The Night Shift Resurrection by VH McKenzie

I started this subway painting months ago but was promptly sidetracked by a family health situation (mom is on the mend) and only returned to finish it recently.

I had documented its earliest stages:

I'd been pretty pleased with the figure at this point - but her head was troubling me. 

I decided to simplify the background and got a nice shape going on with her head and haircut - for some reason I wiped out her legs and feet, ugh:

I should have left her head alone - now I felt like I disturbed that nice haircut, and her feet were not cooperating. It was at this stage, I think, that all hell broke loose in my mom's life (fell and broke a hip, oy!) and the painting sat for several months, staring at me:

I finally picked up the brushes again last month and finished:

Or so I thought! I continued to noodle it a bit (trim her hips and tinker with her legs - argh! Will update this later - but I have to get this blog back to life so up she goes.

Meanwhile, back on the Metro Card front - a new Water Tower Series by VH McKenzie

Subway Card Water Tower No. 25
2.5" x 3" oil on Metro Card SOLD

 Subway Card Water Tower No. 26
2.5" x 3" oil on Metro Card SOLD

 Subway Card Water Tower No. 27
2.5" x 3" oil on Metro Card 

  Subway Card Water Tower No. 28
2.5" x 3" oil on Metro Card SOLD

 Subway Card Water Tower No. 29
2.5" x 3" oil on Metro Card 

Subway Card Water Tower No. 30
2.5" x 3" oil on Metro Card 

   Subway Card Water Tower No.31
2.5" x 3" oil on Metro Card SOLD

  Subway Card Water Tower No. 32
2.5" x 3" oil on Metro Card 

2.5" x 3" oil on Metro Card 

Why I Hate Jeff Koons But Am Secretly Glad that He Exists by VH McKenzie

The Whitney Museum of Art is moving downtown next spring, leaving its home of nearly 50 years on Madison Avenue. The Whitney closed out its residence with a retrospective of Jeff Koons. I'm not a fan but I headed over to see this blockbuster, nearly 150 pieces of Koons' work since the late 1970s. I still don't care for much of it but it was fun to look at such a huge array of work. I'll post a few photos from each gallery/series  and leave the commentary to myself -- unless I think a few words of clarification are in order.

First gallery, The "Pre-New" and "The New" -- 

Yes, these are vacuum cleaners.

Next, to the gallery full of "Inflatables."

Moving on, "Equilibrium"  --


This basketball is not encased in lucite or acrylic -- it is floating in the middle of the tank.


Also included in "Equilibrium," some bronze sculptures.

Next, "Luxury and Degradation"  -- 

This is the "Jim Beam JB Turner Train." It's made of stainless steel and the cars are filled with bourbon. Apparently.

Let's move on to "Made In Heaven." This is a lithograph of Koons and his then-wife, Italian porn star Cicciolina.
They have since divorced and had a nasty custody battle over their son. 

So much for Heaven.

Much of this gallery was rather explicit and NSFW but this self-portrait sculpture was rather nice:


Moving from heaven to "Banality,"  which was the room that housed the infamous "Michael Jackson and Bubbles" sculpture at the top of this post. This was probably my least favorite series. 

Just sayin'.

This bear was about 7 feet tall, just to give you a sense of scale. 

People took turns standing up behind this sculpture to have their photo taken as they lined themselves up with the missing head. I did not.

This sculpture above, "String of Puppies," resulted in a lawsuit for Koons, filed by professional photographer Art Rogers who took this photo:

Koons had 4 identical versions of the sculpture produced and sold 3 of them for a total of $367,000.

According to Wikipedia: "Koons found the picture on a postcard and wanted to make a sculpture based on the photograph for an art show on the theme of banality of everyday items. After removing the copyright label from the postcard, he gave it to his assistants with instructions on how to model the sculpture. He asked that as much detail be copied as possible, through the puppies were to be made blue, their noses exaggerated, and flowers to be added to the hair of the man and woman…Rogers was awarded a large monetary settlement from Koons and Koons was also required to ship the fourth sculpture, remaining in the collection of Koons, to Rogers in Germany."

Let's move on to "Statuary." A roomful of stainless steel sculptures. Here's "Rabbit"  -- 


And another series in another gallery, similarly, "Popeye"  --      
Note, this is not a plastic inflatable. It's a polychromed aluminum sculpture - METAL - which has been carefully molded and painted to simulate a soft inflatable beach toy. Impressive.

Here's a shot next to the guard to give you a sense of scale. Wonder what goes through the mind of a security guard who stands next to a metal lobster for hours on end?

Likewise with these two sculptures - the "inflatables" are made of polychromed aluminum. 

Moving on to the "Hulk" series -- 

Ok, that's enough of that.

On to "EasyFun-Ethereal". These paintings were perplexing. Here's a sample:

At first glance, this appears to be a collage of magazine clippings that has been enlarged and printed on paper. But it is described as "oil on canvas." WTF?

Koons has an army of studio assistants who help him create much of his work. I'm guessing that several assistants spent months painstakingly transferring the computer-generated collage onto the canvas in oil paint. 

Finally, "Celebration"  -- so of course we should start with "Cake."

Ok, so this is oil on canvas and it does look like that up close -- although almost reminiscent of a paint-by-number painting with all of the carefully delineated spaces of paint:

One of the Hanging Hearts (there are 4 others).

And here is the massive "Moon" (again, there are 4 others) which is about 10 feet in diameter.

This is "Cat On A Clothesline." Obviously. and is made out of plastic. 

Another oil on canvas  - Boy With Pony - which is about 9 feet by 12 feet:

One of the infamous "Balloon Dog" sculptures (again, 4 others exist):

And the pièce de résistance  - "Playdoh"  (one of a series of 5), cast of polychromed
aluminum but gives the appearance of that deliciously squishy clay:

Looks like playdoh. Is actually aluminum. That's impressive.

But is this your kind of art? Ok, even if it is -- is it art that you want to look at every day? I enjoyed this walk through but if I have the luxury of hanging a piece of art on my wall, something that I would look at every day, it's not my cup of tea…… it yours?

Not So Subtle by VH McKenzie

I was thrilled to experience Kara Walker's latest art installation, "A Subtlety" at the former Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn earlier this summer. The installation ended on July 6, 2014; if you weren't able to see it in person, take a look at the photos I've taken. Ms. Walker's own statement about the installation:

 Kara Walker - A Subtlety

or the Marvelous Sugar Baby
an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant

(Note: Medieval sugar sculptures were known as "subtleties.")

My daughter and I took the L train to Brooklyn and walked to the site; the line was around the block but moved fairly quickly. Admission was free.

We had to sign a waiver……

We were warned not to touch the art but were encouraged to take photos or videos and share on social networks. (Please click on my photos to see the full image).

A great, soaring industrial space:

Small piles of brown sugar still seen in the nooks and crannies of the space:

Pools of molasses on the floor --

Usually at the feet of any one of several small sculptures of young children, crafted of resin and molasses. 

Most held sculpted fruit baskets filled with un-refined sugar.

All were gradually deteriorating and melting during the course of the installation.

And at the far northern end of the vast space, there she was - 35 feet high and covered in 4 tons of sugar:

She was magnificent.

And voluptuous:

 From every angle:

Everyone was posing for pics with the Subtlety, the Mammy Sphinx:

And I did, too!

Her inspiration. Read more here.

Ai Weiwei , According to What? Now at the Brooklyn Museum - closes August 10, 2014 by VH McKenzie

Forever Bicycles

High tail it to the Brooklyn Museum to catch the work of the indomitable Ai Weiwei before it closes next month. I won't ramble on about what I saw (tho I could) but will share my pics and the exhibit's own tags with descriptions. 

But, go go go, if you can!

If you are not familiar with Ai Weiwei, here's this from the Brooklyn Museum's website:

Ai Weiwei is one of China’s most prolific and provocative contemporary artists. Featuring over forty works spanning more than twenty years, Ai Weiwei: According to What? explores universal topics of culture, history, politics, and tradition, showcasing the artist’s remarkably interdisciplinary career as a photographer, sculptor, architect, and activist.
These works spotlight issues of freedom of expression, as well as individual and human rights both in China and globally. Many use minimal forms and methods, while others manipulate traditional furniture, ancient pottery, and daily objects in ways that question cultural values and challenge political authority.

Also,  check out the compelling documentary "Never Sorry" on Netflix.

Enjoy this visual, intellectual and at times very emotional feast………..


Table with Three Legs

Table with Two Legs on the Wall


Moon Chest

Moon Chest  

China Log

Cube in Ebony


Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn

Colored Vases


Coca-Cola Vase

Chateau Lafite

This powerful sculpture was crafted from straightened rebar rods recovered from the disaster sites of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. Each was hand-pounded from its tangled shape into a flat bar. The far wall contains the names of over 5000 victims of the earthquake.

Snake Ceiling

Snake Ceiling

Snake Ceiling

He Xie (river crab)

Bowls of Pearls

Bowls of Pearls

And finally, the dioramas... These were secreted out of China in order to be displayed at the Venice Biennale 2013 and are now on display in the Brooklyn Museum as part of this exhibit. The dioramas, constructed in 2.5 ton iron boxes, reconstruct scenes at half scale from Ai Weiwei's detention in 2011, when he was held prisoner for 81 days in a secret prison by a paramilitary unit.

His every moment saw him under the watchful eyes of his captors.

Many better photos of these incredible re-creations can be seen at The NY TImes' Dioramas of a Nightmare.

Go to Brooklyn!

Putting the Custom Back in Customer - Part 4 of 6 by VH McKenzie

Next up in the commissioned series:  a lovely landscape, somewhere in Italy, to be rendered in full color watercolor.

As I have previously, I laid a one-inch square grid over the image in photoshop.

And then also kept a version hand with exaggerated "levels" to see where the shadows were deepest:

Then took pen to paper……..

and gradually layered washes of watercolor. I took a few more photos of this process than I did with some of the other paintings:

And done!

Putting the Custom back in Customer - Part 3 of 6 by VH McKenzie

Next up in the commission series - this daunting landscape of a small city in Italy. Anyone recognize it? It reminds me of Florence but I don't see that iconic dome or any sign of the Arno River. 

My client decided that this photo would be another of the 3 to be recreated in black and white, no watercolor. First, I de-saturated the image so I wouldn't be distracted by the color and applied a grid to the picture. As before, this helps me digest the scene in smaller bites and keep the proportions in order.

I used photoshop to tweak the levels of dark to light, this helped me see more detail by exaggerating the lights and darks.

I again applied a light pencil grid to my paper and dove right in. 

Here's a close-up:

Last step, applying layers of ink, thinned with water, to create volume. Here's the final image, cropped to 9"x12." There wasn't a singular focal point in the original photo, it was rather flat, so it was a challenge. Still, I think the end result is lively and interesting. What do you think?

Next up, the Italian country side in living color……..

Putting the Custom Back in Customer - Part 2 of 6 by VH McKenzie

Actually completing one of the 6 pieces commissioned gave me some confidence -- the dread began to dissipate. I decided to turn to one of the ink and watercolor pieces next, to switch up the action. 

I pulled my watercolors down from the shelf, literally dusting them off since I hadn't used them in quite a while. A quick rinse of the palette under the faucet restored the exposed clumps of paint to a fresh and tempting bounty of color:

Unrolled my packet of brushes as well.

Note my battered radiograph pen: -I have about a dozen of these in varying line widths but they are notoriously delicate and easily clogged. Thankfully I was able to get my .50 weight flowing - I used it for the line work in each of the paintings/drawings.

I decided to work on the Hawaii color photo next as I thought it would be the most straightforward. Here is the photo my client provided with my own grid added in photoshop:

Looks like a solid black silhouette, with just huge clumps of black along the lower quarter of the painting. I decided to adjust the levels again (in photoshop) so I could get a better idea of what was going on in all those shadows. It's surprising how much more detail is hidden in those dark areas:

 I knew I wanted to simulate the appearance of the original photo but the level-adjusted version gave me a bit more information to create an underlying structure. Even if it would ultimately disappear under layers of watercolor, it was helpful for me to see more of what is actually happening. 

Here's the first line drawing:

Ok, it's a start. Then more line and some layers of watercolor. I knew that hotspot of the sun would essentially be the one spot on the page that had no ink, no color.  I had to be careful to keep that small area completely clear, working from light to dark:

I decided to mix deep Prussian blue with the black ink to create the shadows, that gave them a little more complexity and depth, rather than just painting everything with a deep flat black.
And the final, cropped down to 9"x12," - done!

Stay tuned for more tomorrow…….

Putting the Custom Back in Customer - Part 1 of 6 by VH McKenzie

Commissioned works always un-nerve me. Always. 

Every time I accept a commission, half-way through I tell myself that I just won't accept another. The fear of letting down a customer, not meeting their expectations, always fills me with dread. I become a nervous wreck.

Then I push my way through it and all is well with the world. And I accept another commission, the cycle repeats…

I thought it would be interesting to share the process of my latest commission with you -- it was a big one and took a good deal of time (much longer than I'd anticipated) but I documented every step. 

Earlier this year a customer contacted me to see if I would consider  taking on a rather daunting project:  a series of paintings based upon a variety of travel photos she and her husband took while in Italy, Hawaii and Japan.  After a few emails back and forth and the forwarding of several potential photos from which to choose, we agreed upon 6 final images. Three were to be recreated as pen and ink drawings and 3 would be completed with ink and full color watercolor. All would be 9"x12" in their final size.

Here are the 6 photos we settled upon as sources:

After further discussion, we agreed that the 3 on the left would be the sources for the color paintings and the 3 on the right would be the sources for the pen and ink drawings. I de-saturated the 3 on the right in Photoshop, so I would see them only in terms of their value (levels of black-to-white) rather than be distracted by their color:

Let's walk through the steps I took for each - I approached this project differently than I would if I were doing a painting on my own from my own sketches or photo references. I tend to be much more irreverent with my source material and improvise more when creating my own paintings, for example, such as this one:

I'm sure you know that these leaves were not, in reality, purple and turquoise and coral and magenta, right? This is much more of an impressionistic or expressionistic version of the broad green leaves that were sitting before me.

BUT, I feel that when I take on a commission, from someone else's vision or photos, I feel like I need adhere more to what is before me, to be more loyal to the source if the aim is to please someone other than myself.

That being said, I was much more cautious with my preparation than I might have been if I were painting on my own, riffing as it were on the source material. I was MUCH more exacting in my process so that I would be more true to the photos submitted.

Let's go with each painting from start to finish. I'll focus on just one painting per post. First up was the Hawaii black and white. As I said, I stripped the color from the photo, scaled and cropped it to 9"x12" and drew a 1" square grid over the top. I prepped my drawing paper (Arches Cold Pressed Watercolor block) with a similar, lightly penciled grid, so I could create the image on the paper in the proper proportion:

There's a lot going on in this image - whew. I then decided to tweak the levels in Photoshop so I could see more detail in the dark areas. I wasn't quite sure what I was looking at in some places. The "Levels" adjustment let me see more:

I was off to a ripping-good start, as I drew fairly free hand on the paper and then began to add in some ink washes, to create volume and contrast:

And then, I'm sorry to say, I inadvertently my cat, Goose, in my studio for a full day. Of course, he chose to punish me by making himself comfortable on the drawing-in-progress and also, well, who knows exactly what happened here, but he ruined the piece. I'm sparing you the graphic evidence and just sharing this black and white photo of his vandalism: the large stain along the bottom.

Argh!!! It was ruined. I had to scrap it and go back to the drawing board. So a new piece of paper, with new pencil grid lines and re-create the scene. This time I remembered to take a photo BEFORE I began adding any shading. This is the new the pen-and-ink line drawing:

Still a lot going on in this drawing. Whew. But adding some ink washes, in varying levels (dark to light) I was able to bring some more clarity and contrast to the scene:

And here is the final scan, trimmed to 9"x 12" - note that this scan is more true to the actual warmer color of the ink than the photo above:

Ok, one down and 5 to go. And no more feline mishaps, I'm happy to report! I'll be back with the Hawaii color painting progression tomorrow…..

Book Club by VH McKenzie

Check out these recently published collections by author  Jessica Fievre.

Recognize those faces on the covers?

Less is More
 11" x 14" ink and watercolor on paper

Beads No. 2
4" x 6" ink and watercolor on paper

The book designer took some liberties (with my permission) but I'm cool with the result. In addition to my compensation,  Jessica sent me five copies of each book -- wish my French were better!!

The books are available on Amazon, here and here.

Bonne lecture!

New York City Underground by VH McKenzie

Next up in my handmade tiny books -- a collection of some of my  oil paintings of New York City subway riders, "NYC Underground Vol. 1."

There are 10 miniature prints in all, assembled accordion-style, just like my previous tiny book, NYC H20.  I printed the images on archival art paper, and fashioned the covers out of chipboard, covered with hand-made paper from Thailand.

Here is a composite image of all of the prints included in this mini book:

This tiny book is secured with a slim leather strip fastened to each cover. Signed and numbered inside the front cover, I've assembled a limited edition of 25. And yep, these are tiny, 3" x 3."

Available for purchase  here.

I never knew "mixed media" would include red lace panties. by VH McKenzie

     One of my favorite contemporary artists, Wangechi Mutu, is having the first survey exhibit of her work in the United States. Born in Nairobi, Kenya in 1972, but based in Brooklyn since the early 1990s, it is fitting that the Brooklyn Museum is hosting this exhibit. 
     My only complaint, after soaking up the 50-plus luscious and complex collages, multimedia installations, sculptures and sketchbooks: it's not enough, I want to see more!
I'm such a hermit on the weekends of late, you know it really takes something special to get me on a train and get out of Manhattan and this exhibit didn't disappoint.

I took the N Train to Brooklyn and changed to the 2 to go a few more stops to Eastern Parkway. Easy peasey.

You can always tell when you are at a museum subway station because the art starts before you even go above ground - nice touch, MTA, let's be friends.

Fortunately for this hermit, I didn't have to walk too far from the train station to get to my destination. Heh.

As with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the entrance fee here of $12 for adults is actually just a "suggested donation." I paid $10 with the understanding that my "donation" would not include admission to the uber-trendy special Gaultier exhibit on the 5th floor. No problem, I came to Brooklyn for Wangechi, yo!

Got my admission badge -- well, even the Met's cool little metal badges are a thing of the past so I guess this isn't too shabby. Nice logo.

Up on the fourth floor I entered a nearly empty gallery -- it was a sunny Sunday, the museum was beginning to buzz yet I practically had Mutu's exhibit all to myself.  This was the spectacular sculpture that met me when I rounded the corner into the first gallery.

I'd only seen Mutu's collages and mixed-media pieces and was not prepared to see this massive sculpture/installation. Upon close inspection, it appeared that the tree-like sculpture was molded out of heavy cotton/wool  shipping blankets -- you know, those mottled heavy industrial blankets used to wrap furniture. And upon even closer inspection, I saw that those bright red pops of color were lace panties. Yep.

I really came to see her collages and mixed-media pieces in person. They blow my mind. I had to snap photos surreptitiously since the security guard advised me it was prohibited. There was only one guard on duty so I was able to wander through the 3 galleries and snap quite a few with my iPhone. The lighting was fairly dark so they're not the best photos -- I've included some better photos from her catalogue when I just couldn't get a decent photo. 

Turning past the textile tree, and on to the other works. I'll let the images speak for themselves………………..

Pretty Double-Head , 2010
Mixed media, ink, collage, and spray paint on Mylar, 34x41.75 inches.

Lizard Love, 2006
Mixed media, ink, spray paint and collage on Mylar. 25 x21.5 inches

Le Noble Savage, 2006
Ink and collage on Mylar, 91.75x54 inches

One Hundred Lavish Months of Bushwhack, 2004
Cut-and-pasted printed paper with watercolor, synthetic polymer paint, and pressure-sensitive stickers on transparentized paper, 68.5x42 inches

Misguided Little Unforgivable Hierarchies, 2005
Ink, acrylic, collage, and contact paper on Mylar, 81x52 inches.

Once upon a time she said, I'm not afraid and her enemies became afraid of her  The End. 2013
Mixed-media wall drawing

Riding Death in My Sleep, 2002
Ink and collage on paper, 60x44 inches

Yo Mama, 2003
Ink mica flakes, pressure-sensitive synthetic polymer sheeting, cut-and-pasted printed paper, painted paper, and synthetic polymer paint on paper. 59.125x85inches

Your Story My Curse, 2006
Mixed-media collage on Mylar, 101.5x109 inches

There were more pieces including 3 video installations and pages from her sketchbooks -- this is a must-see exhibit. If you need a reason to leave Manhattan, this is it. Heh.

Time to go home…….

Coming to NYC for the Holidays? by VH McKenzie

If you are in New York City between now and January 19, 2014 be sure to make a stop at The Frick Museum. This lovely lady is on display as part of this exhibit "Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis."

Girl With A Pearl Earring
17.5" x 15" oil on canvas
Johannes Vermeer 1665

Timed tickets are available to view this special exhibit and our girl has an entire room all to herself. Don't miss it! 

Order your tickets online here.

Portrait Progression by VH McKenzie

Ok, who doesn't like a portrait progression, right? Here's my next lady on a train. She seemed a bit awkward and stressed, clutching several bags and, of course, the ubiquitous iPhone.

Here we go - pencil sketch on the gessoed wood block, which is approximately 4 inches square:

Then a few blocks of color:

Followed by some big, splashy patches of more color:

You know, some of our NYC subway cars have bright orange or yellow seats, while others have those icy blues. Sometimes I choose which color to paint, regardless of the original scene -- creative license, I guess.

She had her knees clamped tightly shut but her feet splayed outwards. That was the most interesting part of her pose, so I spent some time getting those legs just right:

Then I toned down that high-keyed lemon yellow behind her head, and paid some more attention to the crumpled shopping bags in her lap. I think this was a good place to stop, don't you ?

NYC Subway No. 19

Put A Bird On It Redux by VH McKenzie

Nothing could be more iconic than a New York City pigeon. Yeah, I know you've got pigeons in other cities,  but there is just something about sharing the sidewalks and streets of NYC with hordes of these "flying rats," that makes them feel uniquely New York. And truly intrepid Nw Yorkers they are.

 NYC Subway Card Pigeon No. 7
2.5" x 3" oil on metro card

The Guggenheim Redux by VH McKenzie

Here's another NYC icon --

It's an icon I've tackled before. Let me know how this new version measures up against the prior versions:

 NYC Subway Card Guggenheim No. 1

 NYC Subway Card Guggenheim No. 2

Here's a close-up of the newest version:

And in a frame:

 NYC Subway Card Guggenheim No.  4

I can't pick a favorite. Just like my children............

But you can! Let me know.

Empire State of Mind Redux by VH McKenzie

I love painting this view - simple and iconic  - but experimenting with different color palettes. The same shape but different hues gives it a whole different mood and feeling. 

2.5" x 3" oil on metro card

 Compare it to one I did a while ago, such a different result:

2.5" x 3" oil on metro card

I think I'll do a series of these this weekend and see how many variations I can create. Committing to a series really frees you up to experiment - you've got the subject matter out of the way,  and also knowing that you're going to create as many variations as you like really takes the pressure off any single one painting. If it works, great! If it fails, put it aside and try something else.

Popped in a frame and it acquires a bit more grandeur, no?

NYC Subway Card Empire State Building No. 14
2.5" x 3" oil on metro card

A Better Face BOOK - Volume 1 by VH McKenzie

Next up in my handmade tiny books -- a collection of some of my most popular pen and ink drawings, the Loosey Goosey portrait series.

There are 14 miniature prints in all, assembled accordion-style, just like my previous tiny book, NYC H20.  I printed the drawings on archival art paper, and fashioned the covers out of chipboard, covered with hand-made paper from Thailand.

I think between the two photos here. above and below, you can see just about every image that is included, save one - guess that will have to be a surprise.

This tiny book is secured with a slim leather strip fastened to each cover:

Signed and numbered inside the front cover, I've assembled a limited edition of 25. And yep, these are tiny, 2.5" x 3."

Available for purchase here.