charcoal pencil and white acrylic on paper 70x 56cm
Carole in Clover: acrylic and oil on canvas 80x 52cm
Easy Pieces: charcoal pencil on paper 82x56cm
Charcoal pencil and white acrylic on paper 70x50cm
CAROLE KING: painter, printmaker, installation artist.
See her artworks at:
charcoal or charcoal pencil on paper; some are highlit with white or iridescent white acrylic. 84x56cm in size
I have long suspected that all the treasures comprising the antiques trade have by now been sourced, identified and marked to their full current values. Given the televisual super-saturation on this theme, the chances of discovering anything approaching a bargain must be pretty close to zero. However, if you prefer artefacts whose worth cannot be marked in hard currency, there may be hope. Several years ago, I acquired this drawing of a military officer for something less than twenty pounds, from an auction house in Bridgenorth, Shropshire. How he got there I have no way of knowing. I had hoped that there may be some hidden clues waiting between the drawing and the frame’s rear panel. The frame was suitably old and the window mount foxed with age, so I carefully prised away its back with anticipation, but previous ‘tomb robbers’ had broken in first; replacing any original packing with a couple of pages from a 1980’s Daily Mail…
I am no expert in military costume and would welcome correction on this point, but I intuitively felt from first sight that this man was an officer of the German Army. After all, his appearance conforms to that “Prussian” persona so beloved of the national stereotypist; squared jaw, strong neck and full moustache. [Where is the monocle?] However, even a shallow trawl through any photographic record of the Great War shows us that the differences in appearance are between ranks, [and class] and not armies – compare British C.I.G.S. Sir William Robertson’s appearance with any of equivalent rank across the lines at German High Command; they are interchangeable. What actually indicated nationality of origin to me was a technical component of the drawing itself; the line of strange, stylised background swirls. These were characteristic of innumerable German Expressionist woodcuts of the time.
I would surmise that this drawing was executed by someone who had at least a minimum of academic art training and a working knowledge of contemporary drawing style. Operating behind the front line as an artist conscripted into the army, or on the home front as a student whose studies had been interrupted by world war, he was utilising his skill to produce works for the officer class. The head is fixed on the paper with a firm line rather than a sophisticated contour, but this is just the type of figure edge one sees in the contemporary drawings of a society portraitist like John Singer Sargeant; an example of a European-wide salon style. The pencil hatching follows around the form of cheeks, over fullish lips and around the chin with a lightness of touch typical of portrait drawings of the time. Modern portraiture tends to steer clear of softening effects; facets which unequivocally model form are currently preferred to blending and softening techniques. Yielding, fleshy softness is now the preserve of photography. Yet here, this hatching is still able to indicate form; note how a 180 degree change of hatching angle on the nose tip pushes this form well forward of the cheeks. The softness of flesh is held resolutely in check by the stiffness of the tunic collar, thereby stabilising the unmilitary weakness of the jaw line. The hair is depicted through a series of small planes, which convincingly follow the head structure beneath; contrast this with the rendition of individual hair strands in the moustache. The buttons are cursorily scribed, but still achieve the appearance of polished brass.
What I find particularly poignant about this work is the date; January 1916. Unless the subject of this portrait was a military adviser to the Turkish Army, which had decisively repelled invasion the year before, he was likely to have to face action of the utmost ferocity at some point that year. Repelling the Brusilov offensive in the East, or enduring Verdun and the Somme in the West. Might he have faced the battalions of my West Yorkshire forbears at Serre on the first of July? There, on that morning, my great-grandfathers prepared to advance on a tribe who had burned history and knowledge in the medieval library of Louvain within days of their incursion through the Belgian frontier and who thereafter practiced ‘schrecklichkeit’; terrorizing civilians on both land and at sea. These British troops had been reliably informed by their leaders that this Teuton and his ilk had bayoneted babies, cut off the hands of children, and used live priests as bell clappers.
Now the fog of war has cleared, the imperial propagandist’s black arts have been scrutinised and deconstructed and ninety years later, a little piece of a lost world hangs in my study. Here is a man, his history obscure, this displaced portrait of him forever lost to his family. An essentially benign man, his severe collar is not quite able to squeeze the smile from his eyes. Unlike my forbears, I can only hope that he survived his ordeal with this sympathetic demeanour intact.
This article first appeared in “Carmarthenshire Life”; April 2006
It was while researching collage references online that I discovered the work of Kim Frohsin, a painter based in San Francisco. Her pieces stood out from the general montage of mediocrity. They each looked as if they had been considered and thought through to a satisfying conclusion. I sought out more references to her art and was delighted to find that she was a figure painter of considerable talent. However, as I read about her, a theme emerged which seemed at variance to the images I was uncovering. The art of Richard Diebenkorn was a persistent reference point, with which Frohsin’s paintings were being unfavourably compared.
Stephen Jay Gould in one of his reflections on natural history reproduced in his collection of essays; “Bully for Brontosaurus”, examines the case of the “Creeping Fox Terrier”. The breed was [mistakenly, as it turned out,] used in an early paleontological tract as a size comparison for an extinct lineage of small horse. This comparison became standard in natural history textbooks, passing from generation to generation, because subsequent writers simply accepted this statement as fact and failed to question its veracity through first hand observation. I feel the same thing is happening with the connection between Frohsin and Diebenkorn; critics are re-treading the writings of their peers and not looking afresh at the work they are reviewing. Why? Because it’s so much easier for them to write this way; word-smithing without the encumbrance of examining the art for themselves.
The connection between Frohsin and Diebenkorn is straightforward. She moved to California in 1979. By living in San Francisco at this time, she was exposed to the art of the Bay Area Figurative Group; Diebenkorn, Park, Oliveira, and Bischoff. Frohsin’s work was influenced, much as a student is influenced by any tutor in any academic activity. In the early 1990’s, Frohsin’s work began to be exhibited alongside Diebenkorn’s work and other Bay Area painters.
LOOK AT THE ARTWORK
Richard Diebenkorn’s abstract paintings are marvellous; his figure painting less so. His move to figuration in the late 1950’s was overvalued at the time simply because there just wasn’t enough good representational art to balance the proliferation of abstract art in its myriad forms. Any art with a figure as its focus was bound to be welcomed as relief by a niche audience who secretly craved the recognisable; some narrative in painting, no matter how tenuous.
LOOK AT THE ARTWORK
In fact, the paintings are pretty weak. Unsupported by concentrated, direct observation, they lack that small yet significant bit of detailed painting which might have anchored the drifting approximations and created the visual tension such paintings require. The major signifiers of human expression with which the audience can engage are largely absent: hands have no more expressive form than unoccupied gloves in a frost, and faces are not those of a living, breathing model, but of curious modernist hybrids pre-packaged by Matisse and Picasso. In his hands, pigment is forced, rather than co-opted, to perform the task of depicting convincing, plastic form. It proves an unwilling slave.
Diebenkorn’s real talent, abstract organisation, shines through in “Figure on a Porch” 1959. Here the figure is formalised, absorbed into a composition which is organised on a grid, intersected by diagonals. The spaces between are infilled with variegated areas of sumptuous paint, applied with great dexterity. It is built on the same strong formal principles as the impressive Ocean Park series.
The figure gradually becomes a vestigial organ in Dibenkorn’s painting; in Frohsin’s, it is the beating heart of her practice.
Why does such an invidious comparison continue to be made between these two artists? Frohsin’s last obviously Bay-influenced paintings date from the 1990’s. It is how these stylistic foundations have been built upon, de-constructed and modified with time and the accumulation of independent experience, which matters. Frohsin shook off any direct influence years ago. It could take her only so far; a more concentrated relationship with the model was required to propel her towards where she wanted to go. Observational skills needed practice; her drawing skills had to be extended; pushed beyond what she already had at her disposal. What Frohsin is producing now, Diebenkorn couldn’t approach, because what are now her core skills in draughtsmanship, far exceed anything he ever had in his repertoire.
LOOK AT THE ARTWORK
It is at once rigorous and disciplined, yet playful and carried along with an obvious passion for colour. Her vision is translated through confident line and bravura paint application. A desire to grasp illusionistic form is held in tension by an acknowledgement of basic two-dimensional organisation. Refined tertiary hues carefully balance brash areas of super-saturated colour.
I began this ramble by recalling Kim Frohsin’s paintings. I conclude with a note to art critics. It is your duty to analyse work with rigour and clarity; unclouded by the prejudices and accepted opinions of your predecessors. If you are unable to do this, the apparatus is now freely available for a public interested in visual art to bypass your views altogether, and to enter into direct dialogue with the artists themselves through their websites and associated blogs. These provide an opportunity to engage with the practicioner, [perhaps even to arrange a studio visit] before that artist’s ideas are warped or skewed by even the most well meaning and erudite of interlocutors.
LOOK AT THE ARTWORK…..
Glenn Ibbitson February 2009
Stephen Jay Gould
Bully for Brontosaurus: further reflections in natural history 1990