Three Gold Figures (Essay in Cubism)

Three Figures. Acrylic, ink and charcoal on canvas. 24 " x 30"
Three Figures. Acrylic, ink and charcoal on canvas. 24 ” x 30″

Coming in the midst of a furious week of art production, here is the formal result of my recent research into cubism! This commissioned piece moderately deconstructs three poses (one model – unharmed in the production process) and the studio space around them. I treated this subject with all of the cubist sensibility I was able to scrape together from online searches, a visit to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and biographies of the likes of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braques. My final composition borrows heavily from Picasso’s bold “Demoiselles d’Avignon” and samples the palette of Picasso’s blue period, Braque’s somber spectrum, and adds an iridescent gold flare because decorative art!

This being my first relatively abstract, non-photographic commission piece, the ideas and prototypes came together through consultation. Trading pictures of murals, famous paintings, and devising color schemes, we carved out a shared mental model of the painting to come.

I began working on this piece by reading and observing. I was curious to find out what my giant art history textbooks, the internet, and our local free museum had to say about cubism. I was surprised to find that certain aspects of cubism were similar to what I was trying to do with “time-lapse” figure painting in the latter half of my art school years, so picking up that line of work felt a bit like coming home. Read more on what I found out about cubism’s “greater context” here. Once I had determined how cubist sensibilities could fit into my style, I invited over a friend to model for some gestural sketches. These loose and expressive sketches helped me form the basis for the figures and I built up the geometric environment around them. From there, the challenge became walking a thin line between decorative, calculated abstraction and representational figure painting, my client preferring something in the middle. See process snapshots below.

I could go many directions from here in order to fully invest in this way of working. Some cubists section off the surface in such a way that objects and bodies are barely recognizable, obscured by geometry and the conceptual/perceptual notions of cubism. Which to me is less interesting as I am still in love with drawing and painting the human body. Another idea is to fully push the idea of poses changing through time. I recently attended a figure drawing cooperative at a local art academy, and wondered how I could incorporate all the 5, 10, 15 and 20 minute poses over four hours into the same composition. The final result would probably be something quite abstract but also quite recognizably human. Overall, I have befriended cubism and feel like I’ve grown a bit as an artist after examining and producing in this way. I’m eager to get deeper into the water.

(Monumental) Work in Progress

Flight of General Robert E. Lee. Acrylic on canvas. 18" x 24"
Flight of General Robert E. Lee. Acrylic on canvas. 18″ x 24″

Waking up one morning shortly after the recent Charlottesville, VA riot, I read a headline about Baltimore, MD’s confederate monuments being removed by overnight work crews. Gleefully scanning through the report, one particular photo in the article caught my eye and I immediately wanted to make a painting after it. In the image, a hulking Robert E. Lee and mount are lifted by a crane and balanced by work crews as they are carried away from a public-facing pedestal. Onlookers line the background snapping photos with their phones as the piece is hoisted up and away, towards a consuming yellow light at the top of the frame.

For some time I have wanted to challenge myself to paint in a traditional/classical style as a way to exercise my formal drawing, composition-building, and glazing skills. The Romantic movement painter Eugene Delacroix’s work has been a particular favorite of mine, with deep contrasts, expressive brushwork and attention to narrative drama and intrigue in his choice of subject. The snapshot of General Lee’s flight from public presence in Baltimore brought to mind several epic paintings of horses and social struggle rendered by Delacroix. Below is an example I chose to guide my work on this piece.

Removal of a Confederate Monument at Baltimore, MD, or Flight of General Robert E. Lee (working titles). Acrylic on canvas. 18 x 24.
Removal of a Confederate Monument at Baltimore, MD, or Flight of General Robert E. Lee (working titles). Acrylic on canvas. 18 x 24.
Eugene Delacroix. Collision of Moorish Horsemen (1843-1844). Oil on canvas. 32 x 39.

A revelation in working at this style has been the liberal use of dull gray tones, something that is fairly alien to my regular practice. The muted earthy hues contrast sharply with areas of color to help direct focus and create drama, a use of color I am beginning to more fully understand. In order to achieve the lush, complicated surface in Delacroix’s work, I’m working at glaze layers and attention to detail where I want the viewer to focus. At this point, I’ve blocked in most of the compositional elements and contrasts, and the surface is ready for finer treatments of the overall atmosphere, details, and stylistic features. Lastly, I am intrigued by the conceptual interplay of painting in a “historical” style while calling into question the notions of history, justice and public space currently in debate.

Cubism’s “Greater Context”

Three Figures. Charcoal and conte crayon on drawing paper. 14" x 17"
Three Figures. Charcoal and conté crayon on drawing paper. 14″ x 17″

Here is a preparation piece/study for an upcoming project I am doing for a friend. I had another friend model and tried to render the figures in three separate perspectives using a cubist sensibility in my analysis and reworking of the visual field. I am so satisfied with this composition and treatment of the figures that I am considering making a full-size painting out of it, but perhaps it is best left alone as a study.

I started reading about cubism in the past couple of weeks to understand the theory behind this distinctive style. While I have not always been a fan of the blocky, dead-feeling paintings of Georges Braque and Jean Metzinger, the cubism of Picasso really speaks to me, perhaps because it seems almost decorative in the same vein as Gustav Klimt, alive with color and movement. What I found in my reading described the cubist’s attempt to portray a greater sense of reality by presenting a subject from many sides/perspectives, and in turn creating with the visual field a “greater context” around the subject for the viewer to have a fuller experience of the art. Within cubism’s paradigm is also a theme of temporal shift, with a subject changing slightly through different points in time. This last idea struck home with me as I recognized my own interest in early attempts at “time lapse” painting, which I termed “progressive” painting at the time. What I find fascinating about cubism is the attempt to imbue the static media of paint with the inherent transitional qualities of living structures in time and space.

Working and thinking through cubism comes at a time when I try to find a “greater context” for myself, both in my art and life in general. My RN job is challenging but I’m finally creeping up the learning curve and trying to get more involved with our unit. I’m reaching out my feelers for arts organizations to volunteer and contribute in meaningful ways, instead of painting in obscurity. As Summer fades, I feel a slight pressure to get more irons in the fire to keep me busy and warm through the long Minnesota winter.