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About Pictures

Post #1452 • February 8, 2010, 8:34 AM • 77 Comments

Whilst in New York most recently, my always gracious hosts gave me a copy of About Pictures by Terry Fenton. Get yourself one, and keep it handy for the next time some bewildered soul asks you an ingenuous question about art. Fenton, is his long career as an artist, museum director, and author, has clearly had to entertain countless such questions, as his answers to them have the sound of many hundreds of patient, kind revisions.

How can you tell the best works of art from lesser ones?

By looking. By comparing. By letting your own taste decide.

Remember, the good ones are seldom perfectly good, nor the bad ones utterly bad. But the better ones are more sustaining than the lesser ones.

Good art stays looking good. Mediocre art becomes something like wallpaper. Sooner or later it stops rewarding your attention. It gets taken for granted.

Good art nourishes your attention. It calls you back. It refreshes your eyes. It just looks good. All of its aesthetic "meaning" is contained in that. The real enjoyment of art comes from savoring the experience of it. Each work of art presents a different experience.

One could quote any number of gems.

Really good pictures come across as presentations, as gifts. Lesser ones are more like demonstrations.

Is there a right way or a wrong way to look at a picture? There's no secret method, apart from keeping your eyes open and keeping and open mind. The first is easy. The second isn't. ... Sometimes, people mistake recognition for appreciation. They think they like certain pictures because they've seen reproductions of them or pictures like them, or they recognize the subject matter.

Trust your eyes. Trust your instincts. Don't analyze. Let the picture come to you.

Fenton invited us into his studio when we rolled through Saskatoon in 2008. (Honestly, we more or less invited ourselves, but he received us warmly.) He's making excellent paintings, one after another, of the incomparable prairie landscape of Saskatchewan. Afterwards we talked, over Chinese food, about his long career, Greenberg's visits to the region, and the thankless work of museum direction. He also knows the kind of political, philosophically ruthless creatures who have moved into power in his absence. Given the indoctrination that these people would like to foist upon the art-viewing public, About Pictures could act as a tonic, as a plain-spoken, eminently sensible invitation to look at art that, with any luck, will cause later assaults of convoluted wall text to bounce off.

This book also offers delightful revelations for those of us who have been pondering art for a long time. He explains why pictures are usually rectangles. Why indeed? I never bothered to ask, and didn't have a good answer until I read Fenton's. (In short, because walls are usually rectangles.) He also does a better job explaining the aesthetic differences, generally, between paintings and photographs, and between real works and reproductions, than anything I've read to date.

You may have a bit of trouble obtaining a copy, as Hagios Press describes itself as "a regional publisher with a national reach" with a "focus on fine works by Saskatchewan writers." Persevere. Your effort will reward you with eighty handsomely produced, beautifully illustrated, well-bound pages of refreshing good sense about art.




February 8, 2010, 8:54 AM

Sounds good. It's available on Amazon for under $20, including shipping.



February 8, 2010, 9:03 AM

"Let the picture come to you." Says it all. And it could be said for artists as well as viewers. Watching what a painting is trying to be and helping it be that.


Chris Rywalt

February 8, 2010, 9:10 AM

Judging by the table of contents, Terry covers a lot of ground.

Hey, Franklin, the least you could do is give the guy a positive review on Amazon!



February 8, 2010, 10:01 AM

I liked the book so much I make it required reading in my Art Appreciation classes. It is my antidote for the unreadable, unorganized, and downright awful text that the college requires those of us who teach the course to use.



February 8, 2010, 10:02 AM

Following the link in #3 and opening the sample book page, we have a little problem. In the text, what should be "de rigueur" is given as "de rigeur." The people in Quebec would not be happy with this.



February 8, 2010, 10:26 AM

I ordered one from Amazon.

If I really like a painting i'll hang it up for a while and some, not all, do keep drawing my eye and inviting contemplation. At the time of completion they were finished but i imagine theres more inspiration in the one that continues to emit interest and a bit more mindlessness in the one whose surface becomes so familiar i forget its there.
I remember how quickly a new Penthouse would lose its effectiveness. That would be an example of what James Joyce termed kinetic art. Static art would be his term for good art which is only concerned with itself and not its effect on the viewer. Art drawn from true inspiration without thoughts of an audience. Art discovered in process rather than worked toward?
As far as the rectangle goes, it seems its easiest to stretch rather than an oval. I create abstract paintings but some are more landscapes while some are more inspired by the human element. Thats when i turn the rectangle upright to suggest a figure.



February 8, 2010, 11:42 AM

This modest volume is the archetypal antithesis of the art business, pitting simplicity, clarity, common sense and intelligence against the obfuscatory, corrupted stinking mess that is the art world today.

I would like to see it become the revolutionary handbook for artists and art students everywhere, but without major promotion behind it that is probably a hapless dream.



February 8, 2010, 11:47 AM

The book has a fair number of typos unfortunately. Anyone interested in that book should consider this one, also by Fenton. It is the best book published to date on this very fine landscape painter. She was esteemed highly by Greenberg, and remains a gem on the Canadian scene. Scrolling down there's some really great links I think you'd enjoy, Jack. Incidentally, if I was a legit collector of real stuff, Fenton and Knowles are both gorgeous painters and can be had relatively cheap. Myself, we pinched pennies and bought a small canvas off this guy a few years back and we'll never regret it.



February 8, 2010, 12:19 PM

Terry will sell his book direct to his southern neighbors. I just got mine and have finished it and loaned it to a friend.

I have read somewhere that it is "too fundamental" for advanced artists. I would say, it is too fundamental for advanced artists to ignore.



February 8, 2010, 12:28 PM will not allow you to review it unless you have purchased either "it" or "something" from them (could not tell exactly which), as opposed to So I tried but having bought it from Terry and nothing else from, could not say anything about it.



February 8, 2010, 1:00 PM

It's a shame Fenton didn't have a sufficiently picky copy editor, like me (or Chris Rywalt, if one can deal with his other issues). Unfortunately, in my opinion, typos and such can subliminally blemish and even discredit, to a degree, even the best writing. In a professional publication, it's not acceptable.



February 8, 2010, 1:12 PM

Well Jack, like Terry says about masterpieces, nothing, no matter how great, is perfect.



February 8, 2010, 1:23 PM

True, John, but some degree of anal retentiveness can be a good thing. If I ever had something published, any sort of typographical, spelling or grammatical error would be hunted down and annihilated ruthlessly before the thing went out the door.


Chris Rywalt

February 8, 2010, 1:25 PM

Jack's got a point, though. I wouldn't have caught his de rigueur error but anything more would annoy me greatly. (I don't feel bad about missing that so much since I proofread in English only.) It can be grounds for dismissal by some. I tend to think I dismiss first on ideas, and then if there are typos it adds insult to injury; but I have to admit, typos alone will drag writing closer to dismissal for me.



February 8, 2010, 1:43 PM

I am extremely sensitive to such errors, quite probably hypersensitive, but they do bother me (most of all if it happens in something I've written myself). To me they read as being careless, sloppy, even incompetent somehow. It may be making packaging the same as content, which they are not, but I guess I was traumatized by the kind of grade-school English teacher which is probably quite extinct by now. Or maybe I'm simply abnormal, which is hardly out of the question.


Chris Rywalt

February 8, 2010, 2:31 PM

I certainly didn't get my predilection for proper spelling and grammar from my English teachers, many of whom knew less than I did about the language. Bless their hearts but they meant well.

But, yes: There's no correlation between spelling and intelligence, especially in English where I've come to believe spelling is simply perverse. While copying over their spelling words my kids would ask me, "Why is it spelled that way?" "Because English spelling is insane," I'd reply. Either you're good at it or you're not, and I happen to be good at it.

Nevertheless I feel it's sloppy for professional writers not to get it right. Maybe many good writers are lousy spellers -- I'd hate to look over a Stephen King manuscript, I bet it's a total wreck -- and grammar has a lot of little dicey bits. Still, as a professional, there are standards to be maintained.



February 8, 2010, 7:32 PM

Fenton's editor is a poet, so perhaps it's just poetic license...

I'm looking forward to "About Sculptures", should he choose to write it (and especially, should he choose someone else to edit it).



February 8, 2010, 7:59 PM

Unfocused artsy types should not be trusted to do editing work, MC. You need hardcore, error-phobic, take-no-prisoners types who cannot rest until every error has been obliterated.



February 8, 2010, 8:07 PM

When I taught "writing about art" (what a subject), I told students that errors in English eroded the authority of whatever they wrote. In the case of Terry's book, though, this just does not happen. His may be the exception that proves the "rule".



February 8, 2010, 9:13 PM

"I told students that errors in English eroded the authority of whatever they wrote."

Yes, precisely. There is always an exception, but the rule remains the rule.



February 8, 2010, 9:44 PM

If the statement has gravity, typos are mitigated. Correctness for its own sake is the province of old maid school marms.

Nevertheless, I'd be embarrassed and angry with typos in a published piece I wrote.



February 8, 2010, 10:42 PM

You have to give Jack credit, he totally owns this blog. By comment 4, he's switched the topic from Fenton's book to spelling errors. By comment 25 he'll have everyone looking at his pots. woo hoo!


Chris Rywalt

February 8, 2010, 10:48 PM

To be fair, I'm a sucker for a conversation on proofreading.



February 9, 2010, 1:18 AM

And Jack's a proofreading conversation sucker, apparently.



February 9, 2010, 1:21 AM

Way to add nothing, George.



February 9, 2010, 7:51 AM

Your comment promotes unease rather than discussion, George. No one owns anything around here. Blogs wander. That's why they are fun. Pots are as good as anything else. Or spelling.



February 9, 2010, 8:37 AM

What's the matter, George? Not getting enough attention at Ed's? I mean, to paraphrase Sinatra, if you can't make it there, you won't make it anywhere. But maybe I'm wrong about that. Maybe you're just congenitally obnoxious. Perhaps you can now continue your "Famous Painter Master Class" for Franklin's benefit. I'm sure he's waiting anxiously for further words from the starry heights.



February 9, 2010, 10:29 AM

Attention, yes. Love, not so much.

My desktop just ate another power supply, which has preempted today's post. Sorry.


Chris Rywalt

February 9, 2010, 11:15 AM

I've seen power supplies go but not ever due to anything external. In my experience they just croak on their own. If you've lost more than one in a short amount of time, though, I'd start looking at other things. I just don't know what. Except to make sure you're not drawing too much power. Your power supply matches or exceeds your CPU requirements, yes?

Keep me updated on this because I'd like to hear what's going wrong.


Chris Rywalt

February 9, 2010, 11:31 AM

Reading the George and Franklin parts of the thread at Ed's, I find myself amused, both at them and myself. When I read George's first comment, I thought, hmm, that sounds right. Then I read Franklin's rebuttal and thought, oh, wait, that sounds right. Eventually I got to this exchange:

George: I don't think painters are qualified to judge conceptual art.

Franklin: I'm not convinced that conceptual artists are qualified to judge conceptual art.

Now that's art humor!



February 9, 2010, 11:39 AM

I heard a loud, electric pop issue from the machine yesterday, although it continued to operate just fine. I shut down last night and now the machine won't power up. Last time this happened I switched out the power supply and that fixed it. Now I'm thinking that I have a short somewhere.


Chris Rywalt

February 9, 2010, 12:09 PM

That's a new one on me. I don't think I've ever heard anything that loud from a PC. Could be a fuse in the power supply. Have you vacuumed out the fur and dust from the case recently? You have pets. I'm in a pet-free home and wow, the crud that fills the case!

It could be your motherboard going bad. That's tough to test, though. The one time I thought it was the motherboard it turned out to be the power switch on the case.

I'd make sure you're not overpowering the power supply -- check the wattage on it. And maybe get a new power strip. Could be the electricity in your area is noisy.

After that I got nothing.



February 9, 2010, 12:23 PM

The case is clean and I'm running off a UPS, so I veto those.

The video card has been a little cantankerous as well lately - I have weird problems with screensavers sometimes crashing the computer and monitors not initializing. I'm thinking that the machine may be underpowered and set up in a case that isn't cooling off. If the mobo's still alive, I'm going to try a case with two fans and more ventilation with a 600W power supply.



February 9, 2010, 12:36 PM

This is getting interesting. Artists with electrical diy solutions. I'm giving the fire department in your area a heads up in case you are unable to reach the phone.


Chris Rywalt

February 9, 2010, 12:37 PM

If you've got more than one hard drive (especially SATA) and a more serious video card, you're drawing a lot of power. 500W would be the minimum I'd buy today anyway, so maybe even go above 600.


Chris Rywalt

February 9, 2010, 12:38 PM

I'll have you know, Lucas, I'm a professional with a degree in Computer Science.

I'm still an idiot, of course. Let's not get crazy. But I've set very few houses on fire.



February 9, 2010, 12:42 PM

Re #28, you'll notice I had posited two possible explanations, and the second one was my top choice all along. The evidence for it, in this blog's archives alone, is pretty much incontrovertible.



February 9, 2010, 5:45 PM

Ok, enough of this nerd talk... I thought the topic was Fenton's new book, "Abut Pots", or something like that...

I tried to order the book straight from the Hagios Press site, some months back, I think, but I never got any response. It's nice to see there's an Amazon link, which might be more reliable.

Better yet, my birthday is coming up, so maybe I'll just drop some well-placed hints...

As for typos, I've made 'em myself, plenty of times (I think I misspelled 'de rigueur' myself, not too long ago, and built-in American-style spellcheck is no help), and I've caught 'em in big-time publisher's books, too, so I hope any criticism on that front doesn't discourage the good folks at Hagios, so much as spur them to redouble their efffforts.



February 9, 2010, 6:43 PM

Well, Franklin, from a deliberately cursory look at the thread you linked at that EW blog, it appears that Herr Zeitgeist's main (if not only) correspondent there is you. Good luck with that, but I think you're wasting yourself, though maybe you have a variant of OP's compulsion to kick Jell-O.

In any case, it also appears that it's fashionable for bloggers to relate cutesy anecdotes involving a significant other, so by all means bring in Supergirl stories. Of course, a heterosexual deal like yours can never have the trendy frisson (such as it is) of a gay one, but one does what one can.


Chris Rywalt

February 9, 2010, 7:05 PM

Ed's style of long standing involves mentioning Murat every so often. Murat is involved in the day-to-day operation of the gallery and naturally is a big part of why Ed's gallery focuses so much on Kazakhstan and other central Asian countries.

In my experience, Murat is one of the nicest people in Chelsea, always very friendly to me, responds to e-mail rapidly, unfailingly polite and warm, and, as near as I can tell, an all-around good person. So he deserves whatever mentions Ed gives him; in fact more. He's the best thing in the place.



February 9, 2010, 7:18 PM

Chris, I have no reason to doubt your impressions, but the human qualities of the significant other in question, whether EW's or Franklin's, were not the issue or the point.


Chris Rywalt

February 9, 2010, 7:21 PM

I was trying to say a) it's always been part of Ed's schtick and b) it's the good part because everything else over there is lame.



February 9, 2010, 7:37 PM

OK, Chris; you're obviously far more familiar with that territory than I am or want to be.



February 9, 2010, 7:56 PM

A picture of me in a former life, preparing to cut down any and all typos:

Kunichika (click on image to enlarge as needed)

Note, by the way, the natural woodblock grain in the background.


Chris Rywalt

February 9, 2010, 8:15 PM

So angry you're cross-eyed! "Never use 'however' to form a run-on sentence!"



February 9, 2010, 9:53 PM

I'm not cross-eyed. It's a stylistic convention to denote emotional intensity.



February 9, 2010, 10:50 PM

Jack, you actually responded to that? I must be missing something here.


Chris Rywalt

February 9, 2010, 11:18 PM

I know if I were faced with a cross-eyed sword-wielding samurai, I'd think, "Wow, this guy is emotionally intense!"



February 10, 2010, 9:37 AM

More emotional intensity:

Kunisada III


Chris Rywalt

February 10, 2010, 10:08 AM

He doesn't look intense. He just looks like Gene Simmons.



February 10, 2010, 10:12 AM

MC can borrow my copy of About Pictures - I'm sure he'll make quick work of the thing. I thoroughly appreciated it, and if I was still teaching a studio class it'd get added to the students' list of plain-talk essays I used to assign.



February 10, 2010, 10:49 AM

OK, Chris. I'll send him to your house and you can tell him that. Have your health, I mean, life insurance in order.


Chris Rywalt

February 10, 2010, 10:58 AM

Oh, yeah, he might hit me with that Christmas present he's waving around.



February 10, 2010, 11:00 AM

Then he got a GO board for Christmas.



February 10, 2010, 11:02 AM

I'm guessing he was playing black.



February 10, 2010, 11:04 AM

So if western civ pictures are rectangles because walls are rectangular, why are Japanese pictures square?



February 10, 2010, 11:11 AM

Interestingly enough, the Japanese so abhor squares that one axis of a good Go board is slightly longer than the other.


Chris Rywalt

February 10, 2010, 11:45 AM

I tried getting into Go for a bit. William was getting this compilation of manga called Shonen Jump for the Yu-Gi-Oh portion and I started reading "Hikaru No Go" which happened to be a) the best illustrated manga in the magazine and b) about Go. I was intrigued and started reading, not just the manga, but also about Go more generally.

What I found is that Go, like so many things Japanese, is encrusted with vast amounts of tradition, detail, terminology and baggage, making it virtually impossible to grasp for someone not devoting a great deal of effort. (Chess is similar but not nearly as daunting, possibly because I learned the rules of chess at a young age.)

I ran out of steam before even lightly scratching the surface. Too much for this gringo.



February 10, 2010, 11:57 AM

Not gringo - gaijin.

On my list of things to do in this life is to achieve shodan.


Chris Rywalt

February 10, 2010, 12:11 PM

If you check back you'll see I've used the word gaijin before. I couldn't remember it -- gweilo kept coming up -- and didn't Google it. Gringo about covers it in every language.

"Hikaru No Go" is about students moving from kyu to dan. And a ghost who really loves to play Go.

(Incidentally, I had to copyedit that Wikipedia page you linked to, Franklin.)



February 10, 2010, 12:15 PM

Gweilo is Cantonese, of course.

I usually can't stand manga, but I may have to make an exception for this. Thanks for the tip.


Chris Rywalt

February 10, 2010, 12:41 PM

A number of the comic artists I know love manga. Maybe because they're younger and knew it from an earlier age than I. Personally I find manga annoying -- the art is never as good as it should be and many of the stylistic conventions get on my nerves. The use of sound effects, for example, is weird. And some manga are just completely insane, such as "The Family Zoo", which is about a zoo full of animals and appliances that make up a family -- including Grandfather, the Japanese-style squat toilet. Family members seeking his advice -- like Dad the elephant -- make use of him while conversing.

Anyway. I'm not a big manga fan. "Hikaru No Go" eventually wore out its welcome despite its pretty artwork. The story is glacial and the characters hard to keep track of. I kept wondering if chapters were missing. Part of its purpose is to explain Go culture so it gets a little didactic at times, but some of it was interesting. I didn't know, for example, that there are Go parlors where you just play Go with people, sometimes betting on the games.


Chris Rywalt

February 10, 2010, 12:42 PM

Re: gweilo, yes, I know. The trouble is all the words start with G so I confuse them all in my head. Sometimes I bother to untangle the mess, sometimes not.



February 10, 2010, 12:43 PM

We have a great club here. Most metropolitan areas have at least one.



February 10, 2010, 12:58 PM

Ahab, I posted a detail of a rectangular print.


Chris Rywalt

February 10, 2010, 1:09 PM

I'm sure there are only a zillion or so Go parlors in New York. Still, it's very intimidating. I'd sooner challenge one of those chess guys in the park or take up dominoes with the Cubans. Which I wouldn't do, either.



February 10, 2010, 1:13 PM

Go ahead, Chris. Tell him he looks fat.




February 10, 2010, 1:16 PM

Cool image:




February 10, 2010, 1:27 PM

The full version of #49:

Kabuki triptych

This is truly popular or mass-market Meiji work, not especially distinguished as art, but unlike so much Pop art, which now seems dated, it is still vital and graphically effective.



February 10, 2010, 1:27 PM

The full version of #49:

Kabuki triptych

This is truly popular or mass-market Meiji work, not especially distinguished as art, but unlike so much Pop art, which now seems dated, it is still vital and graphically effective.



February 10, 2010, 1:28 PM

Sorry about the double post. Please delete, Franklin.


Chris Rywalt

February 10, 2010, 2:55 PM

That sumo looks kind of like me when I get out of the shower, actually.



February 10, 2010, 3:53 PM

Yeah, Chris. You wish.


Chris Rywalt

February 10, 2010, 4:03 PM

You're right. I'm furrier.



February 10, 2010, 7:10 PM

I see. So you look like a furry sumo wrestler. Is that even legal?



February 10, 2010, 8:49 PM

I meant legal outside New Jersey, of course.


Chris Rywalt

February 10, 2010, 11:37 PM

Legal or not, it is what it is. Woof!



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