights, the heart of the Caribbean in America. Imagine my surprise when I also discover that I'm here during their biggest festival of the year, the West African Labor Day Parade.

It actually started the night before, with the celebration of J'ouvert, a holiday which originating in Trinidad when West African slaves, banned from the white masquerade balls, started their own backyard BBQs and dance parties. Music, dancing and food became intrinsically linked to Carnival, and that's what I found myself smack-dab in the middle.

And what a time it was! Though the first part of the parade was simply all the candidates for New York offices (I saw Anthony Weiner, for whatever that's worth), it eventually turned into a full-on Carnival on the East Coast, with huge samba/calypso troupes in elaborate costumes dancing to ear-pounding music.

What fun, and what amazing food! I now know exactly what I want to do with my Jerk Chicken recipe, and if I can get it just right (might take a few tries), I'll let you know here how to make it yourself. It's that perfect combination of brown sugar, lime juice and spice that takes a basic BBQ'd chicken and makes it unforgeable.

Now, if I can just tear myself away from all the sights and experiences that New York has to offer, maybe I'll find some work. Stay tuned!