Interview with Harold Reddicliffe
LIGHTER,LENS,CAMERA and BLUE WALL 2012 14X14 inches oil on canvas
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Harold Reddicliffe is a still-life painter who shows at the Hirschl & Adler Modern, New York, NY and has shown at the Pepper Gallery in Boston as well as the Tatistcheff Gallery in NYC. He recently had a 30 year retrospective at the Boston University Art Gallery where an online pdf is available here. He recently retired from his position as an Associate Professor of Painting Boston University College of Fine Arts, where he has taught since 1987. I was fortunate to work with him as a Teacher’s Assistant while a graduate student at BU in 1993. His teaching, especially about drawing, was very influential to me in my growth as a painter and I am pleased that I can share a few of his thoughts to a wider audience. I would like to thank Professor Reddicliffe for his time and involvement with this interview.
Joshua Buckno wrote in his essay to the BU retrospective catalog Painting in the Age of Mechanical Obsolescence
“Reddicliffe’s depictions of cameras, microscopes, binoculars, and lenses refer to the accuracy of vision. Microscopes and lenses reveal minute elements hidden from the natural eye; binoculars allow observation of the fine details of distant objects; and the camera—once upon a time a magical and revolutionary contraption—captures a scene in time, not to mention time itself. All of these objects aid the human eye by allowing for a deeper and more precise ocular experience, while also serving as a reminder of the limitations of sight. Yet Reddicliffe’s paintings are above all a testament to viewing and perceiving objects, and the ability of the eye and hand to work together to depict an object with superb clarity, and limitless fascination.”
Larry Groff: Your paintings are richly detailed and highly resolved, but do not appear photographic. Your orchestration of spatial and shape relationships, treatments of edges and color interactions are very different from what a camera would see. Can you speak about the difference between what you do and photorealism? Why is observation important to your painting, and why not just use a photograph like the photorealist or make still lifes from memory like along the lines of William Bailey?
Harold Reddicliffe There are two very different reasons for each. In the case of photographs, as an undergraduate I did a lot of painting from photographs, and I discovered very quickly that the central pleasure for me in making observational painting has to do with the fact that one is required to take a three-dimensional object displacing actual space and figure out some way to translate that very specific 3-D language into the language of two-dimensional shapes on a flat surface.
And the thing, at least for me, that became problematic working from photographs is that the whole complex process that I’ve just very briefly described is already done for you. The monocular lens of that camera flattens the subject out, so you’re given the shapes that it has provided for you at the beginning of the process. So, for me, there was simply not as much enjoyment and certainly not as much difficulty, not as a great a challenge, as there is when one has to, starting with real 3-D stuff, make that translation into, ideally anyway, a persuasive illusion on a flat surface.
The other thing in a purely, I suppose, technical sense is that having binocular vision, one can choose to alter one’s station point fractionally. Even once a painting is started, if something is in any way puzzling or confusing, it’s possible by shifting frequently (as I’m sure you know) just a fraction of an inch up, or down, or side to side, to clarify the area in question.
All of a sudden something that is kind of mysterious makes perfect sense, and you can go back to the initial station point and then reevaluate those shapes from the point of view you are making the painting—with the additional information that came from looking at it from a slightly different point of view. Effectively for me, the answer to the photographic part (of your question) is it does too much of the job that I really enjoy doing in the first place.
In terms of memory, it’s a very fascinating issue, and it’s going to be a little bit more difficult to explain. One obvious aspect of memory is that detail is suppressed. One simply (or at least I simply) don’t have a memory that is sufficiently functional to be able to memorize everything that I’m interested in, in a complex object that I’m painting.
But more importantly for me, what I enjoy tremendously (as I was alluding to before) is that what this process ends up largely being about is the kinds of memories and associations that are conjured up by the specific analysis of the form over the course of weeks, or more likely months. So, in a way, memory enters into it, but it does so without the sacrifice of the kind of surface complexity that drives a lot of these paintings.
LG: Just to extend that question a bit more. The surface in a photorealist painting (where the primary emphasis is copying the photo) is often quite different than the paint surface from someone working from life.
I’m just curious. Your paintings are like in this weird place. They’re halfway in between. They’re highly resolved. There’s no clear mark of the artist’s hand in there. It’s not expressionistic. You don’t see the paint surface. But when you look at your paintings and the details of them—and I haven’t seen any of your work recently, but I saw a show a few years ago at the Pepper Gallery—even though you wouldn’t call it painterly, the surface seemed richer and different from the surfaces of photorealist paintings.
I’m curious. How does that fit into this process for you? I’m not sure surface is really the best word to use.
It’s something that has come up a lot, as you might guess, over the years. People who see those things, particularly in reproduction, assume that they’re derived from photographs. Part of it is a little bit contrarian on my part. I’m not (and never have) been interested in the kind of autobiographical element involved in the kind of handwriting that characterizes a lot of representational painting. I’m more interested in using the paint to figure out the image, and part of that, for me, has to do with suppressing a lot of the more abrupt transitions that occur when you’re concentrating on laying paint down, and instead, concentrating on the subtlety of the actual transitions that I see.
Surprisingly, I guess, there’s not all that much fusion of the paint on the surface with a brush. What it’s more about is breaking down the transitions that are occurring from shape to shape, from tone to tone, into the smallest possible increments. So, I suppose if you got up close enough, microscopically close; there would be some kind of painterly element. Because the individual marks stay kind of autonomous. I mean, each mark is a single decision—it’s just that there are lots and lots and lots of them going on.
I was painting a couple of objects involving spheres today. By the time I turned those spheres, I can’t even begin to count the number of actual physical marks that were made to do so, and I can maybe explain it even one step further.
In order for me to be able to control that process, what I’ve evolved over the years as a working practice is a very, very lengthy preliminary setup on the palette tonally. Within every local color that I use, I start off with between twelve to sixteen individual tonal mixtures, so that at any given point, when I’m trying to figure out a form, I kind of know where I am in the process.
And what it allows me to do, again in terms of the superficial smoothness of that surface, is break down, say, those fifteen that I’ve mixed on a given day into ten or twenty times more by working between each of the little mixtures that occurs on the palette. So it ends up being literally countless numbers of tiny, tiny increments of transition across the surface which adds up to, of course, if I’m even a few inches away, an apparently very smooth surface. Was that clear?
Very clear. I’m curious. What kind of brushes do you use with this?
I use all sable rounds, and they’re pretty small—from a number four up to about—every now and again I’ll use one as big as a twelve or a sixteen—but it’s mostly fours and sixes because of the intricacy of the object. And partly as a consequence, the actual size of the format of the paintings has reduced considerably. I mean, at this point, some of the paintings I made ten years ago would probably take years to do as opposed to months.
I’m finding that the more of these I do, the more fascinated I am by the apparently endless intricacies of the surface, and in order to allow myself the time to do that, I discovered I had to reduce the amount of area I’m trying to cover.
LG: What led you to become a painter, and what are some of your most important early influences?
HR: I came from a background in which there was no interest in the visual arts at all. I grew up in Texas, and nobody in my family or friends had, as far as I was aware, any interest in that direction. However, like a lot of other people that ended up doing what we do, I had been drawing as far back as I remember.
When I went to college, one of the courses a lot of us decided to take (because the faculty was unusually good at that time in that place. This was at Williams College in the early sixties) [was] an art history course. And I liked it well enough that I thought, Hm. Maybe this is something I might want to do as a major. And it was back in the days when the art historians in that department believed firmly that people who wanted to become historians needed to know how the things they were going to be studying were made.
So, part of the curriculum was a studio component. One had to take drawing courses and design courses, and it became instantly clear that I liked that even better than the art history. And to my great pleasure, about two years into my stay there, they started a concentration in studio, which was essentially just an add-on to the art history. Most of us at the time ended up with what amounted to an undergraduate art history degree, but we were able to focus on the few studio courses that were offered. And on the basis of that, I decided to [move onto] graduate school.
In terms of influences, a little bit more complicated. As you might guess, in the early to mid-fifties in Houston, there was a relatively small collection. That’s changed dramatically since then, but I do remember seeing at the Museum of Fine Arts there (on my way to and from after school drawing classes) what I hope I’m remembering correctly as the Kress Collection which was a gift from the Kress family, of Old Master paintings. And then there were a couple of shows that coincidentally were there when I was doing this course that I remember made an incredible impression. There was a Magritte show sometime in the fifties in Houston which was, of course, unlike anything I’d seen, and it was memorable, to say the least.
I didn’t really start to think about influences in a serious way until I got to college and in my freshman year began going to New York with some frequency. I made it a point every time we were there to go usually to the Met and to the Frick and to the Museum of Modern Art. And it started almost, now, a fifty year involvement with those collections.
PORTRAITS #2 1998 24×36 inches oil on canvas
24 OBJECTS 2001 11×17 inches oil on canvas
HR: And very shortly thereafter, in a book store in Williamstown (this would have been in 1968) I ran across a catalogue to the Whitney “22 Realists” show that was in 1968 and became very superficially acquainted with people I got to know a lot better later, like Al Leslie, William Bailey, Philip Pearlstein and that whole group.
And I was entranced immediately by that. The idea that people could actually make a representational painting as serious grown-up artists was thrilling, because certainly the instruction we were getting at school was basically by people who had, themselves, gone to school in the forties and fifties, so the emphasis was very much on abstraction at that point.
If I had to pick two people out of all the people that I enjoy looking at that made initially the biggest impact and have continued to, I would pick Chardin and Morandi. They still are primary sources, just for encouragement, if nothing else.
LG: I remember you showing the graduate class I took with you to Harvard’s Fogg Museum where you showed us the Chardin drawings there. [You] actually got to hold it, I think, with the white gloves, if my memory serves me correctly?
HR: Right. Yes. It’s really an astonishing resource. I’ve done that pretty much every year since then (the drawing study) and to my great good fortune, one of my students ended up getting a job, there, and was the person who was actually delegated to bring the drawings out. He was incredibly helpful, because he’d taken the course I was bringing the students from, so he could sort of intuit what I wanted to talk to them about.
The difficulty is the Fogg has been closed now for several years, and it looks like it’s going to be another two before they reopen it. So that resource has not been available. It’s been a huge, huge loss. They’re completely redoing both the Fogg and Busch-Reisinger, and it’s scheduled to reopen now ( originally it was going to be 2013 ) in 2014. So, an institution much missed.
LG: You’ve been an associate professor in painting at the School of Fine Arts at Boston University since 1987. Walter Murch also taught painting at BU back in the early sixties and painted many still lifes of mechanical and scientific objects. Murch’s realist style is very different than yours, but there are similarities in the subject matter as well as the interest in abstraction of carefully observed and arranged setups. I’m curious if you might have anything to say about Murch’s painting in relation to yours.
HR: It was a startling revelation. When we were senior art history majors at Williams, the class was taken to a local collector’s house. He had been putting together American paintings for like thirty or forty years at that point. His collection subsequently went to the Whitney and the museum in Williamstown, the college museum. But among the paintings he had were two Murches.
The one I remember the most vividly is one about the lock, the interior of a lock. And I was riveted by that painting that day; but, he was somebody that nobody else that I knew was aware of, and nobody on the faculty, at that point, had any particular interest in. So, the image stayed in my mind, but I’m not even sure at that point I knew or remembered his name.
My first teaching job was in Columbus, Ohio. One of the other instructors there turned out to have gone to BU as both an undergraduate and a graduate student, and he studied with Murch. [He] had a lot of reproductions of his work, and had years of stories about what studying with Murch was like. So, secondhand, at that point, he became really an enormous influence.
I don’t really think I understood completely, at that point, because we didn’t have available to us the actual paintings to look at, as to exactly what was going on, particularly in terms of how their surfaces were handled. I sort of understood what he was up to, but without being able to see numbers of those paintings—it wasn’t until years later, when I saw at least a few, that I sort of got it.
I think it was probably gone by the time you were at BU, but he had left one painting that was still hanging in the visual arts office, and it was the first time I really was able to see how the surfaces looked. Apparently that story about the paintings being put down on the studio floor and walked on was not apocryphal. He really did do that. The connection to the New York school abstract painters was really very obvious, and I was fascinated by the tension that was created between those heavily worked and abraded surfaces and the remarkably specific and accurate depiction of those objects.
The question that I still have in my own mind is what the relationship between that surface and the kinds of objects that are being described is or should be? I mean, I’ve obviously come up with a totally different answer to the question, but I was fascinated that he was able to sustain that really active, heavily worked surface and, at the same time, seemingly not sacrifice any of the accuracy or the description of most of those very, very complex (a lot of them anyway) mechanical objects.
LG: The retrospective at the Whitney Museum that I was telling you about of his work included many of the still life objects themselves, that they displayed along with the paintings.
HR: Wow. I would have loved to have seen that.
LG: It was fascinating to see how closely observed they were.
HR: I think, too, when one has an opportunity to see the drawings, you can see just how precisely and specifically analyzed those objects were. Some of the paintings he made [for] Fortune magazine covers (if I remember correctly) are a little bit tighter, a little bit less heavily worked than the studio paintings were. You get a sense that one of the things that underlies the whole enterprise for him was a meticulous and very responsible response to those objects. He clearly had a real passion for them as objects.
LG: The passion is clearly visible that drove him to the lengths that he went to.
HR: I think the similarity (if there is one, aside from the subject itself) has to do with the whole really complex question of what happens when you take an object like that (a carburetor or a sewing machine which has a very specific, utilitarian function) and remove it from its functional context and just look at it for months, which is what I have to assume he did, and it’s certainly what I do. And I think one of the reasons that drives the process (for me, anyway) is to begin to become aware of the changes that take place in one’s perceptions of the object and the associations that one might have with it over the course of time that one spends looking at it.
LG: In a bizarre way, perhaps its like the movie with Tom Hanks, Cast Away, where he forms a relationship with a volleyball, and it becomes almost a love interest, in a way, because through the isolation and concentration of that being your sole source of visual interest… Perhaps a similar thing.
HR: It’s very similar, and what’s fascinating to me (and I think it’s one of two aspects of this, right now, that continues to be riveting) is the fact that you know what these things are. I mean, just using a projector as an example. It’s perfectly clear what its function is, and the longer you look at it, of course, you can figure out how the particular projector is designed and constructed to perform that function.
But as you look at it longer and longer, it’s almost like (if this makes any sense) saying the same word over and over and over again, until all of a sudden it isn’t denoting anything anymore. It’s just sound. And you look at this object and realize that it has become completely free of meaning and that there are other associations and consequently new meanings that become possible.
And the trick, of course, is as this process plays out, not to try and force them. To try and see, once the original utilitarian association begins to fade and you’re used to it in this new context of it being set up in your studio with a light on it but nothing else going on, what it begins to remind you of. What other associations might drift in and take over.
The only risk (and I think you mentioned this in one of your other questions) is to try and control that metaphor. If it’s going to happen, it sort of does—and if it’s too thoughtfully or intentionally directed, it can end up being just a really embarrassingly bad cliché.
LG: Like most great still life paintings, your work seems more engaged with formal abstract painting issues, and less about metaphor, nostalgia or the sentimental. However, your work doesn’t seem overly detached or stiff. Occasionally there are subtle hints of anthropomorphic forms that suggest another level of meaning, and there is a richness and sparkle to your color, as well as the visual geometric dramas of the setup. Many of your subjects (like the cameras, slide projectors, movie projectors and lenses) have to do with mechanical forms of vision. Can you tell us something about why you paint these still lifes the way you do?
HR: I paint them the way I do for a couple of separate but linked reasons. The first part of the question is right on the money in terms of the formal aspects of it. Almost all of them are generated by an initial, formal problem or problems I set for myself.
It can be something having to do with the actual nature of the object itself. That’s frequently the case. But it may have to do with a formal problem I have taken from some very different source—architecture, frequently. I’ve also been doing a lot of looking, the past few years, at prints (both European prints and Japanese prints). There are issues that come up in those that I find very interesting and amusing to try and translate into similar kinds of problems in the paintings.
But essentially, all the initial decisions are made on the basis of things like two-dimensional organization, color, surface, texture, and how those things interact with each other on what I imagine as the painting’s surface. So, this may get into the question that’s further along, but the way they’re actually organized is I set these objects up and play with them for sometimes weeks at a time before I make a commitment to the image to see if I get them to do what I would like them to. And very specifically the goal I set for myself, from a purely formal standpoint in these paintings, is what amounts to a visual pun.
I’m endlessly fascinated by the idea of taking, as I mentioned before, a real three-dimensional object or objects and translating them on to a flat surface so that clearly the reality of the object I’m actually making (the painting) is that surface, and the flat shapes on it. And the illusion is how those flat shapes can be reassembled into some reference to the original subject that I started with. And I’ve done everything I possibly could think of to try and conflate the two, in the painting process, so that one is reminded constantly of the fact that no matter how persuasive the illusion might end up being, if it works, it is finally only a bunch of patches of color.
And simultaneously, when that’s being pushed—when the idea of these two-dimensional relationships has taken primary focus in a painting—it’s very important to try to do nothing that would undercut the viewer’s ability to still read these shapes as a very specific illusion of equally specific three-dimensional forms. So there are a lot of conscious decisions in lots of the paintings to create a real visual pun.
LG: Tell us a little more, Do you do studies at all? Do you draw directly on the canvas once you’ve finished setting up the still life?
HR: More often than not, there are no studies. Every now and again when I’m not actually working, I will just do very casual drawings to think up possibilities of things I might actually want to set up in the studio.
The best example I could give you is frequently during a break at school (when I was teaching) I would think of an idea that I might like to try and make a painting about, and just do a little, quick, informal drawing of that. But when I actually set about making a painting, I have to have made a decision about the objects that are going to be in it.
I set them up, and I spend up to two weeks (sometimes longer) adding and removing the objects, trying to figure out the point of view from which they’re going to do what I’d like them to do the most successfully, and I spend a roughly equivalent amount of time just sort of fooling around with the light to make sure that it clarifies them in ways that I find workable.
It’s all done with incandescent light. I don’t use natural light, at all, so I can control what’s going on. I use one spotlight for ambient light to paint in and another one focused on the setup.
So most of the work, in a lot of ways, is the result of just giving myself permission to play with these objects for as long as is necessary before I actually commit to the painting. I use a framing device to figure out how I’m going to organize it two-dimensionally, and I do a very, very lengthy line drawing on canvas. That can take as much as half the total time that the painting takes.
LG: Did you say you use a viewfinder? Is there some particular setup that you use for your viewfinder?
HR: I can’t remember whether we were using them in the drawing class at BU. Actually, I use two try squares to make a rectangle of the size I think I want the painting to be. Then I find the X and Y axis, so I can really hit the middle of it, [and] so I know pretty much, before I start the drawing, how everything is going to be organized. And then the very first thing, in the drawing, is a drawn vertical and horizontal axis, so I know where the middle of the canvas is and know where I want to crop the objects by the four edges.
LG: You don’t really use a grid? Or just the one division?
HR: Just the two axes. Just a vertical and a horizontal. So I’ve got four quadrants. And then what I try and force myself to do (for a reason I hope I can explain) is that for the first week or two I’m working on this drawing, I draw as loosely as I can—just sort of at arm’s length, barely holding the pencil. It’s very open and very general, at the outset, so that I can make sure that everything that’s going to be in there is pretty much on the surface, where I want it to be.
And then progressively, as the drawing proceeds, I allow it to get more and more specific, and toward the end I use the whole range of drafting tools that are necessary. I use straight edges and compasses and protractors—anything that’s necessary to get these things nailed down.
But I discovered years ago that if they’re used prematurely, I can persuade myself because of the accuracy (or the superficial accuracy of the kind of marks that they make) that the drawing itself is accurate. And it turns out it’s much, much easier to make sure that the scale relationships, the foreshortening and the perspectival issues are dealt with freehand just from my own perceptions. The drafting tools are really just a neatening-up process at the end of a longer-drawn process.
LG: I see.
HR: Essentially the whole point for me is to get a relationship established between first the shapes (via the drawing) and then a relationship established between the pigments that I’ve used, and the tones that I’ve mixed with those pigments, and the actual setup. When I’ve gotten that far, I have a series of comparisons that I can make. I can look at a decision I made about color with reference to the actual color I’m looking at, and then in the overpainted layer, I can do my best to adjust that.
LG: One thing I remember most about your drawing class at BU was your discussions of the importance of seeing the horizontal and vertical relationships correctly. To not draw elements in isolation from each other. You talked a lot about Antonio López García’s concern with this in his drawing of the quince trees. Also William Coldstream and Euan Uglow took this careful measurement, relating elements spatially to the extreme, and [this] was central to their art. Do you have similar concerns in your painting?
HR: Exactly similar concerns. In the sense that, as I talked about a little bit earlier, the idea that no matter what else this thing that you’re making might be—what it really is, is a flat object with flat shapes on the surface. And the whole point, it seems to me, is to be incredibly thorough and responsible about relating those shapes to each other. I think what makes it enormously both difficult and entertaining is the idea that shapes that you’re working with result from having to translate three-dimensional relationships into two-dimensional relationships.
So, that whole process of using lines extended across the surface of the painting to relate objects to objects quite a considerable distance away and relate everything to the four framing edges of the rectangle takes place nonstop throughout the whole process. That ends up being corrected over and over again as the painting plays out.
LG: It interests me that it’s so mercurial, like you said previously, that just altering your head a quarter of an inch can change that whole relational dynamic…
LG: …so how do you really decide? If you want something that’s from a different position, and then you have something from another position, how do you keep track of it all?
HR: Pretty much the whole two weeks of playing around with the setup has to do with trying to make sure I’ve established a station point that’s going to work. I close one or the other eye, and once things start to fall into place two-dimensionally, what I do is pick some set of relationships in the setup that I always go to back to, to make sure everything is lined up.
And a lot of really basic stuff. I mean, I mark the chair I’m sitting on, on the floor. I mark the easel. The elements in the setup are marked. I do everything I can to make sure that once that initial station point is chosen, I can successfully maintain it throughout the process of the painting.
That’s not to say, very importantly, that while the painting is taking place, I don’t move my head a lot, and change that station point, for reasons I talked about before, just trying to make sure that I’m able to figure out everything that’s going on. But I make sure that I’ve got parts of several objects that are lined up with one eye closed two-dimensionally, that I can use as a reference, a constant, throughout the whole process.
LG: The art critic Jerry Saltz said a few years ago that, “All great contemporary artists, schooled or not, are essentially self-taught and are deskilling like crazy. I don’t look for skill in art. Skill has nothing to do with technical proficiency. I’m interested in people who rethink skill, who redefine or reimagine it: an engineer say, who builds rockets from rocks. I am looking for what the artist is trying to say, and what he or she is actually saying, what the work reveals about society, and the timeless conditions of being alive.”
With ideas like the above being prevalent in much of the art world and schools today, how has that affected a school like BU who has a great reputation for teaching fundamentals of figurative painting? And what would you recommend to a young painter who wanted to learn how to paint in the figurative tradition?
HR: It’s a very complicated question, and everybody who is teaching anything that can be even roughly described as traditional disciplines has got to grapple with it. I can only assume that things are as plural in the visual art world, right now, as have ever been in its history. And I think students, in a way, have got to take the first initial step in that process.
You know, we get a self-selected group. The students who come to a place like BU (and a lot of others still out there) have made a decision that they’re interested in learning some of those more traditional ways of making a painting. Obviously, there are an infinite number of other possibilities. People who are interested in various sorts of new genre art are very unlikely to choose a place like BU in the first place.
LG: New Genre Art, what is that?
HR: The whole range of conceptual, performance, installation or site-specific work—BU would probably not be a place that they would choose to go in the first place. There are just too many other art schools out there that are now focusing almost entirely on new ways of defining the visual arts.
In a given year, when a bunch of students show up from high school, I make the basic assumption (I think all of us do) that they’re there because they really want to learn something about drawing and painting. And by and large, that’s true. So you start from that. The more complicated issue, of course, is because these are very bright people, and they are not ignorant of what’s going on out there I think you ultimately have to be in a position of trying to make some sense out of why this is still an important, viable way of making form.
It’s tricky. I think you have to try and make a compelling case for the notion of the primary responsibility of the visual artist, even today, is to actually be able to make form. I think what’s really tricky is that just reading the Saltz quote (and you run into its equivalent all the time) the notion is that what’s important about an artist is what he or she thinks or feels or has to say about the society or the world at large.
My argument is, maybe not so much. I think what’s important is that people who have decided to be visual artists are the people who have committed to the idea of being capable of making a form that allows them to communicate those ideas or thoughts or feelings in the most memorable way possible. Simply talking about those ideas, I find, totally insufficient. I think the trick is to be able to make something that allows you to encode in its language what it is you think or feel about the world or anything in it. And that’s where the skill part comes in from my point of view.
I would agree with Mr. Saltz absolutely that skill for its own sake is largely pointless; but skill used in an effort to try to control the process of constructing form that you’ve chosen I think is critical—as long as one keeps in mind that it’s not the end of the process, it’s not what the process is about. It’s simply the means by which that process can be facilitated.
I mean, I’ve spent more time than I suppose I want to think about telling students year after year that their job specifically as painters is to be able to make a painting which they don’t have to stand next to and explain. They should become so involved with the means that they have available to them, that they are capable of making a form (in this case, the painting) which is the exact expression of what it is they want to say.
Now, the difficulty is it presupposes an audience out there who is willing to make the effort to take the time to decode the image that was made to get at what is being expressed. It’s not as obviously straightforward as simply someone telling somebody else what they think or feel.
And pushing it one step further, I suppose the most intriguing thing about the whole process is that if it’s going to work—if painting or drawing, any of the traditional visual arts are going to continue to have the kind of impact that they had traditionally—they really to have to survive as functional languages. Their vocabulary, grammar and syntax have got to be used with complete confidence and (here comes that word, again) skill for whatever they’re going to be used to express to actually make any sense.
I don’t know whether that’s exactly what you were looking for in that question, but it’s something I think most painters today, given the plurality of the art world, probably have to think about. It seems that it is, at this point, a much smaller part of the overall way of making images than it was even when I started school.
LG: It’s hard to say. Everyone is going in so many different directions that it’s anyone’s guess where it will all end up.
HR: Yes, true, but it’s encouraging to see that there are still a lot of people out there who seem to be interested in learning how to paint and draw, and as long as that interest continues, I supposed there will be paintings and drawings to look at.
LG: I recently interviewed the painter, Julian Davis, who said: “In the dark ages, people were as likely to follow animal tracks as to use the empty Roman roads. The history of art is similarly full of amazing acts of forgetting, of losing mastery.”
This quote makes me think about the people who seem to want to reinvent the wheel, and then go riding off-track, bushwhacking it through the visual wilderness. I suppose sometimes this de-skilling can work but more often than not, I find it less interesting than art which is part of the continuum of language from past art.
HR: I think it’s not even so much the past. I got into this initially because I really enjoyed looking at paintings. I mean, it’s no more complex than that. I still find them endlessly fascinating and rich if they’re well made. And there are a lot of other competing forms out there, right now, that I simply have far less interest in. I think that is such an entirely subjective phenomenon. People obviously are going to follow their interest in a direction that seems satisfying to them.
But for me, teaching for that long and making the paintings themselves is really about trying to, in the smallest degree anyway, add to the accumulation of this discipline that’s been going on for a considerable period of time, and make things that you would hope that at least a few people out there will also be interested in looking at.
LG: Thank you again for taking the time to make this interview, your words here will be of great interest to many painters.
Engine x 4, #1 – #4 2009 Oil on canvas each panel 6″ x 6″