Joseph Raffael “Moving Toward the Light” Words

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Lanie Goodman

Betsy Dillard Stroud

David Pagel

In a conversation with Lanie Goodman, Joseph Raffael described his way of working on the large paintings for which he is known:
“I find a place . . . that interests me–it might be a color, or an expanse or a very complex area that may end up having five or six hundred brush strokes.”

a color
an expanse
a very complex area
six hundred brush strokes

On the impact of digital technology,
“I can zoom in on a detail . . .If you keep zooming–it’s no longer a leaf–it becomes all veins and then before you know it, just zillions of pieces of color.”

zillions of pieces of color

Joseph Raffael paints color. Zillions of pieces of color that, when seen from the right distance become a fish, a flower, a pond, Lannis.

David Pagel and Betsy Dillard Stroud and Lanie Goodman paint words.  I know that kind of painting. They put down, as Joseph applies color, one word, then another, then a third next to that. The words become sentences; the sentences,  paragraphs.  Because Stroud, Pagel, and Goodman are wordsmiths, the sentences are often very beautiful. At some moment in time, meaning breaks through and the magic happens.  There is a a wealth of magic in the words laid down in Moving Toward the Light. They contain, they define, they announce–sometimes with a great shout, often in a whisper–the paintings that Joseph Raffael has made in two decades in France.

This book, this volume I have in front of me now–like all those Raffael paintings–is a rich mosaic; the writings are pieces of the whole. I turn the pages again, for the third or fourth time. I turn the pages, this time with my sights on something different, my heart, not on the lush images of Joseph’s paintings, not on the shiny-sleek feel of paper against skin, nor on the heft of the book in my hand, but on three pieces of writing–two essays and an interview. My eyes zoom in, not on images, but on words: the words of Goodman, Stroud, and Pagel; the words of Jules Verne, of Thich Nhat Hanh, of Vincent Van Gogh and Gertrude Stein. The words of Thomas Merton. The words of Joseph Raffael.

I am a miner of words as Joseph is of colors. I, too, instinctively look for details within details, for the paragraphs in the essay, the sentences in the paragraph, the words, the sounds of the words.

As Joseph wrote in a recent email, I “dig til i reach water.”

And then I see it.

There is not one page of text in this book that does not include a painting, a corner of a painting, a photograph.

There is not one place in this book where words and images are separate.

There is not even a fraction of a page of this book in which words and images are not woven into a fabric so dense that to pull out even one thread would be to compromise the whole.  

Lanie Goodman


 

 

Betsy Dillard Stroud

 

                   

 

David Pagel

“In The Studio Making Paradise”
Lanie Goodman is
a freelance journalist.
In this essay, she is also a storyteller, and
she begins, as with any good story, in medias res,

“It’s a hot morning in August on the Cap d’Antibes.”

She is wise enough to know that “chronological facts” are inadequate to the task of revealing this artist “who allows himself to be guided by the marvelous unpredictability of ‘what comes up.'”  

Lanie Goodman is our personal guide on a tour–of the studio, the villa, the gardens, of Joseph’s history and Lannis’, and of the paradise she hints at in her essay’s title.  Starting at “the gateposts–two stone pillars painted an eye-catching Van Gogh sunflower yellow,” she herds us along in the true spirit of that “marvelous unpredictability” with which she credits Joseph.  

Joseph Raffael was born in Brooklyn in 1933.

Joseph Raffael sometimes “dissolves into . . . bursts of hilarity.”

Lannis Raffael’s garden is “a wild expanse of terraces with every imaginable Mediterranean
flowering plant . . .as well as olive, peach, cherry and citrus trees . . .an earthly paradise in the dazzling light, between dream and reality.”

Joseph and Lannis have ponds full of koi over which Tibetan prayer flags fly.

“Tibetan prayer flags are placed high on Himalayan hilltops so the wind can carry the prayers to those in need.”

“New York, Sunday evening. April 6, 1986: Joseph Raffael, 53, and his newly-wedded second wife, Lannis Wood, 41, board a Delta flight for Nice, France, with only two carry-on bags. They arrive to grey skies and drizzle.”

 

 

 

Joseph Raffael says his paintings begin and end in mystery. Lanie Goodman’s essay begins and ends in the studio where Joseph Raffael embraces that mystery. In all the pages in between, she gives us the artist, the man, his world. She shows us the making of this paradise.

 

 

“Moving Toward the Light”
Betsy Dillard Stroud is an artist.
And it is as an artist that she speaks with Joseph Raffael.

Stroud’s “Moving Toward the Light” is an interview and, between two people who have known each other many years and who share the passion of painting, the exchange is lively, thought-provoking, and comfortable.

But Betsy Stroud got my immediate attention with her opening line, “My conversation with Joseph Raffael began thirty years ago with a pink rose.”

I wanted to pick up the phone, call her, and say, “You know, of course, there’s a novel in that!”

(Spirit Like the Wind II
watercolor on paper,
43 1/2″ x 66 1/2″ 2007)

 

In her short introduction, Stroud writes that “Raffael is not only a poet of paint, but also a poet of words.”

There is not one page of text in this book that does not include a painting, a corner of a painting, a photograph.

There is not one place in this book where words and images are separate.

Moving Toward the Light is a seamless work, start to finish.  Reading Stroud’s interview for the second time today, I appreciate more than ever the fact that not only are these three writers creating their own works of art but that each piece is distinct at every level. The ideas and the filters through which they view the paintings, the choice of words, the construction of sentences, the tone of voice all set them apart, and yet they fall into place beside each other without a ripple. They fall into place in the wholeness that is this book just as each corner that Raffael paints falls into place on those large scrolls of paper.

Betsy Shroud’s interview with Joseph Raffael is the voice of painter calling to painter in a language that is their own.  Stroud is not more present to her subject than are Goodman and Pagel, but she is present in a different way.  Early in their conversation, she concludes that

“Your paintings are monumental in scale, with spectacular detail. Yet there is a definite ambiguity in many of your backgrounds. And because of their dimension there is an automatic abstract quality about them.”

Later, she asks

“Are you always aware of the two-dimensional picture plane to remind the viewer that the painting is just that–a painting?”

A painter’s question for another painter.


(Crescendo
watercolor on paper,
53 1/2″ x 75 1/2 ” 2013)

And for all the flickering, moving, glittering energy of the paintings, the one constant in this volume, the one unwavering voice, the one certainty, the anchor on which we come to rely, is Joseph Raffael and what he says about his work. He never deviates from what he believes is true about his art and his place in it.  He never says anything other than what he tells Stroud,

“‘It ain’t me, babe,’ who is doing the painting. I of myself can do nothing. I just need to show up and be present.”

As I read Betsy Dillard Stroud’s interview one last time, I recognize the particular genius of it. It is the genius of the finest interviewer, in this case not just schooled in her subject but in some way being her subject. She asks exactly the best questions, in exactly the richest way, to elicit from Joseph Raffael the essence of who he is.

Betsy Dillard Stroud is an artist.

 

“A Walk in Beauty”
David Pagel is an art critic.
He is a philosopher of art, a student of aesthetics.

Expressed in a number of ways in this succinct and tightly written essay, at the core of  his understanding of beauty is the fundamental belief that “It’s not a thing and it doesn’t reside in things.”  

David Pagel is very clear about that. Beauty is, on the contrary, “an experience that can neither be duplicated nor repeated nor grasped, analytically, by the intellect.”

It is in our experience of those things we perceive as beautiful that beauty resides, and those experiences are, by their nature, fleeting. My experience of today’s sunrise is exactly that–an experience of today’s sunrise. I cannot go back and have that experience again. I can only go forward and hope for a new experience in tomorrow’s sunrise.  The beauty is not in the sunrise; it lives, briefly, at the point of intersection between my experience and the sunrise itself. Beauty “is not a thing and it doesn’t reside in things.”

The exception–deceptive, it turns out–is art, which sets out to give us an experience of the beautiful and then, because a work of art can, unlike yesterday’s sunrise, continue in the same form, generates in us the desire to go back, to re-create the experience we had. And that attempt to recreate a former experience is a powerful block against our stumbling on the new and unexpected experience that really counts. Dragging a hope of the past interferes with the present.

It is the highest compliment then when David Pagel tells us that

“Joseph Raffael’s gorgeous watercolors present us with the possibility of new experiences of beauty, no matter how many times we see them. Like nature, they surprise us with their singular delights, never appearing the same way twice because they are jam packed with so many delicious visual incidents, happy accidents, and dabs of glistening colors.”

I am tempted to name either “dabs of glistening colors” or “happy accidents” my favorite turns of phrase in Moving Toward the Light (and that would even include “No Mud. No Lotus,” which–let’s face it–is pretty spectacular).  But I turn the page and find “translucent puddles of paint.”  Not to appear, nor to cause Mr. Pagel to appear, grandiose, but surely one can be excused for at least a passing thought that “translucent puddles of paint” is a little Shakespearean.

And yet of course I realize that David Pagel’s choice of those particular words is deliberate and serious. “Puddles” is a word choice worthy of Emily Dickinson in its precision. I have watched the video “Moving Toward the Light” many times now and, in fact, “puddles of paint” exactly and literally describes what we see Joseph Raffael’s brush laying down on that paper. And it is surely the mark of an exceptional writer that his choice of one word has sharpened and clarified my own perception of just those few minutes of video.

 

 

“Puddles.”

 

The painting with which Pagel shares the space of his title page is called “Primavera.” Not the largest of Raffael’s paintings, it is still impressive.

 

 

(Primavera
watercolor on paper,
47″ x 49″ 2014) 

 

 

At first glance–and except, of course, for its size–this could be the traditional vase of flowers loved by painters everywhere.  But these are Joseph Raffael’s vases of flowers, and they perfectly illustrate what David Pagel has tried to tell us, that

“Raffael’s paintings have more in common with sunrises, sunsets, and other earthly occurrences than they do with works of art. This is because they invite us to experience them in the same way that we experience natural phenomena–as ongoing, unrepeatable occurrences that stimulate our senses, heighten our attentiveness and stir our souls.”

In that small phrase, “stir our souls”–and others like it–David Pagel reveals himself, like so many of us who have stood before Joseph Raffael’s paintings, as not just an art critic but a man who has surrendered in the face of this particular experience of beauty. David Pagel, writes that “looking at a painting by Raffael is a lot like looking up, through the broad branches of the old peppertree in my front yard, just after the sun has risen . .”  

Like so many of us, David Pagel has fallen in love.

 

 

 

 

(Gateway: Nature,
watercolor on paper,

88 x 61 1/2 inches 1999)

 

David Pagel concludes his essay confidently:

“That combination, of being, wholly and totally, in a moment, and then letting it go, takes stunning shape in Raffael’s paintings, which give viewers the opportunity to experience worlds within worlds, over and over again–and never the same way twice.”

That is quite a promise.

 

David Pagel, Betsy Dillard Stroud, and Lanie Goodman have participated in the adventure that is this book because each of them wanted, in some way, to find the words to describe, explain, understand, that which perhaps cannot be described or understood.  They participated because they are people, not only of words, but of images. They are people who write about art.  They were the right people for the job.

Laying down puddles of color; laying down words; laying down pages and pages of the paintings, the people involved in the creation of this book have made a separate paradise. Moving Toward the Light, like Joseph Raffael’s paintings, is that best of all possible things: a bottomless text, an unlimited complexity.

As I began to prepare for writing this essay, I recklessly marked, with lime green sticky notes, the pages I wanted to photograph and walked out with book and camera to the back parking lot of my 1928 co-op building when the morning sun was bright on the old concrete.  I lay the book down, with great care, on the pavement.  I turned pages and the camera clicked.  It is only a small digital camera, and I am not a photographer, but doing this made me feel I was participating.

In any case, I liked the way the pages looked against the rough surface.

 

From the dust jacket of Moving Toward the Light
LANIE GOODMAN
is an arts and travel writer based in the south of France since 1988. She contributes to international publications, including T-Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Interior Design, Conde Nast Traveler and is the author of Romantic French Homes (Cico Books, London, 2013). Formerly a Professor of French Literature at CUNY, she now teaches Visual Arts and Communication at the SKEMA at Sophia-Antipolis, Antibes. Goodman has also translated four French novels into English, including works by Emmanuel Carrère.

DAVID PAGEL is an art critic who writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times. He is also a Professor of Art Theory and History at Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, California and an adjunct curator at the Parrish Art Museum in Watermill, New York.

BETSY DILLARD STROUD is an artist, lecturer and the author of Painting from the Inside Out (North Light, 2002), The Artist’s Muse: Unlock the Door for Your Creativity (North Light, 2006), as well as a forthcoming book due for publication in 2015. Stroud was Associate Editor of International Artist Magazine from 1998-2003 and was a contributing editor to Watercolor Magic Magazine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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5 Responses to "Joseph Raffael “Moving Toward the Light” Words"
  1. Audra Jean says:

    Dean,
    You have convinced me. Reading this review has nurished my souI.
    I WILL own this book. It’s a moral imperative.

  2. Dean, Speaking of wordsmiths, your review is so beautifully written, so concise, so wonderfully conceived that I began sobbing when I read it. I mean totally torrential. What a brilliant writer you are. Thank you so very much.

    With all warm regards
    Betsy Dillard Stroud

  3. javsimson says:

    It’s amazing that Joseph Raffael achieves such intensity of color with watercolors. These images (and the ones in the previous post) are stunning.

  4. Those are amazeballs.

  5. Kat Varn says:

    Amazing beauty from a co-op of happy accidents!

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