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I am a painter. www.StephenCefalo.com, http://twitter.com/#!/CefaloStudio

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Interview With Emil Robinson

Emil Robison has come a long way since I met him as a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati, and is quickly establishing himself as a pretty important painter and draftsman.

Study for painting
charcoal and pastel on Arches paper 40x28

Your drawings and your paintings seem to be two opposite sides of a coin. The drawings are quite spontaneous and tactile, while your paintings are very clean and zen-like. Do you see the two processes differently?

Drawings are much quicker and more responsive. Drawing has always felt like a medium where I can rapidly convey a lot of information with relatively little effort. I think my better figure paintings have a good sense of drawing. I like your use of the word zen for the paintings. One of my main goals as an artist is to find a way of becoming one with my subject matter. This requires intense concentration, and belief in the uniqueness of what I am feeling and seeing. With our culture communicating visually at an astonishing rate, there is a great need for painting. Painting provides a slower more sensitive response to the world. It forces the viewer to quietly feel time pass. Painting is a natural response that finds spiritual power in even the most mundane subject. I work back and forth between photos and pure observation in my paintings. Working from the photo requires an incredible effort to create the excitement and response I want in my process. Recently I have felt the need to work only from life to find more personal perceptual solutions to things. This has been spurred on by working in pastel from observation, and getting excited about the amazing amount of information there is to choose from.

in progress pastel 32" x 28" pastel on somerset

2010What is your pastel technique? Is pastel a recent discovery of yours or something you've been doing for a while?

I use pastel in the way I want to use any medium. Which is that I have no clear strategy. I try to let all of the skill information I have learned come through naturally, and I really pay attention only to what I need. My goal is communication of surface, edge, feeling, weight, color, space etc. I try to sit down at the easel with an open mind and respond naturally. If that means I should smear, I smear, if that means I need broad strokes I use broad strokes etc. I try to force the media to do what I want, and I am always interested in re-inventing how the media behaves. Pastel is a recent discovery of mine and a nice transitional medium. It is an opportunity to use color and value like a painting, but work quickly with line like a drawing. Line has always been a natural way of describing form for me, and I like the way pastel grips and scratches when it makes a mark.

study2: 36" x 30" pastel on paper 2010

What is Manifest, and what is your involvement in it?

Manifest is an exciting contemporary art gallery and drawing studio that some friends of mine, Jason Franz and Brigid Okane, formed seven years ago. Manifest does many things that make it a cut above as an institution from its professionalism to its high standards, but an especially cool thing is that they produce a catalog for every show they hold. If you show in one of Manifest’s exhibitions, you will have a catalog documenting your work. Go to www.manifestgallery.org for more information.

Jason Franz and I have drawn the figure regularly together for ten years. Currently, a group of us who draw at the open figure sessions held by Manifest have put together a show of our life drawings. This show opened at Baldwin Wallace College and will travel to other institutions over the next couple years. The next stop is my alma mater Centre College in Danville Kentucky where the show will be for January.

London Window: 11"x9" oil on panel 2008

Good painting seems to really be exploding nationally, don't you think? Who are some of the most exciting young painters to you?

Good painting is definitely exploding.

Some of the most exciting young painters I can think of are (in no particular order) Michael Borremans, Ellen Altfest, George Shaw, Josephine Halverson, Diarmuid Kelley, Sangram Majumdar, Matthias Weischer, Alexi Worth, Merlin James… the list goes on. The majority of these people bring a very personal vision to their work. Good painting for me is painting where someone’s inner language is made visible as a direct response to, and belief in the sensual world. I am interested in painting as a way of slowing down, taking time to smell the roses. This requires the artist to be hyper diligent in experiencing the world and it forces the viewer to stop and consider something they may not have considered before. This does not mean every painting takes a really long time, I just think the act of examining and being with something over a period of time be it three hours or three years, leaves an imprint of that relationship and investment. Many of my favorite contemporary painters are quite established or old or dead ie Lucian Freud, Antonio Lopez Garcia, Frank Auerbach, lois Dodd, Euan Uglow, David Hockney, Avigdor Arikha, R.B. Kitaj, Francis Bacon etc.

Do you have a favorite contemporary draftsman?

The contemporary artist Anne Harris embodies the kind of approach to drawing the figure that I find vital and rare. In this kind of approach, line is not an envelope that holds value as taught by many “contemporary realists” Line is a way of following the flow of energy and form through the figure that harnesses the gestural motion and weight of any pose. To my eye, much of the so called masterful drawing being made today is flaccid and inert. Many old drawings were made rapidly with an eye for the feel and movement of the whole. This approach is marred by many of the contemporary atelier schools. I am also interested in the power of suggestion in figure drawings, in this regard Rb Kitaj and David Hockney come to mind as recent draftsmen of high quality. I am nowhere near the level of these artists, but I am working on it.

study1: 28"x20" pastel on paper 2010

Who were your most influential teachers?

I have one real master and two human helpers:

God’s creation in all of its enigma, silence, joy, and variation is my most constant and only real guiding force. I have also been blessed with some marvelous teachers. Foremost, Sheldon Tapley at Centre College was a huge support and showed me the possibilities and diversity in representational painting and art making. Jason Franz was the first real drawing teacher I had, and instilled a sense of rigor I still try to live up to in the making of my work.

Is there a guiding compositional principle that you follow?

Trust is my guiding compositional principle. There is no way to erase the chorus of art historical cues that wait to ambush when you open your eyes every morning, but I always try to base my compositions on what feels right to me. I trust my instincts and try to best communicate what I am feeling and seeing.

I am inclined toward order, symmetry and geometric attraction. I suppose these things are related to drawing with my eyes as I move through and around what I am looking at. Historically I especially like the composition of early renaissance/medieval work fra angelico/giotto, and the modernist aesthetic: Matisse through Diebenkorn. I also enjoy contemporary photographers who are employing an off the cuff kind of spontaneity i.e. nan goldin/wolfgang tillmans. As a side note, I think some of the most carefully composed contemporary narrative figuration is made by photographers not painters.

In progress work (detail)

Do you consider yourself a colorist?

Yes, color is very important to me. Both as a scientific investigation, and as an emotional current that may lead a drawing or painting to unexpected places. I think colors hold emotional potential in there pure form without shape or texture, and I am always surprised at what comes from switching the color of something in a painting.

Do you listen to music while working? Podcasts? talk? audiobooks?

I used to listen to NPR a lot, but I think it took up too much head room. Now I work in silence, partially out of choice partially because I never remember to bring music when I am going to studio. Sometimes when I am working with someone in studio I can talk to them, but I like the quiet when I really need to see.

38 x 30

Is there a slight trend away from the figure in your studio paintings recently?

The figure is always on my mind. I want to find a way to merge the minimalist tendencies in my non-figurative work with the figure. As we move through even the most basic spaces we are constantly concealing and revealing our physical bodies, our intentions, and our emotional states. I have a show in London in 2011 where I will have all new paintings/drawings. In this show there will be some paintings without people, some paintings with people. Sometimes I have trouble thinking about how to include the figure in paintings. I always feel like the figure is doing too much… I want figures who feel everyday but also paradoxical, I like to find actions that are very normal and ritualistic, but also (if presented the right way) more emotional or psychological or universal. The figure embodies a combination of physical presence and emotional and spiritual vulnerability. I want to show the grey area where nothing is perfectly clear. You can name the action, but you can’t name the resonance you get from it.

Most of the work on your official website is a few years old. Is there a place we can see newer work or are you cooking something up in the studio?

I am excited because I am currently exploring the possibilities that are present daily in the light and space of my studio. I am trying to create restrictions for myself so as to create consistency in the work. My wife Catherine Richards, who is a fabulous artist herself, helps me strategize my working methods and content of my paintings. Currently, I have been working only from observation, gearing up for my show next year.

My website is a little embarrassing, I will have a new one some time soon. In the meantime you can see some recent work here: http://www.artslant.com/global/artists/show/38292-emil-robinson

Borromini's corner: 20"x24" oil on panel 2007

Do you have any upcoming shows, articles, or anything else you'd like us to know about?

I have a solo show at Waterhouse and Dodd contemporary in London 2011, and I am in a group show at the Weston art gallery in downtown Cincinnati in March of this year.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Pieta Retold by a few of my favorite painters.

I have a thing for pietas.

Michelangelo did the famous one. The pieta is traditionally a depiction of Mary holding the dead Christ across her lap. Literally translated "piety", the word means something more like "mourning". in this case.

In art, though, the pieta is less a story than a form through which to express a certain emotion or pathos. It is not at all necessary to know the story, because the message is in the shapes and in the bodies. As in most of the classic motifs, they usually come from an ancient source predating Christianity, and are recycled and reinterpreted much like what a "standard" is to a jazz musician.

Above is an example of something like our pieta predating Jesus by nearly 600 years. It is by the greek painter, Douris, and represents the mythological characters, Eos and Memnon.

In this entry, though, I'll be focusing on some interpretations on this theme by contemporary artists.

Here are three by Bo Bartlett. The one above is a commentary on the Civil War.

Bo's use of the flayed lamb here is a clever parallel, and I like the way the sky itself looks like there is a fire for the sacrifice somewhere just outside of the frame.

This (above) is probably more accurately a descent from the cross. If you're offended by the female with nail wounds, remember that many women too were crucified in the days of the early church. I love all the urban debris scattered in the background, the red couch, and the guy pointing as if making some kind of accusation. I don't remember Bo's exact explanation for all of the stuff in it, but I don't really care. It's a staggeringly beautiful piece that cuts right down to the soul.

Vincent desiderio with his son. Check out the projected images in the background.

My rendition. Actually it's more of a "Madonna and Child" foreshadowing a "pieta." Ok, I said my "favorite painters". If I wasn't at least one of my favorites why would I continue bothering?

Steven Assael's parents.

Another steven Assael above. He did a few of these firefighter pietas with my pal David as the model for the little boy.

Here's a political pieta by Harvey Dinnerstein, a teacher of Assael. It is probably more accurately a "deposition" in which a group of disciples is carrying the body to the tomb, but in essence the same form. I'm not sure if he ever did a full painting of this, but I find it incredibly powerful. An image like this transcends the political message and becomes something universal and timeless. These are probably vietnam protesters, but could just as easily be a much older event or a future event. I enjoy the contrast between the limp, dead arm at the bottom and the defiantly raised arm, stabbing diagonally toward the upper left corner. I feel the outrage myself just looking at it.

Max Ginsburg is a great painter, but to me this one is a little overstated. The message here seems to be carried more by symbolic bits such as the flag, the screaming woman, the fire, and the blood, rather than in the shaping of light and the movement of the bodies. I might like it better in black and white.

Ooh, sepia is kind of nice. Actually I LOVE that!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Ye Olde Classmates: Nicolas Uribe

I probably learned as much from Nicolas at SVA New York as I did from my instructors. I wrote a little bit about this and posted some of his old student paintings on Cefaloblog. I rarely have met a student so serious about his work. Contrary to what most people assume by looking at his work, there is nothing weird about Nicolas. He's quiet, well-spoken, and totally nonchalant about most things. As you'll find on his blog, he's not interested either in self-absorbed artspeak or haughty classical ideals. His website seemed to be under construction last time I tried, but maybe you'll have better luck.

I have often debated in defense of Nicolas Uribe's paintings, and have come to realize that his work actually defies many things I profess to believe about art. Yes, the photo is totally present. Yes, they are largely cool, ironic, witty, clever and hip. Why, then, does it stand up to me as great painting? On the surface, the subject matter seems a shield against experience or emotion, but I don't think that's the case. Nicolas loves human skin, and sincerely loves the tactility of representing it in oil paint, and everything else is beside the point. In my opinion it is that impulse above all that drove most of Art History.

Art theory and philosophy aside, Nicolas paints like nobody's business, and I can't stop looking at them over and over again. But he's not merely a copycat or renderer. The thing I probably enjoy most about his work is the exploration in it. He's constantly pushing his own boundaries and looking for ways to challenge himself.

Nicolas is a great draftsman too.

I had never seen someone paint over reproductions of masterpieces before Nicolas, at least not in a well-done and interesting way.

The one above is a long-time favorite of mine.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Teachers Of Mine: Bonnie Sklarski

Bonnie Sklarski is one of my favorite people. Born in New York state, Bonnie studied at Yale, Pratt, School of Visual Arts, and Brooklyn College. She was closely involved in the beginnings of the New York Academy, and was my painting and anatomy professor at Indiana University in Bloomington. She joined the faculty 40 years ago in 1970 and now serves as professor emeritus. Bonnie considers Martha Erlebacher her mentor, and they remain close friends.


Bonnie has recently moved a little away from the figure toward still-life and landscape paintings, which are all wonderfully rich with meaning. As a figure person myself, however, am am most impacted by her allegorical work.


Bonnie is part scientist, part philosopher, and part painter, and considers Da Vinci a hero. Her painting possesses an almost medieval attention to the specific nature of the objects represented in them. Rocks, clouds, and streams of water are studied as characters in themselves rather than as merely a backdrop for the figures. She studies every aspect of picture-making as a concrete science. She keeps volumes of binders full of mixed colors, and diagrams and dissects compositions of the great masters, and categorizes them into types. She does the same with light effects and color combinations. She is the only person I've ever known to keep sketchbooks dedicated to understanding the way water moves and rocks cleave.

Left half of "The Four Seasons"

Right half of "The Four Seasons"



"Study for Dionysius"

Bonnie is an outstanding drawing anatomy instructor, and teaches in the manner of Robert Beverly Hale, who I believe she studied with. She collects human and animal bones as well as roadkill, and is an amateur taxidermist. Once, upon entering the classroom, I found something with a furry tail stuffed in a plastic bag that was hanging from the doorknob.

I found this early self-portrait of Bonnie somewhere online, and I think it is very touching. I also love the red curtain.

Here is a link to a wonderful interview with Bonnie and her personal website.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Teachers Of Mine: Steven Assael

I mean seriously. Steven Assael renders (no pun intended) me speechless. His talent is epic. He has a passion and a work ethic unlike anything I've ever seen. He is a gentle soul and a good friend.

I studied with Steve at SVA my senior year, and continued to study with him privately during my years in New York. Steven is a student of Max Ginsburg and Harvey Dinnerstein, other painters I greatly admire.

Seeing this painting at his 1998 show at Forum Gallery changed my life. This is one of the best figure paintings I've ever seen.

Amy's favorite, "Amber Ray".

Watching Assael paint is similar to watching a professional wrestling match between a paint brush and globs of gloppy wet paint. Although in reproductions one is mostly aware of the level of realism, when viewed in person there is quite a lot of abstraction in the paint. Threads of pure and half-mixed color can be seen in the strokes. Steve loves to pile on the flake white and thickly layered wet glazes with a honey-thick medium that creates a jewel-like effect on the surface. His unorthodox technique normally involves a superloaded fan brush or round sable shifting about masses of paint the way a sculptor models form in clay.

Steven Assael is well-known for making ballpoint pen a serious drawing medium. He handles it quite like silverpoint, and often adds washed in layers of color and tone.