Behind the Doors

I am completely enchanted by doors, especially unusual ones – they always lead somewhere, and create a division between one place and another, whether you pass through or walk away.

There’s a quotation from Aldous Huxley that I heard via Jim Morrison of The Doors: “There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors (of perception).” It grew into choreography for a full-length dance called The Doors, which debuted in two New York venues a few years ago, using doors I painted to open to Birth, Death, Fear and Love.

Hidden beauty is doubly intriguing to me, and when I was traveling in Peru and first spotted the locals’ retablos, I couldn’t tear myself away. I immediately bought one, a small wooden house whose doors open to a whole village of carved and painted people celebrating, dancing, playing music and generally having a marvelous, colorful time, with a kind of medieval lack of perspective and large and small figures crammed together. Every time I open the doors, I imagine that I hear the music, and every time I close them I feel it fade behind them. The figures have lost some of their color, but none of their verve, over the years.

Looking at the retablo years later, when I was painting several series on the four seasons, it occurred to me that I could put the seasons behind a set of doors and they could be shown together or opened one at a time. I asked a sculptor and cabinet-maker friend, Brad Rhodenbaugh of Cincinnati, to make a really rich, thick walnut framework and polished doors, a double frame for each pair of seasons. The result was Seasons Behind Doors.

I painted the four seasons on stretched canvas, each one three feet by two feet: Fall as a tree seeing the migrating birds away; Winter as a man whose body is built up of hibernating animals; Spring as a rainwoman and Summer as a young man, ecstatic and drunk on the bounty of sunshine, fruit and flowers.

Each pair, framed, is 98 inches across (a little over eight feet) when both doors are fully opened; closed, each pair is 54 inches wide (four and a half feet). The framed Seasons are 40 inches high. At the time I painted them, I had a client with a huge, sweeping wall and she was thinking of setting the two double paintings in a line across the wall and opening each panel as the seasons came, leaving the previous one open, until the end of the year, when they would all close. However, her daughter decided that she wanted the wall for a photo gallery and since then, the Seasons Behind Doors have been stored away; I am just bringing them out now.





Why Artists and Collectors Don’t Get One Another (and what we can do about it)

By Marilyn Green

It’s a pretty common scenario: the collector visits the artist’s studio and starts looking at the work. The artist explains a little about each piece, but he or she is watching the collector’s reactions with an intensity that would stop a rhinoceros in its tracks. Nobody could possibly have a chance to have a spontaneous reaction under all that scrutiny.

Then the collector hits the jackpot with a phrase the artist hates, either: “I’m looking for something that will work over my couch” or “I need something that will pick up the green in my drapes” or “I’m looking for something happy.”

The artist thinks, “I poured out my soul on this and all she/he can think of is how it will look over the couch,” and we have an adversarial situation set up that leaves the artist feeling unappreciated and misunderstood and the collector feeling that artists are crazy or an alien life form.

Why it happens

There are some fundamental reasons for this. Unless the collector is buying primarily for financial investment, how the work looks over the couch is of paramount importance; it’s going to become a part of his/her home and most personal and private environment. The plain truth is that the artist has seldom lived with the work; it usually has been standing in the studio, a gallery or storage. And in my case, during the period just after the piece is finished, it’s just as painful to look at as a recording of my voice or a video of me. So usually I put new pieces out of sight for a while, and if I’m lucky my reaction when I see them is, “Oh, that’s really good. Who painted it?”

Artists have a derogatory acronym, OTC (over the couch), to describe work that, in their view, has no merit except as a part of the decoration. Very serious collectors may have a gallery in their home, and I once had a client clear out a room in her house except for a large painting of mine and two soft chairs, but the vast majority will be bringing the art into their daily lives, so it isn’t out of line for them to care how it will fit into what they already have, or to want a particular mood or effect.

I have a friend who does gorgeous work, but the theme is invariably agony and darkness, so he has limited sales and regards the general public as Philistines for not appreciating the deep emotional value of his paintings. Very few people, however they may relate to pain in a work of art, want to incorporate it into their world, unless, like Shakespeare and Greek tragedy, it leaves them with more than it found them.

What to do

So what is the answer? Does this mean artists must paint cheerful pictures and collectors must constantly analyze what draws them to a work?

My own theory is that both groups would benefit from likening art to cooking. For some reason, most visual artists seem to have cooking skills, and they wouldn’t serve breakfast at dinner or ignore the tastes and allergies of the people who eat their food. The diners also give appreciation, understanding and pleasure to the cook, and stretch to enjoy new and unfamiliar dishes. The same kind of relationship would benefit both the artist and the collector, who are, after all, two sides of the same coin.

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Out of the Smoke

When I created my first paintings in oil on shaped wood panels, I had no idea they were in the tradition of a very old technique. I wanted figures that could hang from a central carousel in an installation at the Cincinnati Arts Consortium, moving through areas themed for Earth, Water, Fire and Air, and painted wood sheets seemed to be a good solution.
So I cut out eight-foot figures, sanded them, gessoed them and then got out my oil paints, and my father helped me install them on poles hanging from the corners of the wooden carousel top, which had holes drilled in it to let in dappled light.
The four- to eight-foot figures, and the ones I made over the years since, combine people and animals in gently fantastic forms like the Rockinghorse Woman, who can’t get anywhere, dressed and coiffed for gracious visiting like Edwardian society women who spend their days making formal calls.
The rider on Pushme Pullthem comes from my childhood love affair with Dr. Doolittle. He sits on a steed with a bird and a giraffe – two of my favorite creatures – making up the two ends. The more recent Seahorcyclist rides with bicycle pedals, and Dharmadillo shows a nature figure on the armadillo.
A fire eventually caused extensive smoke damage to the original pieces, but I’ve been recreating them lately, with more intense colors, and some still to come. The fantastic world seems to have taken on a stronger reality than it did in the beginning, when the colors were softer and the figures more misty.
I’m still working on the four Elements: Water’s hair is a waterfall; her body ends in a fish form. Air floats with a huge balloon or bubble, and I just completed the figure of Earth, growing up through tree roots out of rock. I’m still struggling with the Fire figure, which seems to be a kind of Phoenix, but it’s slowly emerging.
I love painting them all, and the little bit – usually an eighth of an inch – of thickness adds a dimension like relief sculpture. What I lose by not having a background I gain in a three-dimensional quality, once the piece hangs.
Now I see all sorts of people working with this technique, creating figures out of history, images from famous paintings and you can even buy blank cutout figures to paint. Seems as though there’s a big well somewhere and a lot of us have dipped into it.