Sunday, February 5, 2012

Mystery

One of the qualities a fine painting might have is mystery. Using soft edges and or close values an artist can hint at what is in his picture rather than describe it fully. Painters do this a lot, some more and some less. The painting above by Soren Emil Carlson has a lot of mystery. Primitive painting, like colonial folk portraiture virtually never does. Here is an example of that, from the Fruitlands museum in Harvard Massachusetts.

Everything in this portrait is carefully delineated without much selection.The entire image is presented with the same amount of clarity. This is common in primitive paintings and is one of the things that the academic or traditional training of a painter diminishes. Here is a grandma Moses.

I suppose in passing I will mention that.....................................

CHARM IS THE ONE QUALITY THAT WILL REDEEM A PAINTING BEARING ANY OTHER FAULT


Charming though it may be, the Grandma Moses was painted with no thought for lost and found passages or mystery. There is no awareness of varied hardness or softness of edges.

Below is an Inness that has lots of mystery.

Below is a detail from the Inness above. Notice all of the blur and suggestion in the hillside and distance. There is a kind of magic in a passage like this. We see it and know what it is but the representation is poetic, not a laundry list of unnecessary details. Poetry is evocative not matter of fact.

I find paintings with no mystery sort of annoying. All of that bristling detail gets tiresome and over insistent. Below is a Richard Estes with no mysterious passages at all.

And below an Alex Katz;

Whats the deal with Alex Katz anyway? And below, a Gilbert Stuart self portrait.

20 comments:

Brady said...

What is the deal with Alex Katz?

But seriously, mystery is awesome. I thank you for pointing it out and a grand quality.

Brady said...

...as a grand quality.

Geesh, remind me not to comment near midnight.

Deborah Elmquist said...

I wish more artist knew this. Lost and found edges, as well as, soft edges speak volumes. Mysteries keep your eyes on the painting longer. Keep shouting this from the roof tops.

Simone said...

I like your use of the word "selection" in this post. Good art is a really a matter of good taste. Good taste is essentially a matter of selection. Selection applies to all aspects of painting but none more so than edges. More than anything else, selecting the sequence of open and closed edges is how we relate our paintings to the way the human eye actually works. Learning to paint from photos cannot teach us this.

Bill Guffey said...

Good post, Stape. It's like the old adage says, "When everything is shouting, nothing gets heard."

Stapeliad said...

This is a fabulous post Stape, thank you.

bob Carter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bob Carter said...

The lack of mystery is my main beef with the current crop of photorealists. As Gruppe often said, "tooo much for the money."

mariandioguardi.com said...

Oh so...back with the Alex Katz. You must miss my comments. But even I will admit that's not a keeper.

No mystery in my paintings either..I am not a very mysterious person (on the outside). It's best we keep it that way.

Hope some charm can redeem me. (She says laughing hysterically all the way down to her studio)

Billy said...

Once again I am reminded why I follow this blog. Great post.

DJ said...

Hallelujah. Someone gets it.

billspaintingmn said...

A mystery entices the viewers imagination.
That's why the book is always better than the movie.

willek said...

You have to like mystery in a painting and it should be introduced when needed. But pictures with detail vs spare, or fuzzy vs sharp, I would think depends on the purpose of the picture and how it might be intended to be viewed. Is it a picture at an exhibition to be seen briefly as one passes along or is it going to be lived with for many years? It is meant to pass along a majesty of creation or to merely decorate an empty space? Arent these factors for these determinants?

craigstephens said...

Lol!
What's the deal with Alex Katz indeed!
Succinct as usual . I am a long time fan of your blog although I don't often comment. Thanks for sharing so much of your knowledge and perspective.

Philip Koch said...

Stape, there is a simple explanation for at least that one particular Katz you reproduce. To keep the edge on that sitter's grimace, Katz simply instructed her to stick her finger in an electrical socket and leave it there while he painted. Works every time.

Nick Neumann said...

Great post Stape. Love the charm quote.

The first and last examples are very intense and mysterious indeed.

As far as the Richard Estes and Alex Katz paintings; what's their charm factor? Hehe...

James Gunter said...

Mystery? I think a painter of one of the examples in your post must have thought you said "misery"! (I won't say which one, but his initials are Alex Katz)

Deb said...

who's Alex katz?

no really , great post..

edges are the soul of a painting.

at a recent art event, the top-liner was a photo-realist. folks over and over mentioned that another artist's work in the the show - which DID make conscious use of edges, was the best there regardless of price... it appeared more "real" than the photo-realism.

Bill i like your quote - "that's why the book is always better than the movie"

nerd bro said...

you did great work.



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birgit said...

The mystery of a Richard Estes has to do with the millions of different grey tones in his pictures. Once when I drove from Long Island to Manhattan, I searched for all these different greys in the concrete of the Manhattan skyline.

An Estes has to be seen as a painting because a photograph does not do it justice.