Jasper Johns Gray: Looking and Seeing (by Clairan Ferrono)

Near the Lagoon 2003

Near the Lagoon 2003 118x79x4″

Can you always articulate why you like or dislike a piece of art?  I can’t.  Several years ago, when the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago had just opened, I was just looking for a bench, exhausted by the  many wondrous works I had seen.  Instead, my eye was caught by a very large, monochromatic — painting, collage, sculpture? — I couldn’t even tell what it was!

It was Jasper Johns’ Near the Lagoon.

I examined it minutely.  Time passed.  I sat with it.  I tried to sketch it.  What was it about it that so riveted me? Jasper Johns? He was the guy with the flags, right?  Nope, not interested . . . or was I?  I needed to know more.

White Flag  1955 79x120"

White Flag 1955 79×120″

White Flag.  It’s sort of white, sort of a flag.  But far more interesting.  Johns is interested in “how we see and why we see.”  He wants us not only to look past the known object, the flag, but into it.  “At first I had some idea that the absence of color made the work more physical,” he explained. “Early on I was very involved with the notion of the painting as an object and tended to attack that idea from different directions.”

Gray-numbers 1958

Gray-numbers 1958

The Dutch Wives 1975

The Dutch Wives 1975

Catenary-Call to the Grave 1998

Catenary-Call to the Grave 1998

Near the Lagoon 2003

Near the Lagoon 2003



Johns attached objects to the surfaces of his encaustic paintings.  In the Catenary series, of which Near the Lagoon is the final and largest one, the looping string is the catenary (the curve made by string hanging from two points).  And it’s a real string.  In Near the Lagoon, one of the things that first struck me was the string — I had to get close to see if it was painted or not.  And then I laughed because the actual string casts a shadow, but there’s a painted shadow as well. And a little ditch caused by the string’s having gotten stuck in the wax and being pulled out. The color, in the wax, makes each brush stroke individual, the texture a real physicality.  And the side of this fascinating work of art looks like part of an old door or shutter. A window? A real window, and a window into the painting.  The real and the painted. The object and the object objectified.  Johns asks us to look and to see.  To observe.  And his work is very richly textured and rewarding.

Still Lifes of Georgio Morandi (by Clairan Ferrono)

Still Life 1956

Still Life 1956


I was introduced to the work of Georgio Morandi several years ago by my friend Barbara Fitzpatrick, who is an architect, painter, and now my drawing instructor.  At first I was puzzled by her enthusiasm for what looked to me like dull, repetitive, almost monochromatic, paintings of bottles and boxes? painted chunks of cement? blocks of old cheese?  I couldn’t even always make out what the objects were.  But Barb assured me I should keep on looking.  So look I did.  And the work began to intrigue me.


Still Life

Still Life


And I found myself going back to look again and again. The paintings are quiet, deceptively simple.  The objects can appear both flat and 3 dimensional at the same time.


Natura Morta II

Natura Morta II


Despite the apparent lack of color, there are many subtle shifts of value.

Still Life 1946

Still Life 1946

Still Life 1952

Still Life 1952

 still Life 1955

still Life 1955


When I first started drawing with Barb as my teacher, she had us look at Morandi carefully and attempt to draw one of his still lifes.   And it was then that I really started to look at the relationships among his objects, the shapes and volumes of his forms, the spaces between the bottles and boxes, the shadows, the subtle textural shifts, the places where one object almost, almost fades into another, but just doesn’t quite. or perhaps, in fact,  does.

Still Life 1960

Still Life 1960


But the aha! moment really came very recently.  I had been working on a piece and I knew it was close to finished,  but I was reverse appliqueing shapes to a background and I couldn’t get them quite right. I was satisfied with the shapes themselves and the background was good too. But they wouldn’t come together.  And then, the Morandi moment. . . . I remembered to look at the negative space.  And that was it.  Bang, they came together.  Thank you Morandi (and Barbara).


Some Time Later (by Clairan Ferrono)

photo 4

E Hesse



Some time ago I posted about an art filled trip I’d taken to Wisconsin.  This post was meant to follow shortly thereafter, but life intervened.  Finally, we move on to the Milwaukee museum of art. I had limited time, so I quickly determined to see only the modern art (which is what I am most interested in).  One room was closed, which was a disappointment, but that allowed me to spend more time with each piece that intrigued me.

L Carroll

L Carroll Grey Sleeping Painting 2010-12

Carroll detail Carroll detail 2


I was taken by this rough mixed media piece by Lawrence Carroll, an artist I’d never seen before:  https://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Carroll  Of course, the stitching drew me in! This piece is made of wax and canvas on wood.


G. O’Keeffe

There was a room of O’Keeffes, but I found none very interesting except for this small still life.  The vegetables seem to me to have her particular sensuality, and I like how they are clearly situated in the white bowl? on the white cloth? which is narrowly delineated at the top of the painting.

De Witt detailDeWitt detail

S. LeWitt Wall Drawing #88

This piece by Sol LeWitt was drawn on an entire wall of the museum in pencil.

Sol de Witt

The work was conceived by de Witt specifically for the Milwaukee Museum of Art, but not executed by him.  He gave instructions (above) that  6″ grids should be drawn to cover the wall and that freehand lines (looking very much like quilting!) should be drawn inside each square.  He further instructed that the inside of the wall have blue and yellow lines, but this was not done.  He clearly believed that “the hand of the artist” was not essential, only the idea.  However, I wonder what the work would have looked like if he himself had drawn all the lines.

Joan Mitchell

J. Mitchell Untitled 1969

I spent most of my time with the abstract expressionists (no surprise here!).  I like the movement around the dark clotted enter of this piece by Joan Mitchell. I also like the texture of the thick paint.

Mitchell detail



Rothko Green Red Blue 1955

This is not one of the best Rothkos, but his work is always worth looking at to my mind.


H Hoffman Dew and Dusk 1957

Hans Hoffman was the teacher of the early abstract expressionists and a master of color.  His work is so exuberant I couldn’t help smiling the entire time I was looking at it. The multiple colors are so saturated  that there is no hint of the “rainbow” effect.

Hoffman detail




Diebenkorn 2

R Diebenkorn OCEAN PARK #88 1974

The Diebenkorn was too large for me to get a full shot of, and again, it’s not his best work, but still quite lovely melting soft soothing sea colors kept from being too sweet by some dark and sharp lines of color containing them. I love the blurred edges as well.

As it turned out, I had 15 minutes extra which I spent just sitting in a big comfy chair, looking out a window at a gorgeous view of Lake Michigan.  In addition, it is worth a trip to this museum for the building itself designed by Saarinen. It has wings which are opened and closed at specific times of day.  www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFQQJIUTv9M


You can get an app for your phone showing different views of the wings opening and closing.

Racine Art Museum (by Clairan Ferrono)

"Dango #00-2-2"  Jun Kaneko 2000

“Dango #00-2-2”
Jun Kaneko 2000

Recently I needed to go to Kenosha, WI.  My exhibiting group FAC (Fiber Artists Coalition) had shown Salvage to Selvedge  at the Anderson Art Center ( www.andersonartscenter.com );  its a beautiful venue–an old mansion on Lake Michigan–well worth a visit!  I had agreed to help Pat Kroth take down that and the SAQA IL/WI show Eye and the Needle.  My husband happened to be on spring break at that time, so we decided to take a long weekend and also go to Milwaukee.  On the way, I wanted to stop in Racine at the Racine Art Museum ( http://www.ramart.org ). This small gem of a museum is internationally known for its collection of modern craft.  Although I was disappointed to find no baskets on display (silver lining — another trip to Racine!), I did find a very interesting show of ceramics.


"Dango" detail

“Dango” detail


Al Nitak (At Pyramid) Toshiko Takaezu 2001

Al Nitak (At Pyramid)
Toshiko Takaezu 2001

Al Nitak detail

Al Nitak detail

Al Nikam  Toshiko Takaezu 2001

Al Nikam
Toshiko Takaezu 2001

Al Nikam detail

Al Nikam detail


There were dozens and dozens of teapots and bowls etc and lots of strange stuff (IMHO!) but my attention was really caught by these large glazed stoneware objects.  Their size was the first thing to catch my attention. They were 4-6 feet tall!  The colors were subtle. And the glazing was also interesting,  It looked like hand dyed fabric.  Finally, the striations of the coiling process were visible and made for very interesting texture.  Ceramic sculpture that looks like fabric attracts this art quilter!

Emily Carr, Redux (by Clairan Ferrono)


Skidegate 1912

I first became aware of Emily Carr when I saw her work at the National Gallery of Canada in Vancouver 15 years ago.  I was, not to put too fine a point on it, gobsmacked!  I had never heard of her or seen work like hers.  For days I talked about her work (mostly to people who just nodded politely).  When we got home, I looked her up and examined  all the work I of hers I could find.  Then I read Susan Vreeland’s wonderful novel The Forest Lover, a fictionalized account of her life. And in 2007 Sandy Wagner did a post here at Ragged Cloth Cafe about her.  This summer I got the chance to go back to British Columbia, and of course I was anxious to see Carr’s work again.  And I fell in love with it all over again.

Emily Carr 8

Among the Firs  1930’s 36×30″

I love her trees and her light:

The Little Pine                                Scorned Timber

The Little Pine 1931                                                    Scorned Timber 1935

The Red Cedar                                                          Above the Trees

The Red Cedar 1933                                                  Above the Trees 1939

They beautifully convey the forests of British Columbia,  the movement of the trees, the pouring down of light, and, in fact, the spiritual energy that Carr obviously found there.  Her art was too individual, too avant garde for her time.  And while sometimes praised for the “vigor of her technique” her work was shunned as being not realistic enough.  Carr responded to this criticism by saying, “a picture should be more than meets the eye of the ordinary observer. . . .Art is art, nature is nature, you cannot improve upon it. . . .Pictures should be inspired by nature, but made in the soul of the artist, it is the soul of the individual that counts” ( Emily Carr, An Introduction to Her Life and Art by Anne Newlands).

Yes! The soul of the individual and the eye of the artist!

This past fall I took a drawing class for the first time.  I believed myself pretty lacking in talent, but found that my good observational skills kept me in good stead.  The class was working mainly on still lifes, and of course we all endeavored to be as accurate as possible.  Realism (terrifying!). But what was most striking to me, above and beyond my astonishment that my drawings actually looked like what they were intended to, was that all the drawings, while quite “accurate,” were very different and could easily be identified by artist.  Because we see differently and because we are interested in some things and not in others.  In other words, we make choices, and those choices make our work individual.

I am grateful for Emily Carr’s beautiful choices, for her wonderful eye and magnificent soul.

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