Category Archives: Illumination

Jerry Saltz’s abandoned illuminations for “The Divine Comedy”

The following is a combination of quotes from the critic Jerry Saltz’s article “My Life as a Failed Artist.”

“Before I became a critic, I was an artist, and for about ten years, beginning in the early 1970s, I feverishly devoted myself to a single, gigantic project: illustrating the entirety of Dante’s Divine Comedy — starting with Inferno.

“These are the gates of hell. The famous inscription appears above the portal, the one that begins, in first person, “I Am the Way Into the City of Woe, I Am the Way to a Forsaken People.” There are no doors on the Gates of Hell because anyone who ventures too close can easily enter. Around the gate are ten diagrammatic spinning spheres, one for each of the levels of hell.”

[Why Dante?] Dante is a paradigmatic figure of the canon — therefore a perfect picture of the dream of artistic canonization — but he’s also a weirdo Boschian fantasist and so satisfied my obsession with hermetic traditions, indexes, myth, archaic cultures, and mystics and visionaries like William Blake. This late-medieval universe freed me from making choices; the story and structure told me exactly what to do, what to draw, where to draw it, what came next, what shape things should be, everything, even sometimes governing colors, as with making Virgil blue and Dante red according to past art. Without knowing it but in desperate need, I’d contrived a machine that allowed me to make things that I couldn’t predict; I still think of this as one of an artist’s first jobs.

“These are the gates of the citadel of Limbo, the First Circle of Hell, the Virtuous Pagans. Here Dante meets Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, Hector, Aeneas, and many others whose only punishment is to live without hope. The gold, silver, and bronze spheres represent the souls of those who Dante meets there.”

The project was meant to take me 25 years, but I only made it to the fourth canto by the time I quit; nevertheless, in that time I had developed an unbelievably intricate language that would allow me, a technically poor draughtsman and even worse painter, to depict Dante’s complex narrative.

“A large diagrammatic drawing of the Opportunists being blown in all different directions in the tempest of hell.”

[Oscar Wilde] wrote that art that’s too obvious, that we “know too quickly,” that is “too intelligible,” fails. “The one thing not worth looking at is the obvious.” This sort of art tells you everything in an instant and can only tell you the same thing forever. My work had the opposite problem. It was vague, arcane, and therefore obsolete. Only I could decipher it.

I often judge young artists based on whether I think they have the character necessary to solve the inevitable problems in their work….Oscar Wilde said, “Without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation at all.” Artists have to be self-critical enough not to just attack everything they do. I had self-doubt but not a real self-critical facility; instead I indiscriminately loved or hated everything I did. Instead of gearing up and fighting back, I gave in and got out.”

You can find more images from this project here.

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Thursday Thoughts: How a painting works

Proteus, Cy Twombly, 1984

The following is paraphrased from Roland Barthes’ The Wisdom of Art.

Whenever we look at a painting the question is, “what is happening here?” The picture is a kind of theater, the curtain parts, we watch, we wait, we receive, we understand, and when the scene is over and the picture gone, we remember. In a painting there occurs a fact, an accident, an outcome, a surprise, and an action.

The fact is the tangible substance we see. We imbue everything we see with meaning; the alchemy of painting is that despite the meaning the materials also remain stubbornly things (facts). Even if the painting is a result of precise calculation, there is still the impression of accident. We sometimes call this inspiration, a creative force that is the euphoria of chance. The fact and the accident together created an outcome, which is the overall effect of the work. This effect can not be located or described in a series of details. The outcome creates a surprise. In the Christian tradition we would call this illumination, a kind of mental shock which grants access, regardless of all known intellectual means, to truth. Last is the action, which is the viewer’s engagement with the painting. One can engage the painting from a place of culture (a familiarity with the references contained), from a place of specialization (an awareness of the historical and technical tradition), from a place of pleasure (aesthetic or conceptual enjoyment), from a place of memory (the ghost that follows the viewer long after they have left the painting), and from a place of production (the desire to re-produce the work that arises from an awareness of how the work was made).



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New Drawing: From The Waste Land

Oed’ und leer das Meer (Empty and Desolate the Sea)

Oed’ und leer das Meer (Empty and Desolate the Sea). Ink and graphite on watercolor paper

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The Tower and the Desert

Art Show Tonight

Art Show Tonight

There is a desert, and in the midst of that desolation stand ambitious men.

Long ago, Nimrod – a mighty warrior and king of the desert – desired a place as a god. He said to his people, “Come, let us make a name for ourselves, and let us build a tower with its top in the heavens lest we be dispersed and forgotten.” So they began construction on a spire that would prick the heavens.

Then the LORD descended in radiant theophany and twisted their tongues in His displeasure. Men who had once been allies were torn apart by the confusion of their languages and dispersed throughout the wasteland. Thus the place was called Babel, and its ruins still lie on the plains of Shinar, populated only by the owls and hyenas.

Nimrod’s nation was scattered, but his vision lingered on, gnawing at the imaginations of generation after generation. Constantly his children roam, splintering according to language and culture, coalescing, and then fracturing again. They build ceaselessly but leave behind only a trail of crumbling monoliths beneath the cold light of the moon.

After a time, the LORD sent his Son to pave the Way through the desert to the holy city of Zion. He adopted countless descendants of Nimrod and gave them a mighty gift. The very Spirit that had first confused language would now give men one voice and the Word to speak.

Nimrod’s offspring still apply all of their might to building towers of steel and glass. But the children of the Lord live in the sand, making their slow pilgrimage along the Way and singing of Zion. Their chorus is the unified voice of the faithful proclaiming:

No eye has seen and no mind has conceived the full glory of Zion, but in everything are signs and signifiers.

I wrote the above narrative in place of an artist’s statement for the body of work on display tonight. You can find images of the artwork on my website.

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New Drawing: Cold Satellite

Cold Satellite. Ink, paint, and graphite on watercolor board. 40"x10"

Cold Satellite. Ink, paint, and graphite on watercolor board. 40″x10″

Detail from Cold Satellite

Detail from Cold Satellite

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New Drawing: Babel


Babel. Ink and graphite on illustration board. 40″x10″

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Thursday Thoughts: New Artist’s Statement

Words affect me in powerful ways, and in much of my work I seek to create an aesthetic experience that parallels and amplifies the impressions stimulated by language. I often use the term “illumination” to describe the conceptual goals of my work. “Illumination” evokes both the past tradition of illuminated manuscripts and the idea of clarification or enlightenmentconnotations which align with my interest in expanding on the experience of literary text.

My main strategy of art-making is drawing with graphite and ink (which has come to mean all kinds of liquid materials including traditional sumi, coffee, tea, and watercolor). Conceptually, I appreciate using media and tools connected to the writing process in order to create images that expand the experience of reading into the realm of the visual. Aesthetically, my drawings are carefully designed and rendered, and they explore formal concerns in order to create images that have a sense of austerity, power, and grandeur. Formally, I frequently explore notions of contrast between flatness and depth, pattern and texture, boldness and subtlety, locus and emptiness, orb and grid. Ultimately, I am interested in poetic response to word-generated experience and see formal language as one path to that end.

Many of my drawings are a direct response to literary experience, as is the case with Nimrod’s Blueprint, and Babel. Others make use of literary references to enfold complexity into more personal responses, as is the case with Mist, Ash, Dust and O Miserable Cities of Designing Men.

One of the primary tensions in my work that I seek to resolve is the struggle between my desire for aesthetic vulnerability and my compulsion for order. I rely on rigorous geometric design as a gateway past my uncertainty and as a method to contain the unbridled possibilities of my materials. I feel closest to this navigation between obsessive control and longing for release in my drawings The Desert and The Plains of Shinar.

Currently, my practice exists as purely visual response, with the words of others existing only in the mental part of my process. I seek a more balanced dialogue between the two and to explore the liminal space between word and image. As the traditional boundaries between artistic disciplines dissolve, I am pursuing a more complex and adequate expression for contemporary literary experience.

While I have no interest in repeating the past, I do admire the art and methods of artists like Mondrian, Gottlieb, Rothko, and Newman, both for their commitment to the rigorous philosophical foundation of their work and the power and singularity of their images. The contemporary artist Makoto Fujimura has greatly shaped my thinking, particularly through his collaborative QU4RTETS project. His paintings probe the boundaries between past and present, literary and visual, and the spiritual and material.

In short, through formal questioning I seek to develop a visual vocabulary which I deploy in calculated structures as a form of poetic response to word-based experience.

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