Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"Goat Song #5: Tumult on George Washington Avenue."

1988, 72" X 96", Oil on canvas


Manuel Macarrulla

 This painting is in the permanent collection of El Museo del Barrio.  In January, Puerto Rican artist Yasmin Hernandez was preparing Power Point presentations for El Museo's education department about pieces in it's collection. She contacted me then to ask whether this image refers to dictator Trujillo's assassination, whether it contains any other historical references, and asked me to explain more about it in the hope that it would help her develop her presentation.  My response to her questions follows:

The painting doesn't so much refer to Trujillo's assassination, as to the fact of his dictatorship.  Although, as do most of my references, it does so in indirect fashion.  

The painting is the fifth in a series of  images that I made after having figured out the "Goat Song" gambit, though I had previously made three with the same intent.  The etymology of the word "tragedy" states that the word is derived from the Greek, "goat song."  The word "tragedy" is overused in our time, so I thought it more refreshing to use "goat song."  Tragedy is not merely a catastrophe, like a car accident, but has a specific set of properties in Greek tragedies: it is the story of a noble hero, such as Oedipus, who will get into serious trouble with the gods, and with other people, due to his flaws, and, eventually, find redemption.

So, who's the "noble hero" in my series?  It is the United States, with its high ideals and great potential.  When contemplating American intervention throughout Latin America (and much of the rest of the world, of course) I could only deplore the disastrous outcomes of much of what it had undertaken in the name of democracy.  In the series of eight pictures I have three references to The Dominican Republic, one of these also being a reference to the Spanish conquest, one to the 1983 invasion of Grenada by U. S. forces, two to U. S. intervention in El Salvador, and one to Nicaragua.

People seeing "Tumult..." may find it perplexing that the Washington Monument appears in the middle of this image  set in Santo Domingo (the object is pale, and difficult to see in the reproduction) and that the carnival parade shown takes place on a street called George Washington Avenue.  The presence of the monument is not my invention.  It is actually there, though much reduced in size in comparison with the original in Washington.  And George Washington Avenue is the name that appears on all the street signs, though the locals all call it, "El malecón."  The explanation for the name and the monument is simple: Trujillo was a big fan of the United States; the U. S. had invaded both sides of the island, early in the 20th century, and, on leaving, left Trujillo in charge of the republic.

The scene depicted in "Tumult..." is simply a carnaval, not layered with symbolism of any kind.  Only the world "tumult," itself, in the title, conveys a vague sense of unrest, though in fact it is only the movement of people and colors on a street.  Meanness in the image is only found in my cute idea to place two small, incidental figures holding up sticks on which are skewered what appear to be a human head and a pig's head.  Though Trujillo's historical assasination makes this association unavoidable, I didn't intend them to refer to any specific actions.  The main message remains the passive allusions to Washington.

Monday, February 23, 2009

"Notes From a Trip to Santo Domingo (Detail: The Goat Feast.")

1983/96" X 48", Manuel Macarrulla/Oil on canvas

In the fall of 1982 I was awarded a 3 month residence at Altos de Chavón, in the Dominican Republic.  The time afforded me a great opportunity to sketch much of the exciting imagery that bombarded me every day.  On my return to the states, I was inspired to paint a single image compiling an assortment of those experiences to which I'd been exposed during the residency.  I took the Title for it from that of a little book, by Jose Marti, based on his own observations during a trip to the Dominican Republic.  The individual images are separated by a system of synthetic red lines, visible in the photo above.

Of course, this detail showing goats dancing in the moonlight is not something I literally saw. But, it so happens, during that trip I read a very well researched book, Trujillo, by Bernard Diederich, about the assassination of the Dominican dictator, Rafael Trujillo, in May, 1961. The title of this segment, The Goat Feast, also taken by Mario Vargas Llosa for his book  (The Feast of the Goat) about the assassination of the dictator, is from a song that was popular in the Dominican Republic in December, 1961, the lyrics of which are presented in the Diederich book.  The song presents a speaker who pleads to be allowed to see the slaughtered goat (Trujillo).

This detail was my first study for what I later made into "Goat Song #2: The Goat Feast."  

Friday, February 20, 2009

Cape May Commission.

"Sunrise, Cape May (Version 2)"
Gouache, 2008, 14 7/16" X 10 1/2"

This set of three pictures was commissioned of me last year.  Maybe I should say the set was partially commissioned.  Two of them, Sunrise, and Cape May Still Life, were pictured on my website, where the client first saw them.  But, while the latter was still available, Sunrise had recently sold. But that was not a problem: promptly, I offered to repaint it for the client.  The client also accepted my suggestion of a third, new painting, Morning Light (bottom), done in the same size, manner and spirit as the other two. This third image had existed only as a smaller gouache study of the scene.  With its execution the client got a set with greater impact than a single picture might have delivered. 

Cape May Still Life
By Manuel Macarrulla
Gouache, 1994, 14 7/16" X 10 1/2"

During my summer vacation in 1994 I began to do landscape studies such as these Cape May pictures in gouache, watercolor and colored pencils.  This was something of a departure, considering my prior concentration on figures done in heavier media, like oils.  But this exploration permitted many discoveries, which have also informed my recent figure work.   Through them I learned a lot about these portable media, introducing a lighter touch to my work, and about reflected color and atmosphere. Such a  change of pace can help keep the artist alert.

Morning Light, Cape May
By Manuel Macarrulla
Gouache, 2008, 14 7/16" X 10 1/2"

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Carnival Fantasies.

Carnival Fantasy Study
Charcoal, 1977
30 1/4" X 41 1/8"

These two charcoal studies I did while still a student at The University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Fine Arts.  I did them in a period in which I was making personal breakthroughs in iconography. As a consequence of my first return to the Dominican Republic since having left there at the age of 10, I had discovered Dominican places and things as subject matter, and found that images based on, or inspired by Dominican carnival costumes, in particular, captivated me.  That led to the first series of images with which I could identify both on a personal level and in terms of cultural significance.

Bloody Horn, Dominican Smile, Study
Manuel Macarrulla
Charcoal, 1977
29 3/4" X 34 3/4"

The two studies are not only crudely executed, but show my unawareness of such things as archival materials at that time.  Both are done on poor quality craft paper, and were not carefully stored for many years. But they do show the awareness I had begun to gather about the role of consistent focus in communication, and the organization of subjects unencumbered by extraneous matter.  Having found these two studies again I now value them as evidence of an exciting period of discovery for me. 

Monday, February 16, 2009

Painting Diary Entries for Champ.

Oil pastel on canvas, 2009
20" X 30"

This portrait of Champ was commissioned by his owner, Julia.

Monday, Feb. 2, 2009 -- Today I returned to Champ (begun on 1.27, and worked on sporadically since then) with an effort to see the character of the shapes and the proportions of Champ's head. Through these observations I found the key to the painting. Tomorrow I'd like to get an early start and put in a lot of hours . Wouldn't mind finishing it.

Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2009 -- On recent Champ sessions I've been very anxious over unemployment -- very hard to concentrate.

Friday, Feb. 13, 2009 -- Well, finished Champ today. Actually, I finished it tomorrow. It's 1:35 in the morning. I feel I've probably gotten what I wanted from it. Oops -- spoke too soon: it's 1:52 and I was just doing a couple of last things to it. Glad I didn't give it (the painting) to Julia this morning. And I'm supposed to photograph it tomorrow -- so that I have a record of its latest state. What will I want to do to it tomorrow?

Sunday, Feb. 15, 2009 -- The almost all black background on Champ would seem to be simpler than any other background I've painted. And yet it took a long time because the simple background was complicated to do. Those subtle tone changes were big, within the constricted tonal range, and had to be handled in particular ways.

Monday, Feb. 16, 2009 -- Well, today I finished Champ -- again. I had some unresolved blending to do in various parts of the fur. Also some editing to do on the sweeping long hair of the tail. Now, again, I think I finally got what I wanted from this picture.
Some may respond to this picture as too cute. I enjoy it's cuteness, which I think is truly there, and appropriate to a representation of this animal, and which I might think of as outrageous. I also enjoy those two little "horns" on top of his head. That makes me almost think of him as a mythological animal. That appeals to my sense of fantasy.

Friday, February 13, 2009

My Visit to the Prado.

After a lifetime of admiring Velazquez mostly from afar, I finally got my chance to visit The Prado Museum in August, 2007. The Prado is simply the best place to see my favorite painter.  I saw all the high lights: Las Meninas, The Surrender of Breda (popularly known as 'The Lances' in Spain), and The Weavers, among the many other marvels.  Naturally, as I stared on, I felt the limpid feeling in my soul and danced on air for all of the time I could steal during my one week in Madrid.  My family didn't have the patience to burn up all of that time with me in the museum. Naturally, I wanted to share the experience of getting to know Madrid with them, as well, so, I did that, too, at other times. 

People who know me know that I'm a great fan of Diego Velazquez' paintings.  I'm such a fan that I named my son, Diego, after him.  One day, someone I know with strong opinions, in this case, with a strong opinion he felt was contrary to my love of that painter, could hold his tongue no longer.  He said to me, "You know, Velazquez just doesn't reach Rembrandt's level of expression."

An opinion you don't agree with can either stop you in your tracks or help you think out your own position. Probably for a moment I was afraid that this friend's opinion was, in fact, contradictory of mine, and that I would not be able to defend Velazquez.  But there's a reason I love Velazquez.  What I feel when I look at his work is, for me, so strong that the most powerful expression by other artists can't steal its thunder.

"Well, you're right about Rembrandt's expressiveness," I said to my friend.  "No one can touch Rembrandt on the type of expressiveness he has.  I will never see anything more touching than some of Rembrandt's self-portraits as an old man.  But Velazquez moves me in a completely different way.  His vision is so clear, and his pictures are so poised and calm that I can't help but find them very moving.  He gives me what I'm looking for."

At the Prado I also enjoyed my other favorite painter, Goya.  There's nothing like The Black Paintings, is there?  And the Third of May is a tsunami of expression. Interestingly, the rows and rows of Royal portraits by Goya repelled me.  Though they didn't do so for any formal reason.  Somehow, I see them as unabashedly sarcastic of those poor royal folks, and that is very hard for me to look at. I think he's expressing a hideous emotion in them.  If I get there again, one day, I'll try to devote some time them.  Maybe then I'll understand them better.

In the visits I've made to European Museums I've been finding Titian surprisingly lively, modern, and dramatic, on a consistent basis.  It was so at the Prado, too.  One Titian of Jesus with his tormentors surprised me because Jesus' bare arm had dark marks crisscrossing it. They were the figure's arm hair.  That's not a detail I recall ever having seen in anything as old as Titian.   

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Art that Interests Me.

Oil on canvas, 1992
60" X 84"

I'm interested in figures (human and animal), as well as landscapes, with or without figures, and still lifes. All media, subjects, scopes, and time periods interest me. I find much instruction in museums, as I do in nature. I have no prejudice against decorative arts or abstraction.  

Through my work I seek to express a broad spirituality. I like my figures to look as though they could move and think. I try to convey the massiveness of nature. Accuracy in drawing is a helpful tool, but that only takes you so far; I'll take "imaginative" over "accurate."

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Art To Me.

Diego On Deck
Oil pastel, 2009
22 1/8" X 18"

Art, like life, is a constant struggle; a challenge.  As much as I love art it is amazing how life conspires to interfere with art making.  Unfortunately,  the dedication I feel has  too often been expressed only sporadically, or, "between spells," so to speak.  There may be time constraints imposed by employment, child rearing, or other practical concerns.  There may be the paralyzing anxiety of unemployment, which looms at present.  And yet art remains; living in the core of my brain stem, despite recurring neglect.  Like a plant that thrives despite draught, when I return to the canvas, after some absence, I'm engaged, thrilled to tackle the image, and thrilled at the process of discovery that is visual expression.  More than once, on returning to art, I have joked to myself, "I aughta go into art."

Manuel Macarrulla
Oil Pastel, 2009
12" X 18"

The following thought, which has inspired me for a long time, evokes the nature of both poetry and painting, for me.  It is a rather anti-word statement, as the reader will see, which is ironic for two reasons: one, I actually love to express my love of art in words, and two, the speaker is a poet.  The line is a quote from Pablo Neruda, as represented in the movie Il Postino (spoken to the inarticulate male protagonist, whose name escapes me, and who beseeches Neruda to teach him poetry so that he can woo his love through poetry, as well):  "If I have to explain the poem, there is no poem."