The Most Reviled Form of Art

coco and Josephine3Smaller

Portrait of Coco and Josephine, gouache and acrylic on paper, 16″ X 20″

There’s probably no more reviled form of art than the pet portrait. I’m not sure why, exactly. Even velvet Elvis paintings have a certain amount of kitsch cache. You never really know what will be looked down on in the art world. I worked as a drawing class model for awhile and there’s a lot of stigma in that too. Sometimes, the same people that are drawing you, are also looking down on you. Even though the nude is an honored tradition in art, there’s an assumption that somebody who takes their clothes off for money must have some kind of problem. Or, if not, they are probably trying to create one. In reality, the opposite is true when you’re working for a drawing class. Figure modeling is one long effort to prevent problems: in your back, your neck, your knees, or whatever.

I did the above portrait of Coco and Josephine for Kate Westray, a friend who gave me a set of flat files. Those are the kind of cabinets made for large works of paper (drawings, watercolors, etc.). It wasn’t a trade. She just offered to give me the flat files and I wanted to do something in return. Flat files are expensive. Even if you want to get rid of them, they’re worth quite a few bucks second hand. So I wanted to repay what I felt was a great act of generosity. I was doing the Modern Venus paintings at the time, but I didn’t offer her one of those, as I had a feeling  (speaking of stigma) that the Venus’s weren’t the sort of thing that she would want to hang on the wall. As it turned out, neither was my portrait of Coco and Josephine. Although Kate said she liked it, she ended up giving it back to me.

Even though it does belong to most despised form of art (as I mentioned), I like it too, though I admit it’s an odd creation. I set about to do the painting exactly the same way I approached  my Venus’s — with solid blocks of intense pin-up color, composed  in the manner of  modernist abstraction. But being a portrait, I had to include their faces. Faces (at least to me) remove the ambiguity between abstraction and representation, that I was playing with in the Modern Venus series.

As soon as you’re looking straight at a face, the identity of the sitter overrides any perception of shapes and colors. Coco and Josephine were rescue cats and they didn’t like strangers. Whenever I saw them, they looked at me in the querulous (slightly berzerk) way that I showed in the painting,  then quickly took off for a safe place.  So, in retrospect,  it’s really no wonder Kate didn’t want this on the wall,  as Coco and Josephine were a lot happier looking when she was alone with them. Happy is the way you want to remember the things you love, not berzerk.

Modern Venus # 20

As I said,  the Portrait of Coco and Josephine was a continuation of the way I was painting Modern Venus series. So here’s an example of that,   Modern Venus # 20


Modern venus #20

Modern Venus # 20,  gouache and acrylic on paper, 16″ X 20″

Cezanne Gets the Last Laugh

Very few works of fiction are convincing at depicting a painter. Usually things go wonky as soon as the fictional artist starts talks about painting.  These guys read like they’ve never seen a real painting up close,  much less done one. I get the impression that most writers, are  incapable of understanding painters.  Most famously, Emille Zola wrote a novel (“L’Oeuvre,”) based on his lifelong (up to that point) friend, Paul Cezanne.  In the book, the Cezanne character devotes his life to painting, tragically never realizing his own lack of talent.  In Zola’s defense, it could be argued that “L’Oeuvre” reflected Cezanne’s lack of success up to that point. But of course it also reflected the fact that Zola didn’t recognize that his (soon to be ex-)friend was a genius.

Off-hand, the only book I can think of where the painter seemed truly believable was The Horse’s Mouth, by Joyce Carey. As a young man, Carey had seriously studied art and intended a career as a painter, so perhaps that helped. But the madman/ genius/drunken bum that is Gulley Jimson  (the book’s main character) is not the sort of artist that any art student would dream up.  Regardless, It’s a wonderful creation. The Horse’s Mouth was once considered a small masterpiece and now (as far as I can tell) it’s virtually forgotten. I would certainly recommend it, along with Carey’s Second Trilogy, which is even more obscure. But, getting back to the matter at hand. My poor opinion of the way painters have fared in novels, made me a little apprehensive when I set out to write about Maria Maria, the young artist in my all-ages book, Peter Pigeon of Snug Harbor. Especially, since I had some avenues of description cut off that wouldn’t be suitable for young readers.

But I comforted myself with the fact that I never thought of myself as a writer (it was just something I stumbled into and made a living from through hack work). And sure enough, as soon as I started writing about Maria Maria, we felt like old friends. I don’t know if I defied the writer/painter hex, but I had a lot of fun writing about Maria Maria. And that’s unusual for me,   writing’s usually  a misery.

Gradually the strains of ambition, disappointment, and fear, drive Maria Maria to point of madness. (Even if  kids were going to read the book, she’s still an artist.) But in the post below, Maria Maria is  at her sunny, optimistic, (if already a bit nutty), best.

Excerpt From Chapter 8 “Maria Maria”

Now all the artists were moving in with their paints and canvases, sculptures and blowtorches, stuffed armadillos, phosphorescent snowshoes and all sorts of peculiar things. Peter hadn’t seen this much activity since the Snugs finished the Captain’s South Sea Illo#11smalljpeggrog at his last party.

Hannah, the groundskeeper, was running all over the place trying to help the artists find their studios — which were to be set up in the rooms where the Snugs had lived.


Maria Maria charged over to Hannah and begged her for a different studio. “Please,” she said, “I can’t share a studio with Roger. He’s just too creepy to share a studio with!”
Hannah didn’t really think Roger was all that creepy. But she did remember that when she was Maria Maria’s age, certain guys really did seem pretty irritating. And she wanted everyone to be happy.

“Well,” said Hannah, “Everything is taken except for Captain Hardtack’s room. It’s much smaller than the others because, being a captain, he had it all to himself. Well, except for Peter. You would have to share it with Peter.”

“That’s all right,” Maria Maria said. “I don’t mind if he doesn’t. Can I talk to him?”

“Well, I guess you could talk to him. Captain Hardtack certainly did. He thought that Peter understood every word he was saying.”

“Why wouldn’t, Peter understand?” Maria Maria, asked. “Does Peter have a hearing problem? I know sign language, I’m sure he could understand me.”

“Peter’s a pigeon,” Hannah explained.

“Oh, wow, that is so cool!” said Maria Maria. “I would so love to talk to Peter and see if I could be his roommate.”

After being introduced to Peter, Maria Maria proceeded to tell him the story of her life. She felt he should have this type of information if they were going to be roommates. And anyway she enjoyed talking about herself. Maria Maria’s original name was Maria Colacco, but she thought that this name sounded very ordinary.

So just last year, Illo#11AMariaSmalleron her 21st birthday, she changed her first name to Otto-Von-Bismarck. This made her parents very unhappy, because they thought Maria was a lovely name. Which, of course, it is. So to make them feel better, she changed her first name back to Maria. And to make herself feel better, she changed her last name to Maria. From that point on she was known as Maria Maria and everyone was very happy. Or at least, Maria Maria was very happy, and her parents figured they could live with it. Because once you’ve had a daughter named Otto-Von-Bismarck Colacco, Maria Maria sounds pretty good.

Unfortunately, however, not everyone was as understanding as her parents. In fact, no one at the Slurpee counter at the 7-11 where she worked could get her name right. But Maria Maria was convinced that before long, everyone on Staten island would know and understand the correct way to say her name — even the people at the Slurpee counter. That’s because Maria Maria planned to enter the annual art contest held by the Staten Island Advance and win the cash first prize. It was not only the money she was interested in, though. Maria Maria felt that the world was a pretty dreary place and it was her duty to brighten it up with her art.


That’s it for this week!

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