cleaning the studio...

...and other adventures in art

a chair is a chair is a chair

A chair is a chair is a chair… unless it’s my latest project, a chair-ionette (thank you Tom Maderos, for the name of the thing). It’s not pretty, but it’s going to eventually be functional. Making a marionette out of a chair is more tricky than one would think.  The back is heavier than the front, so at the moment this one is kept in balance with two pairs of pliers on the seat.  Note the level on the top crossbar.

But I’m slowly figuring it out. In the end, it will be functional, and balanced, I can promise you that. Not pretty, though.

I have to work on it in my open doorway to reach it, so my studio neighbors think I’m crazy. “Don’t you know you can just go buy a chair?!? You don’t need to patch that one up!”

I’ve begun to think of the chair as a disarticulated skeleton that needs to be made whole and functional again. Or sort of. With flaws, but also now animate.

The good news is I have four more chairs just like this one waiting in the wings.

and now for something completely different

Barbara Downs working in her studio

Photo by Ruth Rabinowitz

People who know me as a painter don’t always know that I also do sculpture. I tend to primarily work in one medium or the other for months at a time, and I am just now straying back into sculpture after having been painting for a few months.

I do figurative painting, but I have no interest in doing figurative sculpture. The two bodies of work are part of a continuum, though.  In painting I’m translating a 3-dimensional figure to a flat picture plane. In sculpture I’m translating a non-dimensional idea to a physical object. The work may look different, but the underlying premise is the same… it’s the translation that I’m interested in.

It’s also satisfying to work with my hands, creating an actual object.  The ‘object-ness’ of sculpture is vastly appealing to me. And sometimes metal feels more malleable than paint. (truly!)

Here’s the newest sculpture, photographed just last week. Two views, different lighting, to show both the translucency and sculptural qualities of the rawhide.


…and another show…

In addition to the EDGE show I wrote about last week, opening May 6, I also have paintings hanging at Lulu’s at the Octagon, a cafe attached to the Museum of Art and History in downtown Santa Cruz.

This is a fabulous space, with large walls, good light, and a nice line of sight from across the room…perfect for paintings this size. Susan Hillhouse of the museum curates this space, and it was great working with her, Robbie Schoen and Marla Nova to select and hang the work. The show will be up until June 19th. Stop in and see it if you can, because my photo doesn’t do it justice!

Barbara Downs exhibition at Lulu Carpenters

the EDGE of town

I’m helping Lila Klapman, a fellow artist, organize an invitational group exhibit for artists working on the west side of Santa Cruz. EDGE: Art on the Westside will be held at the R. Blitzer Gallery, located at the edge of town in a warehouse formerly occupied by the Wrigley company (yes, that Wrigley, of chewing gum fame).

If I can speak for Lila, at least part of her impetus for putting together this show is to help foster a sense of community among the many talented artists on the west side. Plus, it gives us a great excuse to throw a party for the Artists’ Reception on May 21st.  And who doesn’t like a party!?!

There’s a lot happening at this end of town.  There are wineries, breweries, bakeries, restaurants, this wonderful gallery, and lots of artists.  I think there are more artists here than people realize, and hopefully this exhibit will give the public an idea of the diversity and talent found out this way.

One of the artists, Lisa Hochstein, has been instrumental in designing our postcard and web announcement, which use a springtime palette. Click on the card to see a larger version with links to the artists’ websites.

I mention the springtime palette because those same colors have been showing up in my paintings as we’ve been working on the card together, only in a more saturated and ‘dark’ way.

Since no blog post is complete without some art, here is one of my newer paintings, influenced, I think, by the colors on our announcement.

nothing ever stays the same

If it’s in my studio, it’s fair game for revision. That’s my motto, especially with paintings.

This painting, Nice Girls (40″x40″, oil on canvas), shown here as a ‘before’ and ‘after’, was revised a year after I thought it was complete. It’s been in shows in both versions.  I really do think it’s finished this time.  The revision was simple…just a brightened color in the upper background and some slight linework, but I think the painting is enormously better for it. 

This painting (untitled as of now, 24″x18″, oil on canvas) is new.  It sat around my studio for some time as I looked at it and thought about it.  I liked the abstracted figure but wasn’t happy with the color relationships. I like my colors more assertive and punched up, as you can see in the finished painting.

By the way, this painting had two previous paintings underneath it, completely unrelated to this one.  All three paintings were done from a model in my studio. With a model, I tend to work quickly while the model is there and then contemplate for a few weeks while the painting dries.  Later, without the model, I can complete the painting.  Or I can paint over it, like I did with these two.

Neither of these two earlier paintings piqued my interest much, though perhaps both could have been finished to my satisfaction. Instead, I reused the canvas to see what I might get from a new pose. These two are gone now, you can see the color from them peeking out from under the new painting.

that big, blank canvas

Barbara Downs in her studio in front of a large blank canvasMy friend and fellow artist Susana Arias took this photo of me as we were talking. I happened to be positioned directly in front of a new canvas awaiting paint.

So what does one do with a big, blank canvas?

This one quickly turned into this painting. Please note that it is unfinished! But so far I like it, and I think it has good potential.

I frequently like my paintings at this sketchy stage. They often use bright colors with a lot of contrast, because I haven’t had a chance to muddy anything up. The composition is simple and straightforward. But they can lack emotional resonance for me at this stage, and so they feel unfinished. This one I am particularly liking, in spite of the single layer of paint. That doesn’t mean that it’s finished, though…just a good start!

original artwork by Barbara Downs, Interior and Interior, in progress

Interior and Interior, in progress, 60″x48″

it doesn’t always need to be good

Original artwork by Barbara Downs, After the Fall, Oil on Canvas

After the Fall, Oil on Canvas, 60″ x 36″, 2010

After my friend wandered past my open studio door and smelled that distinct smell of oil paint, she asked on Facebook if I’d done some good paintings that day.  No, I did not have such luck, and I publicly admitted it on Facebook.  In fact, I’d had a frustrating day with the paint.

Some days are like that. And, more and more often, I’m content with that. Maybe it’s character-building. Every painting doesn’t need to be great.  Or even good. Sometimes I scrape the paint off as fast as I can put it on. That thing that I’m after…it’s elusive and doesn’t always come quickly.

As the painter, I get to decide which paintings live and which die. If it doesn’t hold my interest in some way, it isn’t going to be seen. Maybe someone would like it, but they won’t have that opportunity.

Paintings will be worked and reworked, or they will be painted over, until there is something of interest in them for me. After I’ve considered and reconsidered them, they may eventually go out into the world.

Here’s one that recently went out into the world. You can see it at the Figuratively Speaking show at the Davenport Gallery, through the month of February.

the couch

Here it is, my studio couch. It’s humble, paint-spattered, and very comfortable.

The couch in the studio of Barbara Downs

I got to thinking about my couch when my new studio neighbors, both sculptors, commented on how my studio looks like a ‘painter’s studio’ because of the couch.

At first I thought they were talking about the paint drips on the couch, but then realized that they were referring to the fact of the couch itself.  I have a couch in my studio, and they don’t. Which begs the question: Why don’t they need a couch?  Or, more accurately (since this is my blog and not theirs), why do I?

Does a painter need a couch? Does a sculptor not need a couch?

It may seem trivial, but the couch is actually an integral part of my studio. In my new studio I positioned it just about at the very center of the space, looking towards my painting wall. And of course that’s right where it belongs.

Here’s the view from the couch.

the studio of Barbara Downs, with several large blank canvases hanging on the wall

And here’s my own answer to the questions posed above:

Painting is a direct process. The rhythm is: I paint, and then I step back and look and think. That’s what the couch is for. If I don’t step back and look, it’s very easy to ‘lose’ the painting. All it takes is one errant brushstroke to make or break a painting, and if I’m not stepping back regularly it’s easy to pile on problem after problem.

Conversely, sculpture and encaustic are indirect processes. I spend a lot of time doing “grunt labor’, such as welding and grinding metal, or fusing and scraping wax. While I’m doing that work, I can ‘step back’ mentally and assess the piece, and do my thinking while I’m doing my work.

I have the option–which I exercise regularly–to step back from a painting and go work on a sculpture, giving me ample time to contemplate the next brushstrokes.

But the couch always beckons.

figuratively speaking

New show, up now:

Figuratively Speaking, a group show of figurative work at the Davenport Gallery
February 7-27, 2011

Artists Reception this Saturday, February 12, 3-6pm

Here are a few of my paintings included in the show:

dusty little secrets

This excerpt is from Colum McCann’s discussion that is printed at the end of his novel, Let The Great World Spin. Wonderful book, by the way. I enjoyed his discussion as much as I enjoyed the book.

excerpt from book by Colum McCann

He said it as well as I can. Actually, he said it better, because he’s a writer. These two points I find so familiar:

1) We don’t always know what we’re doing, and much of it is instinct.  What he doesn’t say is that sometimes it’s difficult to hear the faint voice of instinct.  I know that I have to listen carefully, and not get lost in all the other noise.

2) The book (or painting) is finished by the reader (or viewer).  I do believe this about my own work. I don’t feel that my pieces are finished without interaction with a viewer. Occasionally that sole viewer is me, but more often it is someone other than me. This isn’t to say that I do the work with a viewer in mind, but once I send a piece out into the world it acquires new meaning, something other than what I intentionally put into it.

Richard Diebenkorn had some good things to say about the creative process, but that’s a post for another day. You can see the interview here, though, if you can’t wait.