Master And Muse
Frank Ashley talks about the Renaissance painters who have inspired him.
Thursday, May 9, 2002
Photo: Portrait of the Artist Under the Influence: Peninsula artist Frank Ashley in his studio surrounded by his large-format paintings. In the foreground at right is his self-portrait, painted in 1958; below is Piero''s "Finding of the True Cross," one of Ashley''s inspirations.
Photographer: Dennis Wyszynski
An artist''s studio is both workshop and sanctum, where the solitary nitty gritty of creativity occurs, where the muses are summoned to shed their grace. The artist is both foreman and priest, laboring, nurturing, giving form to the ineffable. In this place, talismans surround the artist for inspiration and provocation-if not a wall pasted with postcard reproductions of works by the Old Masters, then a stack of art books filled with color plates. In these images the artist delights, draws forth renewed energy, despairs.
Noted artist Frank Ashley, who has made Monterey his home since 1968, embraces three such talismans from the Italian Renaissance: "The Tribute Money" by Massaccio, "The Finding of the True Cross" by Piero della Francesca and "Darius and his Family with Alexander the Great" by Veronese.
Ashley''s own painting reveals the rigorous training he received in the human figure at New York''s Art Students League under Reginald Marsh. Today, a typical Ashley work features jazz musicians playing or groups of beach bums cavorting around a volleyball net or the denizens of Santa Cruz idling the time away. Except for the jazz players, decadence hangs on faces like a mask, and figures, all muscles and cleavage, sport their shamelessness as if they were proud to be stupid. In one remarkable large triptych, a Civil Rights atrocity bursts with a bestial display of power.
During his student years in late 1940s and early 1950s, Ashley recalls, "All the galleries were devoted to representational paintings. And I looked forward to a career in representational art. But Sidney Janis and the other 7th Avenue dealers moved in and that was the end of representational activity. No one doing representational painting could sell anything." The abstract expressionists had usurped the throne of American art.
"But I wanted to say something," Ashley continues. "I believed the idea should be presented as clearly as possible, so I stayed with representation. It has cost me a great deal."
When Ashley checks in with Piero della Francesca, he gets his bearings once again. In Piero''s "True Cross" painting, clusters of figures orchestrate the visual space across the foreground, while tilled, rolling hills give way to craggy foothills and finally a walled city on the hilltop. Marking the division of foreground to background is the facade of a building.
"This is most charming, beguiling, this area on the right with the architecture. It''s the sweetest thing you can imagine," Ashley says, pointing to a reproduction, "and for the rest, the figures are all under control, quiet and immobile. It''s an immaculate design in a linear sense."
To Massaccio''s "Tribute Money," Ashley responds in hushed tones. Studying the early Renaissance work, with its grouped apostles forming an island of disbelief around a knowing Christ while Judas is at stage right taking the bribe, Ashley says, "Massaccio''s genius may have been to make pictures not so consciously designed. He could just step right up to the wall and paint. It''s so simple, but terribly difficult to do. In Massaccio there''s such restraint, such intense feeling, but so quiet."
Of both the Piero work and Massaccio painting, Ashley sums up, "Perhaps my admiration for these particular pieces is based solely on the design attributes. Quiet dominates the project, good taste is evident, the good taste of a confident and sophisticated artist. All is acceptable. There is no strife, no fear, no lust, no happiness, no exultation, no sweating."
Veronese offers another type of sustenance. In "Darius and Alexander," a small event is depicted in grand terms. In legend, the victorious Alexander the Great and his chief lieutenant were received by the defeated Persian king Darius and his family. Darius''s mother mistook the lieutenant, wearing much finer armor than his master, to be the great conqueror himself. She performed her obeisance to the wrong man; in the painting, she apologizes to Alexander who, in his magnanimity, accepts.
"I''ve always been enamored of this diagonal," says Ashley, pointing to the demarcation between the figure group and the architectural backdrop, "light against dark or dark against light-it''s always a fascinating exercise."
Ashley''s admiration for the Veronese is conditional, however. "In this painting, there''s arrogance, ego, body odor, fear and the presumption of power. The strong design is evident but the design reveals passion and uncertainty. The artist is skilled but lacks the characteristics of a good interior decorator. While I envy the confident, skilled, sophisticated decorator, I cannot create unity of figure and backdrop as in Piero and Massaccio, but I would try to do better than Veronese."
Italian Renaissance paintings, seen in reproduction or on periodic jaunts to Europe, offer Ashley endless ideas on composition and the figure. "This was part of the artist''s education. Composition and design were all very deliberate; knowledge of the human anatomy was compulsory," he says.
"It is possible for me to try to incorporate marvelous design and tumultuous figures, but I haven''t achieved that yet."
Frank Ashley''s work is currently on display at Zantman Gallery, 6th and Mission in Carmel, and at the Carmel Art Association, 6th and Dolores in Carmel.