Art In Contrast

Recently, I lingered over an eclectic British TV program.  It’s about two men who go fishing, and the interactions between them. If you are looking for thrills and spills this is definitely one to skip. Their conversations are generally banal yet once in a while they touch a tender nerve.

In the episode I stumbled upon, one of the men is asked if he has a favorite artist. He deflects the question for a while before he admits,  “I’m not really good at art. I don’t know how long to look at a painting before I move on to the next one.”

En route to visiting relatives, Chris and I spent a day in Taos, New Mexico. Nestled against the backdrop of the crisp desert sky, terracotta earth, stark rocks and snarlling cacti; it is a haven for artists and there is one gallery we especially wanted to visit.

In solidarity with the fisherman and, I guess, many other folk, I have insecurities about art made worse by my limited vision. Do the (blurry) pictures I like actually have merit ?  Are they valuable?  Does that matter? Do they expose my sophisticated or my lousy taste?. These anxieties don’t surface when I look at the paintings and lithographs of Navajo artist R C Gorman. Chris introduced me to his work several years ago and one Christmas I surprised him with an R C Gorman poster that we subsequently had framed. 

As we approached the RC Gorman gallery our art appreciation noses began to tingle! Denying us much pleasure and perhaps saving us some outlay, alas! –  the gallery was closed! (And not just for a long lunch or a siesta – we checked back later).

Rudolph Carl (RC) Gorman was born to the Navajo nation in Arizona and studied art for many years including winning a scholarship to Mexico. As he matured he developed his signature style, simplifying his subjects, painting with strong flowing lines and remarkable gradations of color. In particular, he focused on indigenous American women, swathing them in colorful blankets and shawls.

Thunderstorm, RC Gorman

Our RC Gorman is entitled, Thunderstorm, and I was drawn to it for the atmosphere it evokes and the characteristic women clad in the chili pepper colors of the region. Later, we learned more of its story. The women are at a distance from the storm and may represent Gorman’s relatives waiting for their menfolk to return from World War ll, where Gorman’s father served as a code talker along with other Navajo men. (There codes remained unbroken). The lightning evident in the storm is a male symbol suggesting that the men are under threat far away. Gorman, a flamboyant character was recognized for his artistic talent during his lifetime and died a wealthy man in 2005.

The next day as we drove the six or so hours to visit family, I remembered another artist whose work I had admired, (with some self-doubt), when I grew up. His name is (Lawrence Stephen) LS Lowry, and although if you search hard enough there are some similarities to Gorman, they lived very contrasting lives.

Going to Work, LS Lowry

LS Lowry is most recognized for his depictions of the industrial mill cities of Manchester and Salford in the UK, though his range was much broader. An only child who nowadays may be diagnosed with autism, he was reclusive.  His parents, especially his domineering mother tried to dissuade him from his artistic calling and disparaged his work. Nevertheless, he studied art for over ten years before determining to pursue his idiosyncratic style. The paintings appear to be naïve and primitive, (hence my reservations), but there are deeper complexities. Using a restricted palette, he represents the industrial landscape in an honest, if stark way.  Many of his renowned paintings include lots of people that were criticized as being out of scale and resembling matchstick men and women.  (There’s even a song; Matchstalk men and Matchstalk cats and dogs. Even in crowd scenes the figures are separate, painted against a white background with no shadows, representing Lowry’s own isolation and the harsh circumstances the workers endured. There’s a hint of caricature to many of Lowry’s figures and other times deft details that indicate pathos, struggle, endurance and even bathos. Perhaps, to his surprise and, after the death of his unswervingly disapproving and difficult mother, Lowry’s art was recognized with exhibitions in London and overseas. Notoriety forced him to give interviews and appear in documentaries, but he preferred the solitary life, painting at home in Hyde, Cheshire until his death in 1976.

My mind, dwelling on the smoky greys and blacks that barely predated my own childhood and adolescence, we drew up at our destination in south west Texas. One look at the yard and another artist sprang to mind.  Van Gogh and his iconic Sunflowers, (pictured here in our background silhouette).  What would he have painted had he caught a glimpse of the mad profusion of sunflowers here?

End Notes

Reading

The Indigo Girl
Natasha Boyd

Viewing

Mrs. Lowry & Son

Listening

Canyon Trilogy
R Carlos Nakai

Glassworks
Philip Glass

Poetry

Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day
William Shakespeare  (Sonnet 18)  sung by Cleo Laine

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