Thursday, February 19, 2009

Pastel Dust, Manet's Blue Couch, and Isbell's Poetics

This week I am finishing a series of small 8 x 10 inch oil paintings depicting subjects in Santa Fe, New Mexico and various spots around southern Arizona. I am also working on a series of pastel studies - the first pastels I've done since I was a small kid. When I was maybe 8 or 10 years old my mom had me draw a bit in pastels and I even did a portrait of her, which I still have among my old collections of our drawings. I never forgot them, and decided just recently that, as an artist, I really needed the challenge of something new.

Another reason was that I bought a pastel of Venice, Italy from the Tucson artist Gabor Svagrik. This pastel was a gift for my wife for her 33rd birthday. I used to show work with Gabor at the Max Gallery, and my wife had frequently commented on his cityscape pastels - how they would remind her of her youth that she spent in her native Belgrade, Serbia. Though this piece by Gabor was a gift for my wife, I actually felt that it was a real benefit to me also - as I spent a long period of time looking at the subtlety of Gabor's handling of the pastel medium. The soft glow of the figures in the rain, brought out so well in the velvety haze of the pastel chalk. It made me remember toiling away for hours as a little boy, slashing colors and shapes in pastel onto the paper. It also made me remember the original thought that I'd had - that an artist strengthens his or her legitimacy by working in multiple mediums.

Of course, this does present it's own set of artistic challenges for me. A lot of my work is about the effect of the thick oil paints and bright colors; and neither can be reproduced exactly in pastel. Pastel does not posses the pure force and shine of oil colors, and if you lay pastel on the paper too thickly you are not doing yourself any great justice. In fact, as a medium, it seems to me to be much more about subtlety than force. Artists like Gabor, as well as masters from the past such as Monet, Manet and Degas all used pastel to enhance the warm glow of emotional effects. I, on the other hand, have to decide a crucial question, ie, "What does a Neil Myers pastel look like?"

As I've been doing these small studies over the past week, I was reminded of the greatest pastel that I'd ever seen - a phenomenal piece by Manet called "Madame Manet on a Blue Couch". When I saw the piece in 1996 in Paris, I was stunned. It was such a unique work because it was a portrait but not a portrait - in a peculiar sense. When I was looking at it, what struck me powerfully was Manet's soft portrayal of the couch itself, surrounding the central figure and almost becoming the object of the piece more than the figure. It felt like a couch that one could just collapse into. Inviting and soft, asking for repose.

When I began to think about artists changing mediums, I also remembered the late watercolors by Cezanne. These works, in my view, were utterly different than his oil paintings. What was so unusual about them was mostly that the paper was often nearly all white, and Cezanne only seemed to work to evolve certain details in the work. I have not studied his intentions behind the work sufficiently to resolve whether or not he considered most of his late watercolors finished or not. To me they look unfinished - but I do realize that he must have been bringing out what seemed to him to be essential elements; the arm of a tree, the spine of the Mont Sainte Victoire - and the images emerged as though through the white fog of the paper.

I think I will have to resolve, in the coming days, the debate over whether or not a Neil Myers pastel or watercolor will represent a break from his oil painting style. We shall see. I've always worked with a little bit of free experimentation spirit in the back of my mind, and frequently I too am along for the ride in seeing where these imagistic explorations go.

Stay tuned to and I'll post the first of the pastels on "the painter's closet" page as soon as they are ready.

Also, for those of you who love great music, I'd like to shamelessly plug a new self titled CD by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. I just downloaded it last night from itunes, and found myself sitting at my desk with my guitar, figuring out the song "Cigarettes and Wine", a beautiful tune that harkens back to other slow blues-rock songs of the past. The CD has already received praise from Rolling Stone and Spin magazine. For those of you who don't know him, the leader of the band Jason Isbell is a former guitarist/ singer / songwriter for the Drive-by Truckers - and he was responsible for penning some of DBT's most memorable songs like "The Day John Henry Died" and "Goddamn Lonely Love." I've met Jason twice when he and the 400 unit played shows in Tucson. The second time we met up he and I spent a cold half hour standing behind Club Congress in Tucson, talking about music and life. Jason's a really cool guy, a person who is very real and very level. He's a master songsmith, a real Southern-American poet. His band are a talented bunch of guys as well - the guitarist of the band Browan Lollar is an artist on the side, and he designed the graphics and images for the new 400 Unit CD. You can check Jason and the band out at , where you'll find all relevant info and links to their myspace where you can sample the music. I urge everyone to support great indie artists such as Jason and his band. And don't miss a chance to catch them live if they swing by your area.

Now I have go get busy getting my fingers covered in pastel dust!