Archive for June, 2009

The Enigromaticon: Views of (from) the Studio

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

Funk Hater 5

Here’s a shot from several years ago of the studio floor with my guitar and some of my “Enigromatic” paintings, all piled up in stacks on the floor or hanging “salon style” on the wall.  At the time I was playing the guitar quite a lot and the instrument came to symbolize for me a certain kind of “energy” that I think is necessary to the creative process.

I’m using the term “energy” here because it points to something, in this context anyway, that I think is important for anyone who undertakes a creative activity, whether it is in music or painting, poetry, drama, or anything else.  I don’t really have a particular name for that energy; people from various cultures have depicted it in various ways, it seems.  The guitar is just one representation of it for me; it could just as easily be a flute or a flower, a paintbrush or a palette knife.

The big painting on top of all the little paintings is supposed to be a portrait of Kim Gordon, the bass player for the band called Sonic Youth, only I made her hair dark instead of blonde.  It’s from a photograph that I saw in Spin magazine or Rolling Stone, one of those popular music review mags.  The guitar has become a kind of masculine symbol in some ways, especially the electric guitar; so there’s a potential for an exciting mixture of energies when a woman gets on a stage and plays an electric guitar.

In another sense, the guitar is just a neutral object like any other; it’s “potential” to manifest as a symbol of creative power is really empty, that is to say, it does not exist in and of itself.  It’s because of this empty quality that objects are able to become repositories of meaning, which gets back to one of my favorite phrases of Allen Ginsberg’s that I like to quote, “Art’s not empty if it shows it’s own emptiness.”

I’d also like to do a portrait of Tina Weymouth, the bass player for the Talking Heads.  Her playing was such an important element to that band; she brought a certain kind of funkiness into the mix that would not have been there if someone else had been trying to do the same thing, I think.

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Starting in 1992 I began a series of small paintings that were based directly on imagery in my personal sketchbooks.  I carried these sketchbooks with me just about everywhere; I still do.  Some of the paintings derived from my books are very abstract, almost “minimalist” in their imagery, and some are figurative.  Many of them were painted in a single sitting, while others have been revised and worked over a period of months and even years.  I often would use a deliberately quick way of rendering the image, in keeping with the spirit of the sketchbook:  there’s a freshness and spontaneity to a quickly drawn sketch that often gets lost when someone tries to “translate” that “energy” into another medium, such as paint.  So the small panels and the fast-drying acrylic paints were a kind of device for trying to find some of that freshness in the act of painting.

Studio Floor 2

The first series of these small paintings were all 9″ x 12″; partly because that size stretcher bar was easily obtainable, but also because the proportions happened to match the size of the room that I was living in at the time.  So the small paintings ended up becoming another personal symbol of sorts.

When I moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn in 1994, I had a larger room to work in.  So I continued the 9″ x 12″ series but also “expanded” into a new series of 12″ x 15″ paintings, to match the proportions of my new space.  These groups of paintings are something that I refer to collectively as “Enigromatica.”

An Enigma is something that is difficult to understand or explain with the rational, left-brain intellect; it can also refer to obscure manners of speech, writing, or cultural expression.  “Roma” is a kind of shorthand for romanticism.  According to the Oxford Dictionary of Art, Romanticism is something too varied in its manifestations to conform to a single definition, but its “keynote was a belief in the value of individual experience.”  Intuition and instinct were important to the so-called Romantic artist.

“Enigromatica,” then, is an amalgamation of two related notions into a single blurb which stands for what I believe is the spirit of my own activity as an artist, or any creative person’s activity by extension.  I didn’t entirely make this up myself, by the way, though maybe I’ve put my own little bit of spin on it.  I first saw the phrase “ENIGROMA” on the cover of a notebook that another artist, David Dunlap had made, when I was studying painting and printmaking in Iowa City as a graduate student.  That brings in another aspect of Enigromatica, which for me is the interdependence of the creative act with other creative activities that are going on:  inspiration, in other words.

Our culture tends to emphasize the individual as the locus of creative genius, and I think there may be something important in that, but there is also the inspiration that one draws from the energy of others:  we pay money to listen to popular musicians like Kim Gordon or Tina Weymouth because they inspire us.  We go to school and study music or art because someone, such as a teacher or another artist, has inspired us with their own interactions with “creative energy”.  I call this entire web of interrelated creative forces “The Enigromaticon.”  It is the Great Web of creative power, a matrix of form and energy that forms the basis of everything in the universe.

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After the Rain

Friday, June 26th, 2009

Here’s two pictures of my home-made rain gauge, which overflowed on my fire escape this last week; the first picture was taken about 3 or 4 weeks ago, the second one on Wednesday of this week:

Rain Gauge 2bRain Gauge b

The rain that New York has been experiencing for the past several weeks finally let up; I went out for a bicycle ride.  I made these 2 sketches while resting near the north end of the reservoir in Central Park:

Central Park Plants

Trees Central Park

Whenever I work on an ink drawing like this, especially directly from nature, I often think about artists like Robert Crumb who are so brilliant at using cross-hatching to create a sense of form, space and light.  I also think of Brian Kay, an artist who introduced me to etching and intaglio printing, when I was a student at the Yale Summer School of Art.  Brian had this masterful way of rendering trees that I really admired, and he talked a lot about Rembrandt in class.  Rembrandt is one of those towering figures of art who was able to attain such mastery of expression in more than one medium.  There’s such a psychological depth and complexity in both the etchings and paintings:  Rembrandt is someone else that I think about often when I draw.  Maybe one of these days I’ll be able to get a handle on cross-hatching.

It was so refreshing to be bicycling on the first sunny day we’ve had in weeks that I decided to ride all the way back home to Brooklyn instead of taking the subway.  On my way across the Brooklyn Bridge I noticed this young man holding a hand-lettered placard and wearing an unusual hat, standing perfectly still with a pleasant smile on his face.  His hat with it’s strange antenna-like plume, the urgent message written in several languages, and the little genie’s-bottle money-jar in front of him all struck such a mercurial image in my mind that I had to stop, and ended up making a quick pencil sketch of him, which I later inked in.  We spoke for a few minutes, and Aiden explained to me that he was giving a text-based art performance and invited me to check out his blog.  Take a look:

Aiden World Melody Project

From the Bridge one could also get a clear view of the Statue of Liberty:

Ellis Island

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Alice Neel at David Zwirner Gallery

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

I made these quick studies from two of the paintings by Alice Neel that are currently on display at David Zwirner’s gallery in Chelsea.  Neel is one of my all-time favorite painters; it would be hard for me to imagine American art of the last 50 years without her.  She was a visiting artist at the University of Iowa just a couple of years before she passed away; when I was a student there in the late 80’s, people were still talking about her as if the High Priestess of Painting had been there, and rightly so.  She is certainly one of the great modern masters of portraiture, along with Francis Bacon, Picasso and Lucian Freud.

Neel is one of the few artists to invent a figurative language that manages to have resonance in the modern world.  But she paid a price, just like nearly anybody else who cared about drawing and painting the figure in the last half of the twentieth century:  after Abstract Expressionism became the lingua franca of modernism, Neel and others who took portrait painting seriously spent much of their careers in relative isolation from the rest of the “art world.”  The recognition that she received towards the end of her life was well-deserved, if more than a bit late.

If you go to the exhibit, plan to take some time to sit and watch the video documentary that is showing there as well; it was produced by her son, Andrew Neel and has some interesting footage of Alice and others who knew her, and includes several engaging interviews.  This is a museum-quality exhibit and well worth the time.  This week is the last chance to see it in person; the show ends on the 20th.  Here’s a link to David Zwirner’s gallery for more information:

Alice Neel 2

The Druid 2

Visit Harold’s Sketchbook at

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Africa and Egypt in Brooklyn

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

My friend Amala and I went over to the Brooklyn Museum last week and spent some time in the African Galleries on the first floor.  This mask is one of the first things you see on display when you walk into the exhibition space.  There’s a video playing next to it that shows some of the dances where these masks were worn.  Amala and I had a discussion about the Dogon Star People:  a civilization in Africa with a special understanding of astronomy, who believe they are from the constellation Pleiades.  I seem to remember reading about them in Robert Farris Thompson’s book, Flash of the Spirit.  I remember Thompson’s work was being discussed a lot when I was studying painting and drawing at the Yale Summer School of Art, back in 1985.

The Brooklyn Museum has an enormous Egyptian collection; I think I read somewhere that it rivals or even surpasses the Metropolitan Museum in the sheer number of objects that they have on display.  The Brooklyn Museum strives to be “user friendly” in that they post a lot of information about the objects that you’re looking at.  There were several timelines showing the entire span of Egyptian civilization and where the various objects fit onto the timeline.  This little statue of Horus is about a foot tall; I think it was from the Middle Kingdom:

African Headdress


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Nicole Hale in Brooklyn

Monday, June 15th, 2009

Nicole Hale

This quick sketch in my pocket Moleskine notebook does not do justice to the voice and music of this beautiful songbird that recently arrived in New York City from Arizona.  I found Nicole Hale playing her accordion and singing in Cobble Hill on Warren and Court Street in front of the Community Bookstore today.  When I came back about an hour later with my large sketchbook, hoping to get a better drawing done and hear some more great music, I was too late:  she’d already moved on, just in time to miss a heavy downpour of rain.  I did get a nice CD recording of her playing both guitar and accordion; Nicole’s website is at:

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The Leaning Tower of Bond Street

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

3rd Street & Bond

A local resident passing by saw me drawing this building and without breaking his stride, said, “Oh, you’re drawing the leaning tower of Bond Street!”

You can see by the angle of the chimney that this 3-story apartment house has a serious foundation problem.

The siding was added sometime after the shift occurred; it runs over to cover the gap between the two buildings, and there’s a wide strip of roofing materials that covers the gap on top as well.  I wonder what the floors must be like inside.

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