I was extremely fortunate to be invited to Lani Irwin’s home and studio near the Umbrian town of Assisi this summer. Ms. Irwin graciously agreed to an email interview in which she talks about her paintings, process and thoughts on art making. I can’t begin to thank Ms. Irwin enough, not only for her generosity with her time but also the thoughtfulness and eloquence of her words.
One of the most striking aspects of Irwin’s paintings is the compelling, enigmatic nature of her subject matter. In her interview in The Montréal Review, February 2011 Ms. Irwin talks in depth about meaning in her paintings. Since so much has already been written about the narrative and subject matter in her paintings, I wanted to ask questions that centered more around formal painting concerns. However, I quickly realized that separating the formal concerns away from the meaning behind and reasons for making a painting is probably like trying to separate out techniques of child-rearing from a mother’s love for her child.
Painting Perceptions is delighted to share this recent conversation with Lani Irwin and welcomes our new staff writer, Tina Engels, who writes the introduction below and also asks a question at the end of the interview that is of particular interest to women painters.
Tina Engels writes:
Lani Irwin has lived and worked in a small Umbrian town outside of Assisi, Italy, since 1987. Lani and her husband, the painter, Alan Feltus, have maintained a rich reflective life of study, work, family and intellectual community.
Irwin produces paintings that revel in the nuances of an inner artistic privacy and convey the strength of a public voice. Her visual worlds are balanced by an artist’s need to protect some kernel of silence in proportion to the mystery one chooses to explore. Irwin’s paintings savor the subtlety of what is evident and unspoken, contrasted and revealed. The lure of the visual labyrinth lies in depicting contrasting dualities of human consciousness.
All too often the contemporary audience requires much in the way of explanation and revel in the specificity of the narrative. In contrast, Irwin’s paintings preserve the melodies otherwise drowned out by too many words, stories and information.
Gail Leggio in the American Arts Quarterly in 2001 said:
“For a quarter-century Lani Irwin has been painting mysterious interiors populated by mannequins, puppets, toys and human figures. While her dolls are reminiscent of the lay figures Giorgio de Chirico deploys, her hushed tableaux may suggest the domestic enigmas of Balthus. Yet the artists Irwin most admires are not from the twentieth century but from an earlier period, the cusp of the Italian Renaissance. “I love the strange disquiet of some of the paintings,” she writes. “I often do not know the particulars of the story, nor do I need to. And so it is with my own paintings.”
Born in Annapolis, Maryland in 1947, Irwin traveled throughout Europe as a child, studied in Munich and Grenoble, and earned B.A. and M.F.A. degrees from American University in Washington, D.C. She has been exhibiting since the mid-1970s, and examples of her work can be found in the Hirshhorn Museum, the National Museum of American Art and the Corcoran Gallery of Art… Gail Leggio, American Arts Quarterly, 2001 Vol. XVIII, No.2
Joan Markowitz, Co-Executive Director and Senior Curator of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art stated:
“Drawing on influences as diverse as Flemish paintings, Oriental rugs, Renaissance frescoes and works by Picasso, Lani Irwin’s paintings are elusive and dramatic. Her figures, interestingly garbed, are most often women, poised for dance or engaged in games of chance and balancing acts; and allude to life’s psychological convolutions and complexities. While they stare out at the viewer assuredly, she has eschewed a particular narrative, and creates complicated and mysterious tableaux of enigmatic symbology, which elude facile interpretation and offer a plethora of mysteries to ponder. Carefully conceived and consummately painted, her skill is manifest in the creation of these beautifully engaging images.”
Larry Groff: What led you to become a painter?
Lani Irwin: Whenever I attempt to speak or write about myself or my painting, it often feels like a work of fiction full of contradictions. I can see my life or my work from multifarious positions, much of it enigmatic and illusory. I remember drawing from a very early age but I think nearly all children draw as a way of understanding or seeing the world they live in, or their own inner life. My memories of childhood are sparse and in them I was involved in pretending, living in an imaginary world, inventing relationships and dialogues. Perhaps a more persistent tendency that could explain my decision to become a painter would be that of wanting to live in fantasy, to escape, creating my own version of reality, or enjoying that which is created by others, be it painting, literature, film, or music. I wanted to be part of that other world. When I lived in Europe, from the age of 15 to 18, I visited many museums and saw extraordinary paintings and sculptures. What I felt when looking at certain paintings was transcendent and transformative, like windows to the soul. When finally it was time to decide what I wanted to study, the only thing that seemed right for me was painting.
LG: What was school like for you?
Lani Irwin: I envy so many painters who have had interesting or even extraordinary experiences with teachers who became mentors. When I think back to my classes, there was little that I can remember of any note, no epiphanies, few revelations about how to paint or who I might be as a painter. I spent many hours in studio classes but I was often unable to relate with enthusiasm to the set-ups or the models or to what was being said to me. However, in my last year of graduate school the fall of 1972. Alan Feltus, newly hired to teach undergraduates, invited some of the graduate students to see his paintings when they arrived from Rome, where he had been the two years previous on a Rome Prize Fellowship (Prix de Rome). The paintings Alan had developed over those two years were for me a rare and impressive merging of the contemporary with the classic. His paintings were personal and individual, quiet but intensely expressive, yet in no way hyped by the need to do something “new”. In the end, once I had finished all my courses, I realised that it was time for me to find my own way, teach myself how to paint. So I put a seagull skull on a box and began working alone from observation. I suppose more than to teach myself how to paint, it was to discover what was important to me in painting and to find my own voice in order to understand what and how to paint.
LG: Was figurative painting something you got into early?
Lani Irwin: I have always been interested in figurative painting. Non-objective painting has never really appealed to me, seeming to leave out so much of what is essential and powerful in painting.
LG: Who were some of your biggest influences? Was there any particular idea or thing you experienced that was especially formative and still shapes you today?
Lani Irwin: In the summer of 1974, Alan and I went to Assisi together for the first time. When I entered the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi and saw the frescoes of Giotto, Pietro Lorenzetti and Simone Martini, I felt a moment of revelation or insight. After years of trying different approaches to painting from Rembrandt to Bonnard, Vuillard and Soutine, it seemed that what I wanted was something quite beyond my own understanding. What continues to engage me when looking at those frescoes in Assisi seems unknowable. It is the magic, the mystery, what runs under the surface of our very beings, the parts of us that we find so hard to understand. When we walked into the Basilica, I remember saying that I believed there must be a higher power, perhaps a god, something greater than the day to day of ordinary life that could elicit such incredible images. They seem to embody that deep otherworldly atmosphere that dreams are made of, something that carries me into another realm of consciousness and awareness.
LG: How do you go about the planning and beginning work on a painting? How important is balance and tension? Do you use any form of dynamic symmetry or similar?
Lani Irwin: There is no set method. Rarely do I make preliminary drawings, never do I plan out a painting in any formal way. I spend a lot of time staring at the blank canvas. In the end I must just start with something and believe that the next something will reveal itself in the painting of that first something. This requires a kind of faith that the painting itself will take over. What I do is more like choreography, placing objects and figures in relationship to one another to create a tension that interests me. There is no prescription for how this might work best. The selection of the particular objects or the gesture and position of the figures creates a dialogue. Objects speak to me and to one another. It is the dance between these elements rather than a formal consideration of balance or square within a rectangle that orchestrates my paintings and it is driven by intuition.
LG: How much of an idea do you need before you start the painting or does it evolve in the process of working?
Lani Irwin: When you ask how much of an idea do I need, I could say it would be wonderful to actually have an idea when I start a painting. What I usually have is more like the ghosts of a dream after I wake up, that fleeting image that I can’t quite grasp, even when I try to write it down or draw it. So I start with the ghost and from there it does evolve, though not without many stops and starts.
LG: How much does the subject and composition evolve during the painting process? Could you say something about how your painting, La Ruota, evolved during the time you worked on it from 2009-13?
Lani Irwin: The entire process is one of evolution, finding the subject and the composition slowly through the painting of it. With each layer, the interweaving of shapes and colours slowly build to reveal both the subject and the composition, if indeed they are separate entities. The search for the colour is simultaneous with the search for the form. I believe colour is very personal, something inherent and is guided by instinct and intuition. However, because I paint the objects from observation, to some extent, colour is dictated by the object itself. One reason “La Ruota” took so many years was that I painted a few layers to find the positions and relationships of the figures and objects within the space and then didn’t work on it for about a year while I worked on other paintings. If you consider the figures to be the subject, and I am never quite sure of that, then as I redraw and repaint the figures, what is next to them also changes. That is how the composition develops. The doll parts were on a shelf in front of the figures for a long time and the most dramatic change in the composition was when I removed the shelf and suspended the doll parts. Instead of defining a comfortable space in the painting and guiding the viewer into that space, the figures and objects in the painting seemed to be right on the surface, if not pushing out into the space of the viewer. This was not something I planned. The pattern using the shape of an ouroborus on the red wall grew in part from a dream. The verticality of the painting became stronger thus the horizontal panel with stripes. I know the colour of the wheel changed many, many times and was the last thing to change again months after I thought it was finished.
LG: Patterns of checkerboards, stripes, diamonds, circles, etc often show up in the backgrounds, clothing or other elements in your paintings. Where do these patterns come from and what role do you see for them in the painting?
Lani Irwin: I believe we are who we are in spite of attempts to be otherwise. I love patterns and complexity. I know that when I see the ribs and walls and vaults of buildings painted with pattern and image as carefully as the narrative frescoes, the richness of it excites me profoundly. When I am working, often a space between two shapes cries for more than just a colour so I look for stripes or patterns. However, it is more than just a compositional necessity. Perhaps there is a symbolic aspect to checkerboards and stripes, something that is a part of a universal inner language, that I relate to without a conscious knowing. I love nature, the black and white of the feathers of a hoopoe, the polka dots of a guinea fowl, the surprising patterns of moths and beetles, and shells. For decades I have collected and used patterns from the walls and floors of churches. I have a book of antique hand painted game boards that I have used as a source. Targets, both antique shooting gallery targets and ordinary paper targets, are among my lexicon of possibilities. There is a kind of playful nature in these patterns juxtaposed against one another for no apparent reason other than my own whim. I like visual complexity, multiple layers conjoined.
We seem to be dancing around the discussion of subject matter in my paintings and for me, composition, colour, pattern and subject matter are so thoroughly entwined and interdependent that they are inextricable. When I find myself speaking about targets and patterns, I can’t avoid beginning to question what I am doing with all of this unrelated stuff. Why do I continue to bring many of the same characters together. I had started to say the targets have entered recently but then I remembered that I painted targets and shooting galleries decades ago. Yes, I have used them more frequently recently, but they are not new to my work. Nor is the strangeness of combining seemingly unrelated objects and figures. The paintings of the early Renaissance that I love have stories and symbols so they do carry a more specific meaning that is entangled within the complex visual language. Mine do not have that more specific story or framework to hold it together, give it meaning. I would love it if they did. Perhaps that is what they are about, that loss of what I could call a tangible inner world, a clearer manner of relating to the world we live in that was once accomplished through shared cultural norms. In the rush for what is called progress, we seem to have been left without a language we can all understand. I am not a religious person but I do believe that there is more to life than buying and selling. Nor am I an intellectual painter, one who thinks in abstractions or concepts. I am much more rooted in emotion and intuition. The subjects I am drawn to, the relationships within the paintings that I tend towards creating, seem to have an element of disquiet that can at times be unsettling to viewers. I often go through days where feelings of alienation, aloneness and a strange deep inner sadness seem to take hold of me from an undefined and non-specific place. I paint objects and figures, shapes and patterns that don’t quite reveal themselves, regardless of how I paint them, and certainly don’t explain why they are there together on the same stage, not even to me. A theatre of the absurd.
LG: Is getting a naturalistic sense of light and space in your painting important to you?
Lani Irwin: It seems to me that the light in the “Deposition” of Rogier Van der Weyden emanates from within rather being than observed from without. It is not literal. That kind of light interests me more than a more naturalistic light. And for me, the concept of space is far less important than the interlocking figures and shapes within the borders of the image. Although I am often looking at objects, I am combining them with elements not observed. Since the composition is composed of observed and imagined elements, the light and space are both observed and imagined.
LG: How did you first meet your husband, the painter Alan Feltus? Can you say something about your life with him in Assisi?
Lani Irwin: As I said above, Alan and I met in Washington DC in 1972. We have been together since the beginning of 1973. When Alan was given tenure at American University, we moved to southern Maryland. We renovated a small farm house, planted a garden, had goats and chickens, and converted a good sized tractor garage into our studio. Our two sons, Tobias and Joseph, were born while were living there. Alan resigned his teaching position in 1984 in order to paint full time and in 1987 we decided to spend a year in Italy. We bought a stone ruin of a house in the hills above Assisi and after that year was over, we decided to remain in Italy. We would go back for shows or at times for family, and occasionally for teaching, often trying to combine all three in one trip. In many ways our life here is much as it would be anywhere in that we are painters so we paint most days. Living in Italy more or less allows us to live and paint with little regard for the whims of what is referred to as the art world. Sometimes we are sorry to miss shows and we do miss friends. But as compensation, we can drive in any direction for a short while and find extraordinary paintings, or just look out the window and see spectacular landscape. And many of our friends, both new and old, make their way to Italy so we are able to see them here. It is paradise in many ways.
LG: When I was leaving your home for Venice this summer you surprised me by saying many of the later Venetian painting, like Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto didn’t hold your interest like the earlier Bellini and Carpaccio. What are some reasons you favor much of the early renaissance painting over late renaissance, mannerist and baroque painting?
Lani Irwin: I shudder that I should say such a thing. They are all incredible painters. To respond to your question, though, perhaps it is the unreal nature of the paintings of the Medieval and early Renaissance that appeals to me. Even though they depict stories and ideas, I feel a soulfulness or otherworldliness in them. The figures and architecture are bound together in the early paintings, weaving a web of patterns and shapes that, taken as a whole, create a metaphysical reality, transcending time and the physical nature of the things being depicted. These artists were not concerned with realistically painted figures in credible spaces. In some ways they are more like puzzles, each beautiful piece fitting together as no other piece could fit, orchestrated by the artist’s vision. Light seems to originate from some inner source instead of being dramatic light or light to define form. Later paintings of the Renaissance and Baroque tended to be more involved in the rendering of surfaces and in the overt drama of the stories or incidents or persons depicted. Too many cues were given as to how I ought to respond. When I stand in front of many of these later paintings, it is as if the painters are speaking a language with too many adjectives and adverbs added. The heart and soul seem hidden from me in extravagance, replaced by a kind of virtuosity of paint. Ambiguity and a hushed disquiet is more interesting to me.
LG: Post-modernism would seem to have pushed aside many basic Modernist tenets such as paintings should never be illustration. Painters like John Currin or Lisa Yuskavage blur the line between Illustration and Painting, Peter Schjeldahl stated in a 2003 New Yorker review (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2003/12/15/irresistible-2) “…However, judging from his sudden prestige, [Currin’s] example has changed the climate of expectation in contemporary art. He has rehabilitated fallen practices of visual storytelling, restoring to painting its ancient functions of illustration and rhetorical persuasion.”
Paintings show just one frame and can’t tell a story visually like an animation or graphic novels. Would painting today be better off being more abstract and formal–sticking to painterly concerns and leave the narrative to mediums better suited to storytelling? What do you think about the line between illustration and painting today?
Lani Irwin: To some extent, I think the Modernist tenets such as paintings should never be illustration, or that there ought not to be narrative of any sort may well have set many of us back, causing unnecessary struggles as we tried desperately to deny what was present all the time. It seems to me that even painting a table with objects is telling a story. The objects have life of their own and have relationships. Figures just by their very nature imply something beyond the borders of the painting itself. In order to sound “modern” I have said over and over that there is no narrative in my paintings, that the objects are selected for how they work as shapes within a painting even though in some hidden recesses I knew that none of those denials were entirely true. It is true that in my paintings there is no specific, predetermined narrative, and that the objects elicit a personal response for me that they may not elicit in someone else. But there is more to it than just the purely formal and visual. I don’t think painters as a whole ever stopped painting “narrative paintings”. Strictly speaking, the Medieval and early Renaissance paintings I love are illustrations that were painted to instruct and tell stories in a time when few people could read. It is more an issue of whether the “illustration” goes beyond just that specific story, giving it enduring and universal meaning. Painting is not better off being more abstract and formal. Painting needs to continue to strive for that excellence of craft and conviction that has served painters throughout history so well, all the way back to the cave painters. I love film and my sons have both made wonderful animations and films, constructing them with great care visually, much as they would a painting. There are many important film makers. But the ability of film or graphic novels to employ many sequential frames to tell a story doesn’t supplant painting as an art that weaves within itself narrative, whether specific or more ambiguous and personal. The stillness, the unchanging quality of a painting is a strength, allowing a different kind of interaction, perhaps a more profound contemplation.
LG: One thing you wrote in your eloquent response to the 2009 interview with the Montreal Review about your work that particularly resonated with me was what you said about beauty;
“… I believe that beauty is something we all crave, that it is an essential element in art. That said, beauty is not a characteristic or concept that we could all agree about or describe definitively. It is a subjective experience. It is something that elicits a physical response, a feeling of breathless engagement and wonder.”
What makes for the most beautiful things in painting, in your eyes?
Lani Irwin: Oh, this seems an impossible question to answer. What is in both the Soutine “Pastry Chef” in the Barnes Collection and the Lippi “Portrait of a Woman and a Man” at the Metropolitan Museum that cause that kind of wonder for me? Why do I feel that wonderment when I look at the Van der Weyden “Deposition” and the Uccello “Battle of San Romano”, a self portrait or still-life by Dick Ket and a painting by Fausto Pirandello? It must be a bit like falling in love, unpredictable in so many ways yet awe inspiring. Something inside me moves or perhaps it is that I find myself holding my breath. I am closing my eyes and trying to find the words to describe it, but I just can’t. There are many painters working today who can render exquisitely but I don’t feel that breathless engagement as if we have connected over time and space through some universal language. And there are painters who carve out their forms with brushes laden with colour, creating a world sometimes playful, sometimes full of pain, without the refinement of exquisitely rendered form in light, yet I find these paintings full of that same awe inspiring “beauty” that I find in the Lippi or Van der Weyden. In fact, it is important to understand that beauty for me has nothing to do with pretty or pleasant and might be better described as awe. A truly impossible question to answer would be how it relates to my own work. In rare moments I may step back and feel something akin to that awe when looking at something I have done. But in truth, it is a constant struggle to keep looking and painting and hoping that one day, if I work hard enough, in some small measure there might be that kind of beauty in my own work.
LG: What are the most important things you try to get across to students whenever you lecture or teach?
Lani Irwin: There are no shortcuts, there is only the hard work and most important, there really is nothing new in art, nothing that hasn’t been done in some way or another, other than what is written on one’s own soul. I don’t believe that novelty should be what art is concerned with. Novelty is more of a commercial issue. What makes art interesting and sometimes great is seeing the world through the eyes and heart of another, feeling things we might not otherwise have felt. And I use the word feel instead of understand because I think often we don’t really understand, we experience a rush of something incomprehensible but wonderful. Not always pleasant but certainly worth noting. An artist spends much of his or her life out on the edge, never really comfortable because there are no rules about making art that really help. Even now after years and years of trying to make paintings, each time a new painting is begun, it is as if I have no idea of how to paint. We struggle our whole lives against our limitations. And sometimes, many times, I question why. But it is part of who I am, this strange battle of selves.
Tina Engels: There is a clear message from the culture industry to portray the female figure with image alterations that become “perfect” distortions. Post Production manipulation facilitates the creation of accepted formulae of beauty. Your figures have the power to disrupt and challenge contemporary clichéd notions of beauty, do you intend for them to do this? And can you discuss the role of the female nudes in your paintings, how might this fit into a wider context of our culture’s beauty norms?
Lani Irwin: What do I intend for the female figures in my paintings to do? What role do they have? I think I have succeeded in hiding this from myself partially because of the dictates of modernism that eschew the personal in art. On the other side, there is the fear that if I can verbalise what I am doing, it will dilute it or even invalidate it or that it would become illustration in the pejorative sense. Once upon a time I thought it was personal expression that made painting great. Then art education entered and somehow convinced me that painting is about the abstract and formal elements and that it is good and proper to be ignorant of the underlying content of one’s own paintings. As I write that, it sounds a bit like teaching good manners. You are asking me to delve into something I have assiduously avoided for decades, This means trying to come to terms with it myself in order to speak to someone else about it. First and foremost, let me say that I don’t think any of us really ever know ourselves, what goes on in our most private realms, our innermost being. So I often speak in terms of dream worlds, ambiguity, intuitive responses to the unknown recesses of myself. That protects me. Choosing to paint female figures seems a natural thing for me to do because I am a woman and in some way my paintings are about myself, my place in the world. When I do paint male figures, it raises issues of relationship, complicates the psychology of the painting for me. For instance, when I was painting “La Ruota”, I was looking at my son, Tobias, for the male figure. I started to worry that the painting had some kind of influence or prophetic role so I wanted the male figure to have a kind of protective or inclusive gesture towards the female figure, to nourish the relationship. I wanted his relationship to flourish. Magical thinking. Foolish, but it became somehow real for me. This complicity between the painting and real life was complicated by that duality. So I tend to paint female figures and often one female figure. This places more focus on the singularity of presence and intensity of expression within the relationship with the other objects or the space. The figures are not meant to be sensual. When they are left nude, it is partially because I am caught up in the beauty of painting the figure and find no reason to clothe her. Certainly there is a strong element of vulnerability as one feels they are actually undressed. This does differentiate them from nudes that are painted for their sexuality or for ironic purposes or in mythological tales. The strength of the outward gazes keeps the viewer at a distance. The combination of an absence of sexuality and the strength with vulnerability may cause confusion in the viewer because I am belying the anticipated reading of the nude. However, I think it is consistent throughout my work, whether the figures are nude or clothed. By their stance or gesture, the figures protect themselves from intrusion and reside in an environment that is unexplained with objects that are equally enigmatic. What does any of this have to do with the contemporary world? From certain perspectives, absolutely nothing. Yet does it in some way elucidate the disengagement many of us feel? Or does it address the need for protection from the deleterious effects of the culture industry? I am concerned with these issues though I don’t think about them consciously when I am painting. Could my paintings “disrupt and challenge contemporary clichéd notions of beauty”? I would doubt it since precious few of those who fall prey to the lures and seduction of that kind of cultural distortion would be seeing my paintings. Intention means having an aim or plan and until you asked this question, I had not even considered it as a possibility much less an intention. Would that it could.
However, the idea that paintings such as mine might have some impact on social norms is interesting though unlikely. Our world is bombarded with mass produced, manipulated images effectively creating a value system wholly removed from what I consider meaningful, beautiful or real. So much is intended to convince the public what or who is beautiful and that the acquisition of material goods is the road to the pursuit of happiness. When I occasionally look at a magazine, I am fascinated by the strange presentations of the models and their clothing that creates an effect without actually revealing what they are trying to sell. Image rather than substance. Name brand instead of quality product. Ideology created by publicity genius. It must be so difficult for younger people to wade through this mire of overstimulation and hyper advertisement. I know when I have spoken to students about my paintings while showing slides, many of the young women have been interested in my work, how I paint the female figure. Rather than think about what the actual paintings might be showing them, I have tended to think it was more to do with the fact that I am a woman who has succeeded in painting for more than forty years, even while raising two children. I have talked about the importance of the personal vision, not getting caught up in trends and fashion. But what my work might have to do with some wider context of beauty norms, never. Certainly the limited audience would preclude any grand effect. But more than that, the thought had just not occurred to me. I do want people to respond to my paintings. I have not ever considered how they might respond or what they might respond to. I contented myself with painting what I was interested in painting, aware that the paintings seemed unsettling to many. Now I must consider the possibility that it is that very confusion and discomfort that I am wanting in the paintings. And that may well reflect my own existential state of being, even at my age.]]>
This past spring the painter Jane Culp invited Celia Reisman and I to visit her home and studio complex in the Anza Borrego desert area about an hour and a half from our home San Diego. Ms. Culp bought a large expanse of property here in 2000 and eventually built her studio and strawbale adobe home which looks over a wide vista of pristine desert-mountain wilderness. She has been living here full-time since 2009. I would like to thank Jane Culp for her enormous generosity with her time, talking at length about her background, painting process, and thoughts on painting. Ms. Culp has had many solo shows including the John Davis Gallery in Hudson, New York, The Painting Center, New York, NY and the Bowery Gallery in New York City. She has been reviewed by John Goodrich in 2014 Jane Culp: Suspect Terrain who stated:
These paintings have something of the quality of devotional works, as if the artist sought to subsume herself in the conjuring of the transcendent, using purely traditional means. (Imagine, in the twenty-first century: composing in paint!) This may be why they convey such a strong sense of the moment — a moment belonging to both the artist and nature, as if their exertions were simultaneous. One suspects that Culp relies on the drama of the desert to trigger and shape her ongoing engagement with nature. It’s fortunate she’s found her motif; her landscapes at John Davis are as vital and original as any being produced today.
Lance Esplund in the Wall Street Journal, 2010, stated:
…Ms. Culp arrives in these expressive oils, charcoals and watercolors at a place of structural clarity and composure—while making palpable the rush she feels interacting with nature. Her pictures’ restless skies and stepped, sharply carved mountain peaks retain the vastness, monumentality and naturalism of their subjects. Yet ultimately she is painting not the landscape but the thrill of engagement.
Larry: What made you decide to be a painter? What were your early years like as a painter? Who were some of your biggest influences?
Jane: I began to draw at 4 years to make sense of the world, there was no decision or choice. My painting teachers, Fred Conway and Arthur Osver at Washington University art school taught me love and reverence for the painting masters, Rembrandt, Tintoretto, Rubens and Cezanne while working from life figure sessions. My MFA at Yale was tough going, perceptual painting was cast out by Pop Art, and my scholarship withdrawn. Living in NYC in the 1960’s was raw but a fun challenge for a midwesterner with no money nor influential friends. I have a lot of adventure stories from NYC about staying alive, and understanding the larger reality of politics, and painting. They said”if you can keep painting for 10 years after school then you will continue to paint for all your life” I did because i wanted so badly to have both the freedom and individuated path of painting to give my life meaning. Using body based BioEnergetic therapy, I painted my way into Abstract Expressionism from the Renaissance with Gustin and de Kooning, and later for my landscape years, found painting articulation with Soutine and Titian.
Larry: When did you first come here to Anza, California and how did you go about building your home and studio out here in such a remote desert area?
Jane: In 2004 Dorland Art Colony burnt to the ground in a wildfire. Dorland had been my landscape painting refuge from NYC for nearly 20 years. Cabins were considered only a “skin”to separate you from nature while living within her cycles. The Anza land looked like a national park in its sheer beauty, so I spent my sheckles and bought 60 acres where my friends: a painter, a kayak river guide, and a surfer, built a studio for me like one I had at Dorland. The Mojave desert winter proved to be unbearable while living in my studio so I built a small but high tech, solar powered off grid straw bale cabin. It’s very quiet with 2-foot thick straw walls, environmentally friendly but endless work to keep up. That’s my bargain with this magnificent land–to live with it gently and leave a small footprint.
Larry: You recently helped the book The Unpicturelikeness of Pollock, Soutine & Others:Selected Writings & Talks by Louis Finkelstein. come into being. Louis Finkelstein was your late husband and you own many of his paintings. Can you tell us something about why this book is such a great read for painters?
Jane: Louis was a real perceptual painter, and he wrote from his painting experience sifted thru his tremendous classical knowledge of both the history of art and of human culture. He was a renaissance man. He wrote about large ideas, about what he saw, read, experienced and understood. He analyzes art fashions with knifelike, surgical precision. His writing is dense with ideas and insights and may sometimes comes across as difficult because of his passion for particulars and articulation. It is challenging to digest his writings but they yield a painters feast of content that is immediately relevant in the studio. His writings push painters to be the best painters they can be. He believed in the possibilities of the written English language; that thru it we could define our human condition and the language of painting.
[For more information on Louis Finkelstein please see links to a LOUIS FINKELSTEIN: THE LATE PASTELS IN THE CONTEXT OF HIS ARTISTIC THINKING a brilliant essay by Martica Sawinon Lori Bookstein Fine Art and the article on Painting Perceptions, Louis Finkelstein, On Painterly From the 06/27/2000 NYT Obituary “…As a critic, Mr. Finkelstein wrote for Artnews and the College Art Journal. He was highly regarded as a teacher both at Queens College, where he worked from 1964 to 1989, and at the Yale University School of Art. He was a regular and popular lecturer at the New York Studio School in Manhattan from 1966 to 1998.”
Larry: What was it like to be married to Louis Finkelstein? Can you talk about how he influenced your work?
Jane: Living with Louis was vital, fun, and made me stretch intellectually. We were passionately in love, that never changed. We worked hard at painting everyday all day, and dinners were late and sweet. He was an intrepid chef in his apple green apron, all the while gesturing with forks and knifes while booming out art ideas with his distinctive accented NY voice. At breakfast he gave extensive art history lectures to me at 8am while I was still torpid, or put forth important art ideas on the crowded freeway while I weekly drove us to NYC (he was a rotten driver) from Stillwater NJ, our landscape painting spot. All his waking hours were consumed by painting, reading or writing about art; he never stopped.He taught, painted and wrote with great dedication about seeing the world and its values in terms of painting and its ideas. He lived with the highest of intellectual aspirations and his facial expression was of curiosity when he died.
Larry: You’ve likely been asked this a million times, but what keeps you drawn you to paint these forms for so long?
Jane: I love rocks, I don’t know why.
Larry: Living things, like trees, seem to be less visible in your work however your rocks are alive in a different sense.
Jane: They have an active history. They were formed by wind,rain, and by tectonics that push up and crack apart as the rain filters through. And so the West is full of young rocks and young land being formed. The East is full of old used up rocks with trees growing over everything and in your face. So I like the West where I can see what has happened to the earth and what is still happening. I’m totally captivated by this. Why? Because it speaks to me. Because I can look at a rock and feel its history in my body. I’m close to the earth, the sky is over me and huge. When painting, my body is very close to the rocks, the landscape is all quite alive.
Larry: You paint these mysterious, monolithic forms in a rather harsh, barren environment. You live and paint where there are few people around. You’re not painting in a studio or school where lots of other artists around. Why this attraction to solitude?
Jane: I use to love to watch the ants build things in my grandmother’s rock garden. I turned over every rock to see what was going on under it. I still feel the same spellbound curiosity about nature. I cannot get any peace where there’s a bunch of artists fighting with each other. I tried studio painting for years, and I hated it. I hated people around me and making noise. I don’t want to know what they’re doing. I want talk with nature, and if I’m going to spend my time painting, which is hard enough, I’d rather be painting someplace that I love where I can hear my feelings speak. When I moved here, i felt i had moved into my drawings. As Ellen Maloy says in her book, The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky
“Of all the things I wondered about on this land, I wondered the hardest about the seduction of certain geographies that feel like home—not by story or blood but merely by their forms and colors. How our perceptions are our only internal map of the world, how there are places that claim you and places that warn you away. How you can fall in love with the light.”
Larry: So do you think having the solitude effects the level of your concentration when your working? Do you find that your head is in a different space if you don’t have other people around?
Jane: Yeah, I’m extremely distracted by people. I wish I weren’t. It’s been a bane to my existence. out here I feel in harmony with my surroundings, like birds following me around, watching. I feel quite peaceful here and I don’t know what else to do with life except find a little peace. I certainly can’t change the present world situation much.
Jane: I can help my friends the birds and little creatures by making a wildlife refuge here. Keeping this land wild for them. I think wilderness has its own order and this resonates in my being. I cannot stand an artificial enforced order. When a rock cracks it has a reason for cracking. When a rock is smooth, it has a reason. visual forms that have consequences are vital. Every thrust of movement I see in nature and feel when I’m drawing has a direction, has a consequence because I see it in the landscape in front of me having consequences. I feel it and try to paint that. I can’t feel that in the East with the trees, houses and weeds in my way, they garble my brain.
Larry: The other thing that you mentioned too was the color out here. That the color out here is so important to you versus what’s back East.
Jane: Green, I hate the Eastern green. Back East it’s all fat opulent green which just sits there vegetating and takes up all the space in summer. In spring it’s a chorus of shrieking green. The colors here are elemental, my pigments contain them and they explain how the earth moves. I love the warm reds and oranges of the earth, mysterious in their color layering that follows folds created by tectonics in the earth. The light colored sandy grit of decomposed granite underfoot is the scrubbed remains of rock and then there is that bit of turquoise light that hides within violet shadows…
I think the color here has a lot more individuated character, it fits the forms. The attempted greens of the scratchy little brush are sparse, deep dark with orange umber black in them. I like the shape variety of clouds in the always changing big sky. The West has different clouds than back East, the winds tear and pull at them incessantly fighting for their moisture. Those elliptical clouds formed over the Mojave desert are just killers. They are amazing beings. You can see what’s going on in the weather patterns out here so much easier than back East. Nothing is buried. It’s all obvious. I can’t spend time trying to find where the bottom of a tree comes because there’s a bush in front of me. I don’t want to, and I’m not sure I even want them to overlap. I just want to see the nature of the beast in front of me, the nature of the creature, the nature of the mountain, the tree, the rock, whatever it is. I’m not interested in static patterning and design, instead I’m curious about uncodified irregularity. So it has to be a natural order for me to spin the story. I can’t paint intuitively without movement and natural order.
Larry: Maybe what you’re looking at out there in the desert, these forms, the rocks and everything; it’s almost like they’re containing you. You have this expressive energy with making the art, but these forms help keep everything in check. It’s keeping that expressive power in check, channeling it into responding to what your response is to the desert forms. Perhaps it’s that you are really an abstract expressionist painter that stays within the visual boundaries of what you’re looking at. You’re completely free as long as you stay within these boundaries. If you have unlimited freedom …
Jane: You can’t do it.
Larry: Then there’s no structure. There’s no composition. The thing just sort of falls apart into mush.
Jane: It’s flabby.
Larry: Flabby, good way of putting it.
Jane: It’s true.
Larry: I don’t see your paintings as wanting to be naturalistic, They seem more like a strong expressionistic response to nature. You’re going at it in different ways. Obviously not the same way that Corot, Monet or California plein air painters would do it. Aren’t you painting it more along the expressionistic lines of Soutine or Oskar Kokoschka…?
Jane: To me they are naturalism in a very real sense: I think we are just starting to see Nature for what it is, not as a cooked concept. Ironically, we are seeing Nature just as we are losing Nature. Maybe my paintings look strong and expressive because I try to be one with a sparse and chiseled landscape, but I really am trying to paint what I see, feel and know. I guess the expression comes from the feeling of identifying with natural forces.
Yes, those painters and Titian too, hopefully. Have you ever seen any of Titian’s drawings? How many times he changed them as he worked. First the figure was leaning over the woman and then he moves in toward her, then closer still and then reaches toward…all in the lines of one drawing. His painting are like that too. So I would include Titian with Soutine, I really think they are buddies. And they move. That’s how they do it. Things are moving always in the process of becoming and then they do become alive to us otherwise the painting becomes a static design or a surface pattern.
Larry: I recently heard someone say that bad abstract painting designs and bad representational painting illustrates. You seem to avoid both these pitfalls because of the structure with its rhythm and gestural forces; your color and marks lend a visually poetic sensibility to these paintings.
Jane: I paint intuitively following a rhythm that my eyes feel as they travel thru the space of the landscape. The structure or ordering of forms has to support this rapid movement. So I put the forms on an axis, like I learned to put figures on an axis then I can see them in space and flat too. I do that, or try to because I don’t know any further way to reduce them and their nature, except on an axis.
Everything leans like Cezanne’s ptg. of Madame Cezanne in the Met. To make sculpture more alive, the early Greeks broke the symmetry, this up, that down. Rembrandt’s light and dark masses–part of the form rises, the other part falls. The whole form of a landscape can be treated this way.
If you concentrate to put the thing on an axis, then you do hold onto it and I’m sometimes impetuous, or I can’t or maybe I’ll use the horizon line as an axis…as a set-up. But this is all technical stuff. The painting depends on me striving first to realize the presence of the mysterious character and forces of the landscape and then try to push the conversation. In my best paintings, a particular landscape presented itself as an immediate visual take of emotion, it grabbed me.
Larry: Your work has a great deal of surface texture, are you doing something with the sizing to manipulate the texture of the gesso of the ground to respond to the subject somehow?
Jane: I use a thick oil ground on the isolated masonite board. But yes, I’ve made underpainting bas–relief diagram of the landscape area I was painting with a spatula. This helped me understand the structure of the place. However upon painting directly upon the built up ground I found myself coloring it in. it was repetitive,imprisoning and not inspiring. Years ago I did paint directly the tones seen on my little clay bas relief landscape sculptures to learn.
Jane: Painting and sculpture, they’re two different things. Painting is paint, it’s color, and it’s tone, and you use it as a relief, perhaps, in the way of a relief, but it isn’t relief. It’s painting. They don’t mix: they seem to negate each other. Even the Greek painted sculpture doesn’t quite work. It becomes something else, decorative.
Larry: You like having texture be independent of the actual mark.
Jane: I like the texture of brushstrokes to evidence the process. I find that my marks are primal and articulate. When I’m making a drawing or watercolor trying to comprehend the whole thing, they tend to be large arm movements. I do the same thing when I make the under-structure on the board, so I will find that somehow they work right in. There’s bound to be some analogous rhythm in it, a rhythm that works and guides my gestalt. Under, over, it works. It was just by chance that I found it.
I’m just extremely grateful to have it, because until then I couldn’t feel any substance in my paintings.
Larry: How much time do you spend looking at the subject before you make the mark. What would the ratio of looking to mark making be?
Jane: It depends on where I am. There’s always a moment of silence before I start, where I ground myself and think, decide what’s important. When I’m on residency or in the Mojave desert I would see something very beautiful and it comes on you like a storm. It presents itself. That’s what you’re trying to paint, that initial presence. It’s better to sit and contemplate it a little so you can fully feel it. Nothing else, if you lose sight of that one vision–and it does change, probably immediately. If you don’t get it then you won’t have anything. You can’t get the character of a person unless you get it right away. Time passing just doesn’t allow it.
Larry: So are most of your sittings in a couple, two or three sittings, or one sitting, or does it vary?
Jane: For one quick sitting it will go three or four hours. in the intense Anza Borrego desert heat it has to be that, and I wish it didn’t. Paintings near the studio let me go back and forth 3 or 4 times. In Yosemite National park I have painted several particular motifs over and over thru many years. Joshua Tree is now a drive through park, it’s harder and harder to paint in it.
Larry: Death Valley seems to be just absolutely incredible.
Jane: It’s very incredible, and you think this is hot. Well, Death Valley is really hot, the light is blinding, and its beautiful. It’s hard to remain there very long. I think I was there 10 days and that’s all I could take. I was camping out.
Death Valley is flat in the middle and any standing water is brackish and filled with the salt of distilled heavy minerals, it’s deadly. It’s an amazing place. Even in back country off-road camping there wasn’t any shade, just harsh unforgiving pounding light but there were big rocks and dazzling earth colors.
Jane: Paintings teach you about how to see. Cezanne now there’s one, I still keep looking at him. When I first looked at a reproduction of his watercolor landscape Bend in the Road as a student, I couldn’t figure it out. About six months later, still looking at it–upside down, sideways, with rapid glances backwards. Suddenly one day I looked and it started to fold out like a staircase. Things came out, they just stepped out off the page.
Larry: You seem to paint the similar places over and over again, reminds me a little of Cezanne and his Mont Sainte-Victoire series of paintings…
Jane: Yeah. It’s a landscape legacy. To me, Cezanne made landscape painting into real golem painting. Before that landscapes were usually the background of things. I studied the 17th century Dutch landscape painters for a while along with Cezanne. Dutch paintings are wonderfully dramatic in the light and shadows, the use of the horizon, you feeling apart of the landscape and even the paint.
You can see a mountain so many kinds of ways. The Chinese know it too, the mountain continues to elude you. The author of “Arctic Dreams” writer Barry Lopez says, “Nature eludes you, it changes its mood so quickly you will never be able to define it.” He says you can go out and pick up a leaf or remember the scent of a bush, or see some scat, he says you try to put all these pieces together of the land that you love and hope to define it. He said, “The land will always elude you.” And it does.
Painting is a slow way of seeing. Understanding what you’re seeing.
Larry: But you lived in New York for years, right? So how did you deal with living so far away from your subject?
Jane: Not easily. Louis and I would go out to paint in the Delaware Water Gap in summers. In the winter I would take a month or two off and come to Dorland Mountain Art Colony here in Southern Ca.and do my favorite, western painting.
I would leave him to come out here. Actually when we first got married I had a six month stay at Dorland and I left right after we got married. He had to come out and get me. It was one of the two times he came West..
Larry: He didn’t like it out here?
Jane: No. There’s no trees. His paintings show how he loved trees. He thought the West was awful. We drove days to get to Bryce Canyon, he said with great anger ” I can’t paint here–there is nothing to paint, it’s chaos” and we packed up and left. And he looked at the Grand Canyon and he said, “This is like Hell! I can’t imagine walking down there, it’s frightful.” He hated it. He did some nice work in Zion National Park and Yosemite. We had a good time, but we never came back. He would say in Yosemite how much he liked it and his paintings showed this and he did make some lovely pastels. Then he’d get back and he’d bad mouth the west. It was funny.
Larry; A true New Yorker.
Jane: He grew up there, he called himself a “child of the Met”.
Larry: What did you think of the Bay area figurative painters?
Jane: I thought they were very painterly. I love Diebenkorn, Park, Bischoff. I particularly love early Diebenkorn’s landscapes and Oakland museum has a dynamite collection of many early Bay Area landscape painters.
Larry: They do. I saw that a little while ago. They have a great collection, David Park, Joan Brown.
Jane: Have you ever heard of Hassel Smith ?
Larry: No, I’m not familiar.
Jane: He was a landscape painter. He make these graphic, abstract landscapes around Diebenkorn’s time or a little before. There was a Bay Area group of landscape painters then. They were experimental; they tried to do the abstracted landscapes with an eye toward still life composition.
Larry: Didn’t most of them paint urban scenes or figurative? I don’t remember seeing that many pure landscape like what you’re doing.
Jane: Whats “pure”?. Concern with keeping the landscape topography and character of primary concern? …early Diebenkorn painted experimental landscape..
Larry: Early Diebenkorn was?
Jane: Still landscape. Beautiful, magnificent paintings. they were the Berkeley hills and landscape concerns later continued thru his big light filled last paintings…the Ocean Park Series.
Larry: Oh right, the Berkeley Hills.
Larry: He was painting from observation then or was he studio??
Jane: He painted from observation then, thru the windows and remembering. He was working from his abstract thoughts too.
Jane: He looked a lot at Early Rothko I think. And then Hans Hoffman, I think he was influenced, they had a big Hoffman collection in Berkeley.
Larry: Would you say that Hans Hoffman is someone that was an influence on you?
Jane: I did look at his paintings. As a teacher, he was too strong. Louis never studied with him because he felt he would be too influenced by Hoffman, but some people did like Mercedes Matter did, I think.
Larry: Did you? Did you study with Hoffman?
Jane: No, I’m not that old.
Larry: You’re not that old. I get the timeline mixed up. I knew you were in graduate school at Yale in the early 60’s, so he wasn’t teaching then?
Jane: Louis was teaching, I was his student.
Larry: Hoffman wasn’t teaching then?
Jane: No, Hoffman was not teaching at Yale then. I think he was in Provincetown. He might have been out there teaching. Mercedes grew up knowing Hoffman thru her father, Arthur Carles
Larry: Now I read that one of Louis’ teachers was Edwin Dickinson, is that right?
Jane: Louis put a book together for him at Yale. He proofed the plates. He made sure the color was right for him on it.
Larry: They have such different approaches.
Jane: Yeah. Well Louis liked different; he liked particularly artists who were good and were successful. Success influenced him, And yes, he really liked Edwin Dickinson. He liked Wolf Kahn too. Because he was successful. He admired success, that get up and go. Who else did he like? Oh a lot of painters. Always the masters, he could tell you anybody’s painting and he’d know where each painting was in what museum. In just about what room.
Larry: He was also really pushing painting from observation when that was a really radical thing to be doing back then. I mean very few people were thinking about that in a modernist way. Back then.
Jane: Yeah, well it was the abstract expressionist time and he continued to paint representational. He did dabble a little, I saw some good early abstract paintings and sculptures of his.. but he always returned to paint from life. He believed in it.
Larry: Back then, it was probably unheard of to have a teacher talking about painting from life, like what Louis Finkelstein was doing. It just seemed so out of step with what other people were doing back then.
Jane: Yeah, a certain period that was true. A period in this country.
Larry: Why is painting is having such a hard time holding on in the art world these days?
Jane: First of all, What art world? You must be referring to the Art Market of commerce and fashion. Painting is a slow way of looking, it’s thoughtful. When was that of value? Everyone is in a hurry, they don’t want to think. Career artists don’t want to develop a vision, they want a style. Especially the young painters in graduate school. They don’t even know what a vision is. They think they are born with this talent that makes them great or makes them hot. This is not a vision, more often it’s fashion. You have to know and love the tradition of the language of painting and want to keep that tradition alive with your own vision. Like the medieval monks keeping the art of writing and reading alive during the dark ages. Most likely, you have to work years for a painting vision ; you’ll get more cranky and more vision as you get older. It distills.
Larry: I’ve heard a few people say that it used to be that the painters getting out of art school would basically go into seclusion and not show for many years, just paint. Maybe show a few friends but they wouldn’t really show or promote their work until they the work felt solid and right. Often now students want to show as soon as they get out of school, or even while they’re in school. Wanting instant gratification.
Jane: I thought, you know after 50 years of painting, it will get easier. It doesn’t. For me, painting doesn’t seem to get more facile. Maybe for some people it does. Louie’s got better towards the end. I think you get better if you just keep working at it. You just have to work work work, and then you have to let loose, just like life. When you’re talking about getting into the zone, you’re letting loose of the control.
Larry: It is paradoxical that sometimes in order to really lose control and get into that zone of being unselfconscious; you have to increase the control of your looking, to heighten your attentiveness.
Jane: Absolutely! It’s tricky business. Hopefully when you’re painting, you’re not thinking these things, you’re just going after what you see, which is good reason to paint perceptually-to stop the chatter.
Larry: We were talking earlier on the way here about the idea of plasticity in painting.
Jane: Oh yeah, bad word, but it’s such a good idea.
Larry: What is the definition for you?
Jane: Louis’ definition of it was that “Plasticity is the expression of volume–not simply a description of three-dimensionality, but volume as the primary standard of thematic coherence and meaning. When he spoke of Wagner’s music as “sounding forms in space” critic Eduard Hanslick was talking about something similar… Volume or “voluminosity”–the character of having volume–is to me the most global and rigorous standard by which the integration of a picture might be measured. It is also the most expressive property of a picture. It carries with it a sense of our own bodies, along with other bodies, in the physical world. It is the basis of all imagination.”
My definition is when every part and element works with and is conscious of each other in the whole painting and there is some sort of consequence and movement to this, so a painting is vital and alive.
Illusion is not experiential and when you are painting illusion, you are usually painting a conventional idea. You’re painting only an idea of what you’re seeing. It’s prosaic. You’re being literal about something. You’re not being poetic with many levels of interpretation of meaning.
Larry: I’m not sure I follow.
Jane: Well it is if you are locked into the idea of foreground, middleground, and background.
Larry: Oh I see.
Jane: With an idea that that is indeed possible. It’s not what your eyes are seeing. It might be your experience when you walk, but that’s an idea that the Renaissance gave you.
Larry: Right, right.
Jane: It’s a nice way of ordering the teeming landscape.
Larry: It’s a construction to make a painting. It’s one way to do it
Larry: That doesn’t necessarily mean, using some sort of system of perspective, like one point perspective or whatever. It could just mean, you could do it in a very general way, like Corot, a landscape that he would do, would have very clear definitions of space and boundary.
Jane: Yeah but wasn’t he trying to paint what he saw?
Larry: Yeah. He wasn’t following a system particularly, but he did have foreground, middleground, and background.
Jane: it’s a good clarifying and ordering principle, I could certainly use more of it.
Larry: What I meant more was, like your paintings, I think there is a plasticity, but it’s seeing the painting as a whole unit. It’s more of its abstract qualities that it has this sort of …
Jane: You have to see the whole thing.
Larry: It’s different than illusionistic space. It’s a different …
Jane: You’re participating on, like you say, a flat level at the same you’re participating in depth, and when Hoffman said … When they talked about the picture plane flattening depth into the picture plane, bringing all the depth into that action.. When you squash your depth that has been experienced into the picture plane, you’re bringing a large energy into that squash, because there’s all that room that you’re squashing. It has a force that a flat painted plane won’t ever have, and probably a plasticity that it won’t have either. When I think from looking at Mondrian’s trees and then into what he went into eventually, he kept that. Remember his trees?
Jane: How much space in between each branch? How much volume and tension there was? I think if you don’t bring it to the surface somehow in your own history in time, it’s not going to be there. You don’t just start painting flat. I think that’s why Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns are who they are. I think they’re just glorified commercial artists, and I’ve always believed that. I think they’re very good, I think they’re very tasty. There’s a lot of physicality and stuff that humans like. It’s delicious, but I don’t think that they have that compression, I don’t think they have that tension in their work. I never have thought that. I think no matter how fast you move your arm, you’re still not going to necessarily get it. I think that’s where the splits started. We highly value perceptual painting, I think they didn’t work from perception. They took objects from the world around them and plastered that onto the painting, but that’s not perceptual painting, nor do they have volume.That’s not running it through your mind as something, your experience, above all, and your feelings, judgments and your calls, those are hard. Those painters don’t risk. No risk. The outcome of the painting was already cooked; it was a done deal.
Jane: Plasticity!! That word again.If it had been any other word, it might have taken off . People have said that over and over. He just chose the wrong word. One night we all sat together and tried to think of a word and we couldn’t think of one. I think we were all having dinner at Irving Kriesberg’s and were talking about it.
Larry: Do you think they’re talking about plasticity in the art schools today? I wonder if it is even on the radar of most people?
Jane: Not at all. People have no idea that kind of coherence in paint even exists. It’s too bad. It’s such a loss. It really is exciting. I find it all very exciting but god knows they don’t have a clue. If you can’t read the visual language of painting you can’t feel it. I think of perceptual painting as a way to keep the language of painting alive, like the monks scribing during the middle ages keeping books alive.
How a painters eyes see..They used to teach like that a long time ago. I think Irving Kreisburg wrote a book like that ( http://www.amazon.com/Irving-Kriesberg/e/B001HP6BQE) and other people have too.
Jane: Do you know Irving Kreisburg? http://irvingkriesberg.com/index.html
Jane: He’s such an expressive , humorous, generous painter. You don’t know him? He died about 10 years ago. Good painter, he did nice big rich colorful physical paintings of animals and white owls .. but they were symbols of animals, they were patterned but plastic. They were very expressionist, abstract expressionist. I adored his painting. I’ve got a pastel of his somewhere. He was just the best guy. He was an old Jewish hippie who married a Palestinian and he brought that mentality. He was this encompassing man. It wasn’t that he adored animals, he came from the freedom and cartoon orientated painting of the Chicago school. He’s a really good painter, but you don’t hear about it. Just like George McNeil.(http://www.amy-nyc.com/artists/george-mcneil
Larry: I was at an art event recently where someone was lecturing on the importance of painting as a vehicle for social change. However, to me it sounds more like wishful thinking, I just don’t see many political views being changed by paintings. I suspect most people who attend art shows are already predisposed to thinking more about social change. Political-themed paintings are more likely to just be preaching to the art choirs. However, on an aesthetic level maybe you get people to appreciate a new way of looking at our world. Maybe some people will be moved by a painting enough to slow down more to appreciate an new, previously unknown aspect of beauty. Maybe it gives new incentives for making the world worth saving…
Jane: It’s more often the other way around that the artist is the mirror, the vibration of the society around him. The political artists and their viewers are not changing, they’re simply presenting and acknowledging, “Here it is, this what’s going on,” whether you like it or not. Changing, no, maybe one person. I have made a lot of political art for demonstrations and it is just cathartic in the end. I know of a couple of people who changed because of my landscape work, but they also were able to change and learn more about painting. That had nothing to do with my work. They were open to it, with this direction instead of that direction, little bits. Little bits and little tweaks, that’s about it. It certainly does promote enjoyment of their senses and opens their senses and their questioning and things like that. It keeps their minds open, open enough to look in the first place. IF they possess the mind to do that, if they want to learn.
Larry: I worry that the knowledge about what makes great paintings great is gradually being lost. Schools aren’t really teaching it and few really promote it in a big way. Good painting is not selling as well as it used to be. More and more people seem to be unable to differentiate between good and bad painting. I know this is vague but I worry for the future of painting. Of course there are many terrific painters out there but it increasingly seems difficult for them to make a living doing this. Difficult to show work many times and even more difficult to sell. Even teaching to support yourself is very hard.
Jane: The planet is dying and the people are crazy. So how can anyone distinquish good painting? I know Louis used to say that there weren’t very many people that knew painting in the first place when he was alive. He also said, “If I went into painting to make a living, I would never have gone into painting.” It was not expected to make a living off painting. It was not part of it. It was a vocation. It was something you aspired to like meditation to make yourself better, to understand more of the world like a scientist. It wasn’t commercial art it was fine art. Galleries now expect you to bring a following of buyers to them as part of the deal.. so their connections and sales must be iffy. The large art fairs and online art sites are hurting them financially.
Larry: The booby prize for destitute painters is that you get to enjoy your life. Having a good life doing what you love.
Jane: Its an existential prize. ..Then we shouldn’t worry about it, should we? We should just go ahead and paint because that’s what we love to do. Furthermore, we don’t have a choice because that’s what we had to do. I don’t think I ever had a choice. After I was about four or five I stopped having a choice, I just had to draw. Probably you were too maybe without knowing it. That’s just the way it is. I just wish we could convince more people that it’s a good way to go, really a good way to live your life. I have taught art to isolated elderly and disabled adults and troubled children, and doing painting has turned many of their unhappy lives into joy.
Luckily, I’ve known a couple of collectors . Sadly their houses are overloaded with my stuff now. There are many collectors that can see well enough to buy your work but they’re very hard to find as your time and venues are limited. In my case, they tend to love the wild landscape and be contemplative people. But they are there. Sometimes they see your work somewhere and contact you. It isn’t over until it’s over.]]>
I studied with Philip Guston from 1974-76 in the MFA Program at Boston University. Looking at my work, he would not likely come to mind as an influence, but his teaching had a profound impact on my development as a painter. At that time, Guston was well known for his lyrical, Abstract Expressionist paintings of the 50’s and 60’s but had fallen out of favor with his gallery and the critics following his return to figuration. At the time, it would have been hard to predict the overwhelming acclaim and influence his late work has had on almost two generations of younger artists. In 2015 he still seems to be the artist of the moment and his popularity has spawned a multitude of painters who emulate his late work.
I sometimes wonder what Guston would think of the proliferation of contemporary painters making, cartoonish, messy images with thick, and sometimes, encrusted paint. Many of these paintings borrow the most apparent, stylistic aspects of his work to ironic and sometimes cynical ends, while seldom embodying the underlying pictorial structure and formal intelligence that make his paintings great. I haven’t seen the recent show “The Guston Effect” at Steven Zevitas Gallery in Boston in person (Link to online viewing ) but I viewed the work on line. While there are some fine paintings in the show, it seems to me to be an example of the current craze to capture the superficial look of Guston’s work while, for the most part, disregarding the substance. The title of the show says it all: to speak of the influence that one artist has on others as an “effect”, seems to me a fairly shallow way of considering the relationship.
As a student, my work never looked like Guston’s and it’s unlikely that it ever will. My own sensibility is quite different from his and I always felt that he was respectful of the difference. Although he seemed to enjoy the flattery of having some of the students emulate his work, he didn’t harbor any bias against other ways of painting. His love of Piero della Francesca and especially The Flagellation of Christ is well documented, although certainly his work bears no superficial resemblance to Piero. (In 1975, when Piero’s Flagellation was stolen from the Ducal Palace in Urbino, he told a group of us that a good friend had called him and said “Come on Phil, give it back”.) In addition to Piero, I remember that he expressed approval of the reproductions of my pantheon of heroes that hung on the studio wall—Vermeer, Balthus, and Gillian Pederson-Krag, my undergraduate teacher, among other more obvious choices, such as Ensor and Bonnard. (He disapproved of my reproduction of Georges de la Tour, saying that the use of back lighting in his work disrupted the plasticity of forms. By the same token, he also criticized Piero’s fresco of Constantine’s Dream because of the back, night lighting, saying that this was uncharacteristic of Piero.)
In response to the “Guston Effect”, I have decided to chronicle my memories of Guston as a teacher to reflect on the way in which he influenced a painter whose work does not resemble his own, and in doing so, hopefully reveal more of the substance of his work and teaching.
In 1974, upon completing my BFA at Cornell, I had a choice to make regarding graduate school. I visited Boston University after learning of my acceptance there and fortuitously saw a show of new paintings by University Professor Philip Guston, who was teaching in the MFA Program. I didn’t exactly like them—I didn’t know what to think of them—but they stayed with me. For weeks after returning to Ithaca, I found myself thinking about those giant heads, French fries and cigarettes, strange and, by common standards, ugly images described in thick, sensuous paint. They were haunting. I kept looking at the catalog from that show—it’s a great little catalog that I still look at 40 years later—and slowly the paintings grew on me. Their poignancy and sensuality began to feel beautiful. I decided to attend BU to study with Guston and respected Bay Area painter James Weeks, whom I had met the previous summer at Tanglewood.
The first semester was difficult. The studios were inadequately lit with poor ventilation. It was hard to spend extended periods of time painting in the grad facility without feeling sick. Guston came to Boston once a month, accompanied by his wife, Musa, to give crits and anticipation on the part of the students before his visits was high. He would come around to individual studios and a flock of students would follow him, listening reverently to his comments. Once a month we were all a nervous wreck before, during and after Guston’s visits.
Guston was, for the most part, either extremely complimentary—“Marvelous!” was his favorite adjective—or extremely negative in response to student work. I don’t recall much in between. He was charismatic and his enthusiasms were infectious; his criticism could be harsh. He was never didactic or formulaic and seemed to respond from the heart. I remember that one time, when he was in the studio of a classmate, he became very quiet, looking around, seeming to search for words to express his feelings. Finally, he stammered, “You know, the more I look at these paintings I just want to take some white paint and cover everything up.” The student was devastated. Jim Weeks was usually the one to pick up the pieces after Guston’s visits, as he met with us more frequently. Weeks was a steady and stabilizing influence that was more likely to offer concrete and specific suggestions regarding the craft of painting and our work. They seemed to get along well and respect each other in spite of the fact that they were entirely different. For me, they complemented each other perfectly.
On another occasion, I remember Guston asking permission to work on a student’s painting. It was moving to watch him work, swiftly and fluidly while he talked about what he was doing. He loved to talk and was extremely articulate.
Another time a student working from observation asked if he should include or omit the radiator in an interior he was painting. Guston was visibly irritated and snapped something to the effect of: “who cares about a radiator and whether you leave it in or out?” Blunt, but so true.
To one of the students in the program who had been rigidly trained to follow a linear process in developing his work, Guston said that painting things out is still painting, and just as important as adding to the painting. “You’re still painting when you get rid of things.” He encouraged us to take chances and to respond to the painting itself rather than a fixed, methodical plan.
The process he encouraged sometimes seemed totally at odds with the traditional methodology of the undergraduate painting program at BU of the 1970’s, where many of my classmates had studied. Sometimes it seemed strange that he had chosen to teach at that particular school, with its decidedly academic program. But he said that he wanted to teach at BU because it was one of the few places where they were actually teaching us some skills and techniques of painting and drawing. He decried the loss of traditional curricula at most other art programs, where the advent of Abstract Expressionism and Pop had eclipsed most traditional, representational training.
At the beginning of my first semester, I remember showing Guston a landscape of a sunset that I had painted in Ithaca the summer before. He said, “Look at that sunset! It’s like a Hallmark card but it’s good.” The implication was that it was corny but good because it was sincere and genuine. And about a painting of a pregnant model I had hired, he didn’t necessarily like the painting but he thought it was great that I wanted to paint a pregnant woman and did so. He encouraged authenticity and sincere emotion in our selection of subject matter and certainly not the kind of ironic statement that is so prevalent in the art world today.
Toward the end of the first semester, I showed him my painting Two Women Having a Conversation. I explained to him that the painting had been a failed assignment for Joseph Ablow’s graduate seminar to make a 36 x 40 inch painting of two figures in an interior. After the assignment was over and the painting harshly criticized, I had doggedly continued working on it. I cut off the bottom four inches to make it square and compulsively pushed it to its conclusion. He responded enthusiastically, saying, “You were possessed!”
At the end of the first semester, plagued by headaches from the paint fumes at school, I moved into a storefront on Walnut Street in Somerville that became a two–person, live-in studio, first with classmate John Felix and later with Susan Mastrangelo. Since we were working large and it was difficult to transport paintings back to campus, we would drive both Guston and Weeks, separately, out to Walnut Street for crits. Guston, sometimes accompanied by his wife, would visit us alone or with only a couple of other students who came to hear what he had to say. It was wonderful to spend time with him without the big crowd; even transport time alone with him in the car was exhilarating.
One time in the spring of 1975 when Guston and his wife, Musa, came to the studio, John and I served them coffee and donuts. We were sitting in the kitchen talking about the posters and reproductions of Italian Renaissance paintings that were hanging on the walls around us and he asked me where my name came from. I recounted the story of how my father grew up with the surname Cohen, an invention of Ellis Island, but as an adult had changed his name back to Canier, an approximation of what he knew his father’s name to have been in Ukraine, because it was hard to find a job in NY with a Jewish name. Guston never said a word about his own name—I only learned that we had this in common years later when I read his daughter’s book, Night Studio. Guston was particularly loquacious that day and when he and Musa left the studio, he addressed me warmly and kissed me goodbye. At the time I didn’t understand this uncharacteristic show of affection but in retrospect I realize it was because of the story about my name. It was as if we were family. He was genuinely warm and not at all flirtatious—after all, his wife was there. Because of this and other kind gestures, I have always thought of him as a father figure. His bursts of anger and fiery temperament were not unlike my own father’s temper and I felt great affection for him.
Musa almost never said anything during the studio visits but she would look at the paintings with him. One time, when I made a self-deprecating remark about one of my paintings he said, “You have to have more confidence in yourself, you’re like her (pointing to Musa). She writes marvelous poems but she has no self confidence.” Another time he showed a few of us some illustrated manuscripts he had made of some of Musa’s poems that hadn’t yet been published. They were delightful. He also showed a few of us the original manuscripts of the Richard Nixon drawings that he had brought to Boston to show to a publisher. It was thrilling to see them, hear him talk about them and later, to see them in print.
Another time, while looking at some of my early collages, that were thick with layers of highly textured oil paint, he said, “Do you mind if I touch these?—I like to touch paintings”, in that slightly breathless voice that I still remember well. He ran his fingers over the collages and considered them. I had been making strange, little mandala-like collages since undergraduate school and he was enthusiastic about them, perhaps more so than my more conventional oil paintings on canvas. (On the other hand, he told me to get rid of some mandala-like patchwork quilts I was working on in the studio. “Get rid of that stuff” was his comment about anything that smacked of the decorative.)
As I said, crits could be devastating, and I discovered this for myself at the beginning of my second year. The first crit of my second year was something of a disaster. I was experiencing a lot of personal problems and confusion about my work and my old solutions from undergraduate school were no longer working. There were so many things I wanted to paint, so many painters I was trying to learn from and emulate. I was trying to make the transition between painting perceptually and making figure compositions about personal subjects from my imagination. At the same time, I was making my little mandala collages out of postage stamps and other printed materials in an intensely personal and compulsive way. They were geometric patterns (not unlike the quilts that he told me to get rid of) but with little figures and heads peaking out of the geometry. I painted into them with oil paint and they had a rough, gritty texture that was satisfying. Those collages gradually evolved into the paintings that I make today, but at that time, there was no apparent connection to my oil paintings. I was hopelessly confused, trying to reconcile the different directions and felt miserable and scattered. I don’t remember any specifics of what Guston said to me that was so upsetting at that crit—he probably said that I was hopelessly confused and scattered—but I resolved not to show him my work again until I knew what I was doing.
For several months, every time he came to town, he would ask if I had anything to show him. I would say, “Not yet, I’m not ready.” He always accepted this answer respectfully. I buckled down, cleaned shop, threw away old habits and default subject matter, observed and imagined, and began to make big shapes of color on large sheets of paper without thinking too much about what I was doing. I set out to try to discover what was essential in my work. I wanted to find out what exactly were my internal form sense, my internal color sense, and my most personal vocabulary. I felt like I was on a quest to discover a visual language for myself. What came out was non-representational but architectural, a world of spatial cadences that suggested space and movement through it in a non-perspectival way. When Guston finally saw the paintings at the end of the semester he was very supportive. I think he sensed that I had come out the other end of a long, dark tunnel and although the paintings were still undeveloped (I later heard from another student that he had said this to someone), they had something, and I was on my way. Imagine my sense of satisfaction when I arrived at the opening of the MFA Thesis show to find my new paintings front and center in the exhibition.
As soon as I finished grad school I moved to New York and began painting figures again. With some distance from the difficult times I’d experienced in Boston, I realized that I still wanted to make paintings about people and the places they inhabit. Studying with Guston and Weeks had given me the wherewithal to try again to make representational paintings in the spirit of my heroes but at the same time, with my own, personal vocabulary.
Less than a year later, I was on my way to the American Academy in Rome, having won the Rome Prize Fellowship. Guston was one of my recommenders and I am forever grateful to him for his support. I saw him only once more after finishing grad school while visiting his show at the old McKee Gallery in the Barbizon Hotel, shortly before leaving for Rome. Musa had just had a stroke and although we talked briefly about my upcoming year in Rome, he was understandably very distracted. I learned of his death in June of 1980 while I was back at the American Academy in Rome as a Visiting Artist. My father had sent me his obituary in the mail.
Plasticity is the term that Guston always used to refer to the substance of painting and the tensions of pictorial space. His paintings are messy but they’re also masterfully taut in composition. Underneath the seemingly slapdash execution, his paintings are quite formal and reveal the high regard in which he held the masters. They’re humorous, but reverential rather than ironic. Few of the so-called Guston-influenced paintings that I’ve seen recently have the plasticity, cadence and gravity that connect his work to the great paintings of the past that he so admired.
As he said at the end of the film “Philip Guston: A Life Lived” made by the San Francisco Art Institute, Guston loved painting. Watching that clip from the film always brings a tear to my eye. He loved to paint and he loved to talk about painting. The way in which he spoke about art was highly emotional and personal but also deeply rooted in his understanding of the traditions of European painting. He had an uncanny ability to wed intense, emotional expression with highly formal, pictorial structure, which is what made him a great painter and an inspiring teacher.
Artwork and more information at Caren Canier’s website. An interview with Caren Canier for Painting Perceptions will be completed in the near future.]]>
I had the pleasure to interview, Andrew Wykes a British painter who currently professor of painting in Minnesota at the Hamline University in St. Paul. He has been painting at the The Ballinglen Art Foundation in Mayo, Ireland for three summers and is teaching a workshop there this summer (see this link for more info) Wykes studied at Richmond upon Thames College, Epsom School of Art and Design and an MFA in painting from American University. He has taught art for thirty two years in schools and colleges in the UK, Belgium and the US. Andrew has shown his work nationally and internationally including London and in New York. He is a recipient of three Minnesota State Arts Board Initiative Awards in 2009, 2013 and 2015. He was awarded a fellowship at the Ballinglen Arts Foundation in Mayo, Ireland, and is featured in the document film “Painting the Place Between”. He is represented by the Groveland Gallery in Minneapolis, MN and The Water Street Gallery.
Larry Groff: What were your early years like as a student and as a painter? How did you become a landscape painter?
Andrew Wykes: I have always painted, since I was a boy. I thought everyone did that, only to find out at Art College I had done an enormous amount of work from my past and the other students had made very little.
Back in the 1970’s in the London and the South East of England where I grew up, it was a different world in term of attitudes and outlooks. The landscape was less spoilt and over developed, much has changed since then and not all for the good.
I took a foundation course at Richmond upon Thames College in London in 1978, it was in the days before austerity took a grip. It was a year of exposure to many different art practices, fine art, painting, drawing, figure-drawing, illustration, graphic design, learning how to draw letters and proper spacing. Also learned about book-binding, photography, and an array of printmaking techniques. This was before computers. It was mainly aimed at commercial arts but if one were to be a graphic designer you would have had a really strong foundation to work off. It was rich experience for me.
I still wanted to paint and make fine art, so I then took a three-year Diploma course at Epsom school of Art and design – Just out of London. By then Maggie Thatcher was in power and steep cuts had robbed the art colleges of resources and many were closed. We felt it, as worked in cold studios with little direction. I was lucky to have the other keen students to work with and our teachers were hanging in the London Galleries – so to speak.
LG: Who have been some important influences for you and why?
AW: At the age of fifteen, I was struck by the Constable paintings in the National Gallery collection in London; shadowy, dramatic with an inherent poetic quality. I felt more was going on than mere depiction. The drive behind was on one level a personal experience of place and yet the work holds a pantheistic view of the world. I treasured the dusky tonal colors of horizons and trees; subdued chrome greens and gray pallid Prussian blues. These had a direct and recognizable characteristic that I too saw and enjoyed in the landscape. In reproductions of Constable this does not come over. Also, what impressed me, and still does, is Constable’s determination to get it right. While employing a controlled, well ordered direct means of working, the goal to make a parallel of what he sees in real time and space, actual on a flat surface and to give immutability.
There also so many other painters I look at but in fact it is formal aspects of music that is more influential now. In my studio at Epsom I remember frequently listening to such contemporary music as Brian Eno’s “Ambient Four, O Land” along with other obscure orchestral works. But before that I was always drawn to the landscape around me. It was and still is my solace.
LG: What are your most important considerations in looking for a view to paint?
AW: I don’t really look for a view to paint. I used to. But I feel there is too much to look at. If I was pinned down, I would say it is to do with nerves and personal preferences that come out of a whole internal catalog of memoires, geographical and autobiographical and desires to acquire the experience of the seen. I find looking and returning to the same subject over numerous sessions rewarding. I tend to go deep into a subject—not wide.
LG: How much does observation inform your work?
AW: Observation is vital. I have always got great enjoyment from seeing. I feel privileged that I have this gift to see. I also think it is to do with retaining the child’s eye of the world before label’s for object’s disguise the subject.
To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees. (Paul Valery)
Painting is all about seeing. It is learning to understand what one sees in formal terms of course. I am not concerned with depiction or likeness. I am battling with my preconceptions and how to make a spatial world work on a flat surface.
Painting is abstract. It about universal feelings. But on a less formal level, active looking has all the rich trappings of meditation or prayer or oneness, the joy and surprise during a rare moment of lucidity.
LG: What can you tell us about your process? Anything special about your painting technique? What paints do you put out on your palette? Anything note-worthy about how you approach to painting outside?
AW: The way I work outside changes. It is all to do with practicality. Ideally I would like to have a place where every is set, up and can stay there undisturbed for an unspecified amount of time while I come and go.
But there is an attraction to stripping everything down to the bare essentials. I grew up very near to Windsor Great Park in the UK. I would walk several miles to my location. Everything had to be carried. Small back, easel, food, tea and the appropriate clothes for the weather.
My palette is a mess, no organization. Often more paint on me than the palette! I am clumsily and naturally get paint everywhere—food too!
A lot of my painting now, is made in the studio from memory and photographs. Here I am able to work with very strict systems or processes. I give myself rules throughout a piece. For example a lot of the bigger pieces are made with many rolls of masking tape, my hands and paper towels. I work the paint into the canvas with my hands. No brushes (I never clean them and they go hard so they are useless to me) lids fall off the tubs of paint and get lost in the piled debris on the floor. I don’t have time to clean up and be tidy. That detracts form the urgency of painting. It is a bit of a performance I suppose. I can’t teach that stuff, we all find our managerial solutions, what works best for one does not for another. Although I would not recommend my approach!
LG: Many of your paintings seem to have a very active and assertive surface, with energetic marks that emphasizes the horizontal and vertical relationships and underlying grid. Can you tell us something about what you are thinking about with regard to the surface and marks?
AW: I have a strong sense of composition structure balance and space if what I see around me. I am irritated when see a building that is off-plumb. There is so much structure in Constable and of course Cezanne and also Frank Auerbach. But the structure and build up of lines also asserts the pressure or tensions between planes and spaces. The surface left on the canvas is the residue of a process of addition and subtraction of paint.
LG: I understand you teach at Hamline University in St Paul, MN. Do you teach landscape painting or is primarily studio based training? Is landscape painting something that is taught in the universities or it something people need to figure out more on their own?
AW: I have taught for over 30 years and I’m constantly figuring out ways to deconstruct the students assumptions and fears about painting. I teach Drawing and Painting from a variety of visual stimuli, both in and outside the studio. I also make work that is more conceptually based without visual stimuli to draw from.
On the whole students are overwhelmed by the idea of landscape it is too esoteric for most of them. Some are interested, they tend to be well grounded in others area of school as well, they seem to understand analogy and the different between loneliness and being alone—which painting is. Perhaps it takes an older soul to love landscape.
LG: What is the painting scene like in Minnesota? Do you miss being near the major art hubs like NYC or London?
AW: Minnesota has good support for artists in general. And what I have found is artist tend to connect with each other more so than back in the UK. Minneapolis is not what I would call a painting city. Some of the attitudes of what is hip verge towards rather dull installation art. I feel galleries and schools are showing and teaching from a fashion that’s gone. It’s either a derivative of 1990’s installation work or crass sentimentalist landscape. Good painting is dismissed for not having content. I have never been one for fashion. In London painting is painting without apology. Yes, I miss London, I had a privileged upbringing being exposed to so many free public collections; cutting edge shows and good art schools.
LG: You are leading a landscape painting workshop at the Ballinglen Art Foundation. August 4th – 12th 2015 in Ballycastle, Ireland this summer. Can you tell us something about how you go about teaching your workshop there? What is the attraction to Ballycastle for landscape painters?
AW: I was awarded a fellowship at The Ballinglen Art Foundation 7 years ago and this is my third time going back. The landscape in that part of Mayo is quite extraordinary. It is like going back into the past there are moments when I feel I am back in the 1960s, some of the cars and road signs… I suppose it’s the unpretentious, undeveloped land. Stone walls and fields that have been that way for centuries. For a painter you are accepted and uninterrupted. The weather is so changeable from one hour to the next, for me it heightens the sense of drama and urgency to get something down.
It is challenges the way one works and that is a good thing.
LG: What matters to you most in painting?
AW: How can paint address the sensation of being in a space so as to rival the experience of the place itself? This is a question of timelessness that continues to haunt me.
The experience of painting a landscape “on site” can bring me feelings of refuge or unease as well as melancholy or hope—feelings that hold me in the present moment. I am aware that the landscape itself in unresponsive—the love I feel for it will not change it from its position of indifference.]]>
Celia Reisman currently has a solo show at the Paul Thiebaud Gallery in San Francisco up until June 13.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Celia Reisman back in 2011. A year or so ago Celia contacted me again to ask about what living in San Diego was like and any suggestions I might have to help with her moving out here. Since then we’ve become good friends. We both painted suburban neighborhood scenes and while we have very different styles, we shared many opinions about what makes for great painting. Regretfully, for me, Celia will be moving back to the east coast at the end of this summer but getting to know her over the past year and watching how she approaches painting has opened my mind to many new directions for my own work.
I’m increasingly drawn to painting that is less about technical virtuosity and more how paint not only connects visually but also emotionally to a place. Celia’s paintings visually summarize as opposed to geographically mapping a place. She paints her neighborhoods as if they were a still life arrangement. The proportional relationships between things always seem to be in a state of flux, the foliage and houses move closer together or further apart, elements are removed or added. She is arranging the shapes that make up the color feeling, personality and mood of the scene. To me, this can make a more memorable view and a clear sense of that particular place, far more interesting than just getting the exact street address. Celia isn’t “nailing” the color, or seeking pitch-perfect observed color notes—instead she prefers to distill the scene through her ideas about big shapes of colors which starts talking to each other in the paint, an open, animated conversation that is constantly changing to best suit her vision for the paint. There is no confusion about who made these paintings, they are uniquely hers.
Larry Groff: What was it like for you moving here to San Diego from Philadelphia? How did this move influence your painting?
Celia Reisman: I’ve lived in Philadelphia for over 30 years. My husband, who was ready to retire, was offered a job with a non-profit organization in San Diego. My willingness to move across the country was based in part because our daughter was living in Los Angeles and I would be closer to her.
I also felt that here was another adventure; an opportunity to experience a new place, with new locations and I was willing to leave a secure environment for the unknown. I was excited about the prospects.
Shortly after settling in I became seriously ill. During my recovery I started to feel a real urgency—take advantage of the opportunity of being in a new location and just respond to my environment—I told myself. My hesitations about what to paint, and how to paint it flew out the window. When I had the energy to explore, I accepted my immediate responses to a visual encounter out in the world. A green house with a strange trumpet-like plant was not to be believed so I started drawing.
I used my time judiciously—while in the studio, to focus on developing a clearer approach, thinking out new ways to start and organize a painting and in ways to limit my color choices. I’m a planner, going step by step—not so much of a spontaneous fluid painter but a more deliberate one—so setting up my own guidelines was helpful with the limited time and energy I had while recovering.
I knew that moving from the east coast to the west coast would open up a whole new visual experience. Before moving here, when I visited my daughter in Los Angeles, I started looking at California neighborhoods, make drawings from the car (my roaming studio) and began this new series even before we moved west. Once I moved to San Diego I found the exotic foliage, the piled-up and closely placed together architecture, and the quality of light all presented major and exciting differences from the east.
LG: Did this differences cause your work to change that significantly?
CR: My choice of subject matter didn’t change – it always seems to stem from my immediate surroundings and nearby neighborhoods. Wherever I land, be it Philadelphia, Vermont, foreign countries or California I stay close to home. I really love to look around and find domestic places that have a quirky quality because of some ornament, color or foliage. It’s ultimately the combination of all the elements that make a scene resonant visually. They really are pretty ordinary, nothing exceptional or interesting about the place I select and yet I find them captivating. Almost like an outdoor still life.
LG: The light and colors of Southern California seem ideal for your explorations with color. When I first arrived here in the spring of 2007 and looked out the window as the plane was landing and thought, ‘this is crazy—the trees are blue!’ Jacaranda trees with their lavender-blue flowers and similar exotic plantings might seem exaggerated or surreal to east coast viewers but they are actually common and what you can see all year round. Could you say something about how the different color experiences of the west coast has influenced your painting? Or is it more just a continuation of what you’ve been doing all along?
CR: I’ve always been attracted to color in the landscape looking for some distinguishing color, like a red bush or a yellow umbrella. Out here it’s been easier to find those experiences with pink houses, purple trees, bougainvillea, a constant array of color that seems to change every few weeks. So in addition to the Dr. Seuss like plants out here, the surrounding color also creates a somewhat surreal and visually exotic experience. It’s a constant bombardment of visual inspiration which I try to capture.
San Diego has influenced me to push my palette to brighter greens, reds, oranges etc., colors that are not so abundant back east, finding an excuse to use them. I’ve tried to run with it, exaggerate and use a stronger palette. I’ve also tried to create a color world for each painting so it gives off a sensation or glow of a certain temperature or feeling. In some of the paintings I would limit the palette. For example in Birdcage I used basically a complimentary palette; chrome green, vermillion, winsor green, naples yellow and white. Rather than sticking to subtle grays that one can get with this combination, I use more heightened color. In the past I would make a tree trunk purple, that would feel right. So that tendency still exists to push the color to its extreme and it’s easier to do out here. I think of the Fauves and how they would use color to create space. I still rely somewhat on naturalistic relationships, grass is green etc but then I take liberties the same way I do with drawings.
LG: How has it been to live so far away from all your east coast painter friends and the great museums and galleries?
CR: In many ways I was looking forward to moving away from the Philadelphia and New York art centers. I wanted some distance and a quieter studio experience without so many external influences. In San Diego there is much less connection with other artists and not as much stimulation with regard to seeing exhibitions or having discussions about shows and art in general. However, after living here for awhile, I found that I missed that part of my life and wanted to access it even if I choose to not participate.
But as I near the end of my stay here, the distance for this time period brought me has been beneficial. Many painters make a choice to leave art communities and make their work in more private settings. Maybe it’s my age but I feel that it’s more important to make work that is personal and that resonates internally than worrying about how others will respond. Removing myself for a while to have an inner dialogue rather than an external one helped me to move my work forward.
I don’t always trust my choices but more and more I am trying to let instinct and experience guide me. I can be easily influenced by a comment or an exhibition and bring those voices into the studio. It can distract me and make me feel that I’m on the wrong track. So the distance from the exterior art world that I’ve gotten here in San Diego has been good because it’s really been only me and my vision.
It’s not as if I would have so many studio visits back east but more that I would bring outside influences into my studio. Everyone’s a critic, commenting on the quality, execution, range, ability of each artist—even though we are a small community of artists. I was tired of hearing the comments and just wanted to stop those external influences. What I need is a balance between a quiet, internal process and stimulation from the outside. Out here I had lots of quiet. When I return east I plan to find the right combination of quiet and stimulation.
LG: You don’t seem as interested in painting naturalistic light and space and instead engage with highly personalized goals for your painting. I can imagine some more traditional painters objecting, saying your colors are too saturated or the space is too flat. How would you respond to that?
CR: With regard to using naturalistic light and space I would say that that approach obviously doesn’t interest me. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. It’s a totally different experience and way of looking and way of making a picture. My concerns and reasons for making a decision is not towards a conventional, classical space but a more abstract construction of space relying on scale, overlap, repetition, etc. rather than atmospheric perspective or gradation of form.
I admire traditional painters but we all don’t paint and see in the same way. Sometimes painters who working more traditionally don’t understand what I’m doing, or don’t try to figure out my thinking process. But I think it’s exciting to see how many different ways one can make an image while looking at the same scene. How we interject our ideas onto a flat surface can be personalized and based on a different set of criteria. Following a guideline means you’re only looking through one kind of conceptual framework. To tinker, experiment, play off of those guidelines can be jolting and different in a way that is not always appreciated. I accept that.
In my work, so much runs contrary to the “right” way to make a landscape painting. I blame it on my undergraduate training where we painted freely, making abstract work. Over the years I have learned how to construct a landscape in a more traditional way, but truly my brain doesn’t work that way. Even if I begin a work more traditionally, I lose interest. I have developed a way to work from observation that feels right for me and it is the way I can find order out of the chaos of a complicated scene that’s in front of me.
LG: What are some ways where your work veers off from the more traditional ways of making a landscape?
CR: I always start from observation, making a drawing which can begin with the smallest detail. The next step is based on the first, with the drawing slowly building, composing as I go, selecting parts of the scene that fit into a composition. I am creating an order not based on foreground to background but distribution of visual elements. The composition builds based on the balance of darks to lights, straight edges to curved, bright color to dull. I may use shadows in one part of the drawing and exclude shadows elsewhere. The logic and construction of the picture develops like a collage, or like writing using stream of consciousness where one thing leads to the next. I move around, changing points of view, and scale to assemble the parts into a whole. The white of the paper sometimes reads as a positive, in other places a negative but visually creates a flowing shape that ties the smaller parts together. The overall balance and design comes from the selection process, including parts of landscape and excluding others.
The overall goal is to make paintings that are believable not because they follow an external construct. At times I wish I could make work that used the logic of alternating darks to lights in a recession of pictorial space but it doesn’t suit me. I lose interest. With this body of work I looked at Bonnard landscapes and realized that he created very large areas of dark and light so when starting the studio paintings I divided up areas into large darks and lights. Although the end result still has many complicated elements to it, I felt that the underlying organization was based on a simple structure, and that helped to uncover an order with overall value and color.
My personal decision to continue in this vein means that the work has its own idiosyncratic qualities. I need to honor and embrace them and even exaggerate the pictorial, emotional and psychological qualities of these paintings which are mine alone.
LG: Couldn’t you make these paintings completely from invention? Why do you still need to be tied to observation in some manner for your work?
CR: As far as working from observation, I always need to start a painting with something that comes from the world around me. I sometimes wondered what it would be like to be put in an empty room and asked to make art. I would be at a loss. I need to see something first to imagine and then go from there.
“Things are complex to me, and I have tried to order the images into a clear world that we all recognize, even with its contradictions. Sometimes the trees don’t obey the seasons and hills don’t sit in the right location, but I try to use nature to create a picture that feels right for me and reminds me of the place that was the original inspiration for the picture.”
In February 2015 I had the pleasure to sit down and talk at length with the painter Julian Kreimer while he was the artist in month long residence at the Lux Institute here in San Diego. He took time out from his busy painting schedule of making one painting each day, many works done from observation of the surrounding coastal chaparral and nearby structures as well as painting abstractions. I am very grateful for Julian’s generosity with his time in talking with me about his process and thoughts on painting.
Julian Kreimer is an assistant professor of painting and theory at SUNY Purchase College in New York and is a frequent contributor to Art in America. Kreimer had reviews of his show at the Lux in Hyperallergic, Art Critical, and Two Coats of Paint
His artwork has been exhibited in multiple shows around New York City, as well as in Charlottesville, Virginia, London, Washington, D.C., Providence, Santa Barbara, Boston, Philadelphia, and Newark.
You can read more about Julian Kreimer’s residency from the Lux Institute page at this link
Larry Groff: How did you get into painting from observation?
Julian Kreimer: There was a Lennart Anderson painting of a pie tin. Pie dish. That was at the old Knoedler Gallery before they went under. I remember seeing that. I drove down from Providence to see a few shows in New York in grad school and I remember just that one pie dish painting. I had been doing big, semi-abstract paintings that got me into grad school and then 9-11 was at the start of grad school and after a few months none of that made sense anymore. I slowly went back to observational painting. I think that Lennart Anderson pie dish really had something to do with it because it was so convincing as a declaration of what observational painting could be. It such a meaningful, such a powerful experience just to stand there looking at that painting.
LG: When you were in graduate school was observational painting encouraged, discouraged or neutral about it …
JK: It was interesting. It was a weird thing. I got in making this kind of work that came out of the 90s even though I started in 2001. My first day of grad school was September 11, 2001. That was literally the first meeting we had was right after the towers came down. The meeting became about that. I spent the first semester making those big, ironic Kippenberger-type paintings.
LG: I’m not familiar with Kippenberger …
JK: He [Martin Kippenberger] was from Germany, Cologne or something, he comes out the Sigmar Polke tradition. He was a very good draftsman and he would use that facility and make these paintings with slap-dash decorative backgrounds and then he would paint over them with some sort of photo-projected image. He was also a drunk and he died of liver failure in his 40s. I had first hated his work and, of course, as these things happen, became obsessed with it and I started working with that.
At the end of the my first semester, the night before the crit, I put up all these big door-sized paintings that I had made in my first semester and once I put them up I felt there was no air in the room. That was not a good thing. I think I hit that kind of wall. I started the crit by saying, “I put these works up, when I made them I believed in them. Now I realize they’re dead and I need your help to figure out what’s wrong and how I can move forward.” Basically they said, “You’re right, they are dead. They’re not alive and we don’t know how to … It’s for you to figure out how to move forward.”
So right on schedule, I had the typical grad school crisis and I watched My Dinner with Andre and then I re-watched it. I think I watched it three or four times. It made so much sense to me that you could make a film about something so mundane as a dinner, but it was also transformative.
That movie opened me up and allowed me to go back to observation. I had started doing observational stuff in high school and in college when I had the possibility of doing plein air I was doing almost entirely that and nobody told me that you couldn’t do that … It wasn’t an art school. I think if it had been a BFA program I might have had more resistance but when I got to grad school and I started … the thing was it had been awhile since I had done observational painting.
I started with these little pencil drawings that I would work on for a few days and I started looking at Rackstraw Downes and I think I saw Lennart Anderson’s show then. I think I went back to Antonio López Garcia with that movie, Dream of Light. A lot of it became about seeing and that sort of Cezanne triangulation of where things can be translated from 3D to 2D.
Those drawings took awhile and at the end of that first year, I started going out and painting again but in the overgrown, weed-filled backyard of my rental house in Providence. Actually it was funny because I kind of go back to the same motif every time. It’s basically a painting of my car seen through the weeds in the backyard. I had one of those four door hatchback Honda Civics, the ‘86, which I loved. It was a portrait of the car but also of the foreground given as much importance as the car. Not all the paintings, but I’ve been making versions of that painting ever since.
LG: The painting where you have the chain link fences and other dominant structures that somehow are blocking or obscuring your view in some manner? Where you have to look through or past it in some way.
JK: Well, we learn to ignore them. Or we look for the vista, the view.
They’re always there, we just learn to ignore them so the paintings are just giving kind of … I don’t know if it’s the right word, but a more accurate percentage of our view that’s actually taken up by those things we learn to ignore. A lot of them, it’s about this weird way of addressing this injustice of the foreground that we ignore what’s right around us.
This a very long winded way of getting back to your question which was how were those paintings received. When I made that first car painting with the overgrown backyard, that was sort of the breakthrough. It was a black and white painting because I was still learning how to paint this way and I thought I would work on that very methodical Lopez Garcia way so I just took the black and white because I thought wow, it’s going to take me months to be able to do this in color, so I’ll start with black and white, keep the variables limited.
That painting was like the first painting I made in years that was really alive. Everyone could see it. Everyone was excited about that one painting. I was very excited about that painting. That kind of opened it up and in a way that painting was sort of the first real painting that I made, that I’ve been kind of working off that first leap ever since, at least with the observational stuff.
LG: You’re one of the few people who paint both abstractly and representationally. I was looking at your work, and I noticed that there’s a lot of similarities in your approach. That they’re not that divergent. You’re really in a way almost doing the same things except in different subject matter. It’s not really that the process is so … I don’t see it so much as observational painting versus painting from memory or abstraction or total invention. It’s kind of the same thing or would you disagree? Talk to me how they differ for you.
JK: There’s definitely a border there and I don’t cross it yet. I might. I keep getting feedback from people who ask, “Oh, are they headed towards some kind of merging?” There seems to be a kind of enthusiasm towards them merging, and they get closer and then they come apart, but you’re absolutely right. Some of the things are really central to both. The negative space is probably the main link in both: if there’s a kind of formal structure that has heavy symbolic meaning, it’s the way that the foreground that we tend to ignore becomes present in the paintings.
It’s all about negatives. I would say two-thirds of my work is negative space to one-third positive. The figure-ground, not just reversals, but in both bodies of work, I really like when the figure and ground are sort of switching off. Sometimes I can think of an Alex Katz painting or Bonnard, where the figure really becomes almost like the background. I’m really interested in them … The painting’s always moving back and forth with that.
When I do these residencies, I really try to use them as a nice opportunity to paint observationally. I pretty much just do that, because it’s so much harder logistically to do observational painting in my regular life. It’s funny, because I’ve been painting so intensely here and now I feel really excited to go back to the studio. To not necessarily paint from the paintings I did here, but just with all the visual stimuli I had here, I’m super fired up to go back and just make some big abstract paintings that I have all ready in mind some starts for jumping off of this point.
The main difference for me is the abstract paintings I allow myself to paint over and over and change entirely. With observational paintings, I give myself this rule, not always and it’s not super strict, but 99% of the time, I start and finish them in the same day. They’re alla prima, one-shot paintings. Even the big one in the show was a one day, it was the biggest one day painting I’ve done since college.
LG: These are all oil paintings? Are some acrylic?
JK: No, it’s all oil.
LG: Some of them it seemed like you had painted like a ground like a bright really saturated green and you’re painting on top of it, but it didn’t seem like it was wet into wet, it seemed like it was more … What do you use? A dryer or something?
JK: No, no, I keep it super simple. I’ve figured out how to use those thin greens or the bright colors and sometimes I’ll do certain things like I’ll bring a squeegee and I’ll squeegee it off so it’s still there, but it doesn’t get sucked into the next layer. Early on in grad school, when I started painting observationally again, I developed a reliance on very soft brushes to be able to avoid pulling up the previous layer. I use hog bristle for the earlier layers, but as the painting progresses, I’ll go to softer and softer bristles, so I will literally go from hogs to horses to sables over the course of the day.
LG: You seem to use fairly large brushes.
JK: Yeah, I use a whole range. I mean the other thing about the residency that’s easier here than in New York is that I can bring more stuff out. I can come back and get more stuff so I can bring a couple boxes full of brushes of different sizes. I’m trying to increase … I used to use all the big brushes and the wide range of brushes in the studio, but then for outdoor painting have a more limited set of brushes, and I’ve tried really consciously in the last couple years to use the residencies as a kind of time to experiment, because in a residency you can treat the grounds as your studio in a way that you just can’t elsewhere.
If I leave my stuff out no one’s going to take it here. Not that I have, but I did that at Yaddo. I would leave the tables and the easels out and I could leave some stuff out and it would be there the next day and fine. That allowed me a kind of flexibility. Also, just a lot of it is silly practical stuff. If I’m at a residency, I can use huge brushes and then take an hour to wash my brushes at the end of the day, because I’m a little obsessive about washing them everyday and getting them super clean, for the next day’s work.
LG: Yeah, sure.
JK: The colors, you know, makes a huge difference in the color. I can do that.
LG: Yeah, it’s the little thing in Southern California, we’re all nervous about the drought and wasting water. I have this issue where I like to wash my brushes every day too, but it uses just an insane amount of water that it makes me think I’m wasting and where is all this toxic paint going? The whole thing that you don’t often want to think about as a painter, but …
JK: I don’t really use much water, because I have another method. I did this painting trip in China where I was backpacking and painting oils and staying in little guest houses through the west of China. Often there would be almost no water so I developed some tricks of how to wash brushes with very little water. It’s actually a very … I basically …
LG: Use a lot of solvents?
JK: Yeah, first get most of it out with rags and solvents, I reuse both forever, and then I’ll just pour a quart of warm water into a container and then a few tablespoons of Murphy’s Oil Soap or something. I can go through like a whole day’s of brushes unless I’m using huge brushes, but for a regular day of brushes I can go through … It will take me two quarts of water to wash the set.
LG: Wow, I’ll have to try that. I just do it running under the sink. I hadn’t really thought about it that methodically. Good to know.
JK: Yeah, I have a whole ritual. At home I use Gamsol because I have a studiomate and I don’t want to make it smelly for her. Here, to clean the brushes, I just use hardware-store paint thinner which works really well. It’s super strong and I can do it out in the back so the fumes aren’t so bad. It gets most of the paint off and then the Murphy’s is really just to get the final bits.
LG: Ever try … Lately actually I’ve been trying what someone recommend is just to put it all in a bunch of oil, vegetable oil. I usually use walnut oil.
JK: I tried that for awhile, yeah.
LG: It works for me.
JK: I usually make my paintings in one day, I’m so used to my little method.
LG: There’s no right way. It’s the way that you work with, and I’m not 100% happy with it, but I like it because I work more …
JK: Don’t your brushes get colors carrying over from the last use?
LG: They do. They do a little bit.
JK: That’s my big problem.
LG: It doesn’t bother me quite as much because I work through the grays in my color mixing, so I’m often always putting in a little over almost every color on the palette anyway I mix to adjust the saturation and hue. If I need a pure color I’ll use a new, clean brush. I think your colors tend to be more saturated.
JK: Yes, I use the oil like water color.
LG: Right, so it’s a different way of working. You would likely need to have very clean brushes with that.
JK: I need to start from fresh brushes. For me, a lot of the painting is just learning logistics … I guess the chefs call it mise-en-place, like having your certain sequence of colors on the palette, I know where stuff is, I know the brushes are going to be clean. If I need that hit of pure orange, I’ll just grab it. I always bring extra brushes, I’ll know there’ll be a clean brush, and I bring extra palettes so I can mix a really fresh cadmium orange or something, and sometimes it will just be like one dab on the wet on wet. I need to mix a bunch, a little bit more than I need, get it really loaded, and just pop it in and that will be a one-use brush that day.
LG: There you go. Having lots of brushes helps. It’s a drag to wash them at the end, but it’s nice having them when you need them.
JK: That’s what’s nice about the residency … I don’t have to rush to pick up my daughter. If I’m in the studio, let’s say I paint till … Sundown here as been around 4:30 or 5, so let’s say I’m painting till 5, I get back around 5:15 into the studio, I can wash brushes till 6 and clean the palettes off because that’s another part of it, and I don’t have to rush off anywhere. In New York, it’s often not the sun that’s determining the length of the painting it’s the brush cleaning plus the commute to where I’m painting plus getting changed and all that.
LG: Well, once you get further along in your career and you’ll have assistants to wash them for you.
JK: The funny thing is when I did the big painting, I thought there’s no way I’m going to be able to do this in one day myself and I really wanted to try to tackle it in one day. There’s a really nice guy who’s working at Rhino, the art supply story, a guy named Brian Weisz, if you give him a little shout out. He was great. I hired him and I thought I’m going to splurge. I’m going to get the assistant for one day, because I got this huge canvas and I really want to go all out. We went for it and had been working since early morning and at the end of the day he was clearly beat, and so I said I guess it’s not worth $15 to pay you to wash the brushes, so even though I had the assistant for the day, I still ended up washing the brushes myself and I thought, “No, I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to …” It’s going to have to be a whole other level. That would be really nice if somebody washed the brushes.
LG: I’m sure it’ll happen. To back track, when you were talking about the negative spaces in your painting and the similarities between the abstract and the observational, that was the one thing I was thinking about when I was looking at your work is that not only did the subject matter and especially in many of your earlier paintings that I saw on your website where you’re looking through the chain link fence or some other like parking lot structure or something, you’re sort of looking, it’s not just the subject, it’s also the paint. You’ll have like a flat area of a lighter color and then you’re sort of looking through these overlaid darker colors or shades and sort of looking through the various layers in the same what they you’re looking through the subject matter and I found that really interesting. Then obviously, in your abstract paintings a similar thing going on.
Now, it didn’t seem like you were using any kind of mask. I don’t know if you were masking off the shapes or it’s just the way that you painted. I know you say you use the squeegee.
JK: Yeah, a lot of the harder lines are squeegees.
LG: I just find that very intriguing and this dynamic very curious, and I wasn’t … I couldn’t really think of anyone that had done quite like that.
JK: There was a Lois Dodd painting. There are a few of hers where she was looking through … She’s been a huge influence.
LG: That’s interesting, I just had an interview with her a couple days ago.[link to the interview with Lois Dodd]
JK: You’re kidding.
LG: Had a long conversation.
JK: On the phone?
LG: On the phone, yeah.
JK: Oh, wow, yeah, she has a show opening next week.
LG: Yeah, I’m hoping to have it all finished for her show at the Alexandre.
JK: That’s great…She’s fantastic. I mean she’s such a good painter. She’s like a zen master.
LG: You wrote an article about her for Art in America.
JK: I had done a feature on her. It was more of like a celebration of Lois Dodd. I felt like here I was a younger painter. I mean I’m a better painter now then I was then, but I felt it was important for a younger generation to discover her. She’s turned out to be such a huge influence on younger painters in the last 10 years.
I can think of any number of people who go for her directness, her freshness, the sort of no nonsense… the lack of bullshit in her paintings, but not in an aggressive way and sort of how hard it is to be that simple. I think that’s something I see sought out in a lot of paintings today. Some obvious examples are Josephine Halvorson and obviously me. Different career levels, but there’s a lot of younger painters who are really looking at her.
There was a painting of hers, and I had actually been thinking about this for a long time, of where you see right through a house. I always liked that experience of walking by old clapboard houses. This is something that would happen in DC when I was growing up, where you walk by a house and there was that weird moment where it’s stucco or something and then clapboard and then you look and there’s that green that in DC is so intense and you see that backyard green zoom right through the dark inside of the house. Even before I knew Lois Dodd’s work, I actually tried to make a big Alex Katz rip-off painting when I was studying in London for a year of that experience, with the white foreground, the black window and that burst of bright green popping through that.
Then I discovered Lois’ work and I realized that was a motif she had done a lot of, these flat planes where each of them describes a different set of yardage and space. The issue of space became central. It’s central to my work, of things that are close and things that are far and pushing and pulling them back and forth … I could spin out all kinds of symbolic things about what do we think is important? Shifting the emphasis on things that we want to see versus things we chose not to see, but it’s a very simple, it’s almost in a way a very simple idea and yeah, I think that drives both the abstractions and the observational paintings.
But they’re separate bodies of work, because they have a different sent of rules. The abstractions don’t come from a specific compositional idea. Maybe the rule is that they come out of free play or often, they’ll start with the worst possible composition I can make just so I have something to play off of. The observational paintings almost always I have to find a motif I find intriguing to start.
LG: Do you make thumbnail studies or drawings or view finder?
JK: Yes. I’ll make these little thumbnails. These are for the tennis court paintings. This one was of the construction down the hill. Usually they’re pretty abstract. I mean they’re in a notation that I understand and what makes sense for me.
LG: These drawings are a more linear type of thumbnails.
JK: Yes, there’s a lot of negative space. I got one of these brush pens When I started I was using the thinner pen and that was fine, but then I got one of these brush pens and I started using that. Then I could do more of the value stuff with the negative space just like a little sketch or something.
I’ll do the thumbnails and then here I’ve had the luxury where I could do little oil sketches on boards, which I normally don’t get to do. In New York it’s so hard to find places to paint where the conditions are all right. I’ll spend a few days just going around on a bike or walking or driving or subway, whatever, and just scout out spots. This summer I spent probably three solid weeks scouting out spots, and found about two. It was terrible. It was really just swinging and missing. In New York if I find a good spot, I’m just going to go bring a good canvas the next time and go for it and hope for the best, because a month later that site will be destroyed or it’s going have some disaster. I’ve learned to move fast in New York. Here at Lux, I could take a day and do a small painting or a little sketch which is really ideal, because then it really helps figure out the color and the composition and I can sort of figure out the details.
Also, working from observation, a lot of it has to do with the site you’re working on. Not just what you’re looking at, but where you are, because you have to think about if you’re going to get baked by the sun? Are there thorny bushes that are going to get all over you? In the city you worry if you’re in the line of traffic? Are you in a place where people are going to really bother you? I don’t mind that a little bit, but it’s easy to get too much.
LG: Cityscapes can definitely become more problematic logistically.
JK: Well, the city, it’s almost … Some of the paintings I did here have the intensity of the city ones. The first three I did in the construction site have it, because I snuck in and I really didn’t know if it would be okay. I was really very nervous about getting busted and I’ve done paintings that are sort of borderline, are illegal before. In the city you’ve got to really … It’s partly you go, you do it as fast as you can and you get out, because the longer you take, the higher the chances that it’s all going to get messed up through something because the factors are so many.
It’s harder to make this work in the city, because I have to think about my lunch. I have to get that ready. I can’t step away from the painting to go get food and just getting there is a whole issue. If I bike an hour and I’m lugging this gear, it’s going to be exhausting.
LG: Is the light much of a factor for you? I mean do you limit to like a certain window of time where the light is the way you want?
JK: I favor afternoon light just because by the time you get out there, It’s nice that the light is ideal. If it’s good in the morning, I’ll figure out a way to do it. It might mean that I get everything set up … I don’t know. Sometimes I would start … I guess I really don’t start the night before. I read in Rackstraw Downes’ diaries that he leaves at five in the morning or whatever to get that morning thing, but with a kid and everything, it doesn’t really work out that way for me. I would say the only painting that I do in a morning light, I do at residencies, because the practical issues are so overwhelming.
I do a lot of the sketching and a lot of the scouting of spots in the morning. I very much am thinking about where’s the light going to be at 3 o’clock? That’s kind of the sweet spot where the painting’s composition is laid out, I can really push the tonal values back and forth and predict.
LG: The light and the structure of the motif that you’re looking at is really … I get the sense, correct me if I’m wrong, is perhaps more of a taking off point for you, it’s not really about a specific moment of light or a specific thing in the landscape. It’s really more about the painting or would you say that’s not true?
JK: No, that’s not true. I think it’s really that the motif has to click. I made paintings where the motif is so-so and they just end up so-so. I mean I’ve made so-so paintings out of good motifs too, but I really have to find a good motif to work from. Occasionally if I work from a bad motif, it will become a good motif, but almost never. I have to really see a motif with a sociological kind of history of it, who’s looking at this thing that is being painted, where is it? What are all the signifiers? With the paintings here, Southern California landscape, it’s such a known landscape from TV. Even before I’d been here, I knew this landscape in a very deeply superficial way of seeing it my whole lifetime. Three’s Company was in San Diego, right? I think so, somebody told me that.
LG: I never saw it.
JK: Somebody told me the Regal Beagle was in San Diego, but this landscape is so televised. It’s such a big part of the culture I grew up with in the 70s and 80s and 90s. Being here is kind of an amazing thing. It’s like I’m in the set of some movie or TV show that I know from deep memory.
All these concern the issue of cliché. With landscape for me, a big part of it is the issue of cliché and how do I negotiate working this very old-fashioned way.
LG: Speaking of cliché, many observational painters that I’ve talked to, in some way or another have felt that by close looking at nature helps you to sort of dissipate clichés. It’s like what you’re actually looking at it, if you’re really looking; it transcends any of this other stuff. It’s just like you’re finding more formal things out of that particular shape. It’s a very particular shape, a very particular sense of light, and when you really go for it, it frees you up from the obvious solutions. You’re making something that’s uniquely yours. Intense looking can help you tap into something unexpected. Do you find that? Do you think about that?
JK: Yeah, I do, I do. I feel like when I’m painting a lot and charged up and really on fire, like when I’m painting in residencies… I partly set up my making-a-painting-a-day project, because I know it just forces me to go out and paint super intensely and get into really good shape with painting and observing. I always feel like the better I get in a certain set period of time, the better painting shape I’m in, the more clichéd an image I can take on and make it authentic somehow, like what you’re describing. If I’m just kind of coming from drawing or I haven’t been painting observationally for awhile and I tackle something that’s a very known image, it just stays as a cliché. I suddenly noticed in the past 3 or 4 years where a lot of artists have been using the chain link fence which has become such a common motif … I actually did one of them here, but even something that had seemed not like a cliché becomes a cliché.
LG: It seems like everybody’s doing something a little different. I can imagine in a way how Lois Dodd being an influence with your chain link fences, perhaps how you could use the negative shapes inside the links to make up composition, similar to how she uses the window panes as a compositional device. But I don’t know how much you move around your head and everything would change.
JK: Yeah, it doesn’t work quite that way, but the…
LG: Rather than just making marks to represent the idea of a chain link fence, which is more of a cerebral process than a visual process if you get my meaning.
JK: I don’t, because actually it’s funny, I don’t work … I know what you mean in certain ways, but with the fences in particular and with a lot of these, I don’t so much think about sort of the puzzle pieces inside each little square. I really think about it in terms of like almost a printmaker with plates. I think about the space as plates so I really go through the planes, the spatial planes, of what I’m painting. I’ll literally paint from back to front a lot of times, not always, but a lot of times. The farthest thing is the sky. I’ll start with that and just work my way forward to the vine on the fence. The fence will be the penultimate thing and then vine is the last thing.
LG: Is that like a rule for you or is it just what interests you?
JK: It’s not even … I don’t know if it’s even what interests me. I think it’s just the kind of working method I’ve developed. So with a chain link fence, for me the game is that whatever is behind the chain link fence is going to get painted over with this chain link fence, but how do I do it in a way that I preserve that thing behind it and still give the feeling of the fence?
LG: If you got into a situation where …
JK: I don’t do the Lopez Garcia thing where I find where the fence intersects with this little…
LG: Yeah, no, I knew that. I was sort of throwing it out there to talk about.
JK: I’m curious about … I didn’t quite get what you mean about the cerebral vs. the visual difference.
LG: Well, one thing … It’s like you know sort of like here goes, I painted all this background, the various layers and space and here goes the fence. You’re not really looking at the fence, you’re drawing a conception of the fence.
LG: You know what I mean? It’s not this one is a little bent more this way than this other little notch, who cares really? It’s like it’s not about that.
JK: It took me a long time to be able to say that, “Who cares?”
LG: Well, anything really. I mean who cares that the branch goes this way or that way? It’s how you do it in the painting, but the fact that you would care is in itself very transformative I think. That no one would care, but the fact that you cared makes it special and it brings you out of yourself to make something different, but not everybody does that. If somebody could do that, it would still suck. It’s not guarantee of anything other than some people do it and they love it and then some others don’t. I don’t mean to imply one way is better than another rather I’m just pointing it the difference.
JK: It’s interesting, because with Lopez Garcia or Euan Uglow, they have such a big influence on a lot of observational painters, and it is that insistence in getting that right and almost like the lineage of Cezanne of these endless series of relationships, these infinite series of relationships and trying to get some sort of handle on that. I think I went through that for a while.
In my second of year grad school, after deciding that I wanted to work observationally, it became a question of how do I do it in color? That became my second year of grad school, was basically learning how to paint observationally in color. I spent three months on these two paintings that were painted every day within a certain hour-long period that the light was just right.
I worked for three months on these two paintings trying to nail everything down and I think once I hit that level of hard edge realism, something between Antonio Lopez and Rackstraw Downes. When I moved to New York I realized there was no way I was going to be able to work this way. I started trying to work that way on the street, and there was no way I was going to be able to go back to the same spot for over three months. Rackstraw manages to do it, and it’s amazing, but I wasn’t able to do it. I realized that I would have to figure out how to paint them in one shot and when I made that realization, it kind of closed off a whole set of doors and opened up a whole set of other doors.
I basically embraced the one day thing and it forced me to do a certain kind of … Have a certain kind of rigor in the painting, but also I became very ruthless. A lot of it is … If I’ve got an hour and a half to nail the light before the sun gets into afternoon mode, it’s really important that I have that gestalt feeling of how do you make the most impact with the least effort. I think of this as making a judo edit – which is what my wife, who is an editor, calls it.
LG: How has being an art writer affected your own work
JK: Yes, my writing has influenced my work a lot. I have the luxury that I generally get to write about stuff I am interested in writing about, so if I see a show … like I just wrote a Stanley Lewis review (for Art in America)
LG: I read that.
JK: … and he’s somebody whose work I’ve been interested in for years. An editor assigned that piece , and I was super-excited to get that assignment because it gave me an excuse to really mull over his work for a few days in a way that I just wouldn’t otherwise. I’d go see the show, and look at the paintings, but something about writing it makes me chew on the work in a different way.
The same afternoon, I went to see the John Walker show uptown, another end of the observational painting spectrum, but equally an observational painter and probably somebody closer to my lineage of observational painting. That one I pitched to them, because I was just so excited about the show and I thought, wow, this is really great work. I can’t really put my finger on why it’s so strong, but it’ll give me an excuse to figure it out in a few hundred words. If I can’t figure it out in the process of writing about it, then forget it. I’ll never figure it out. The writing has been really nice to be able to really …
LG: Have you met him? John Walker?
JK: Yeah, I met him and ended up having a studio visit. I’d visited his studio years earlier and was impressed. I’d known his work before and really loved it. I’d seen his show at the Phillips Collection, and just seen his shows over the years. The studio visit I did was a few years ago, when I was at BU for the day, and then seeing this new show, I sort of expected the work to be like what I saw in the studio but it blew me away that it was totally different. So being able to write is a nice opportunity to really chew on something, it’s a very digestive metaphor.
I like writing about people who make stuff that’s not like what I make. I’ve learned a ton from research for longer pieces, about Lynda Benglis, or the Chilean video artist, Juan Downey, who were so open in their practice. He would do video drawings, performance, architectural stuff. He came out of architecture school, and just had a very open practice, and that gave me a lot. Writing about him and researching his life and his career really opened me up in being able to make observational paintings and abstractions, and stop having anxiety about these two different bodies of work. Yeah, so a lot of them, it’s almost like a great chance to learn.
Occasionally I write about something I don’t like, and that’s also interesting, just to figure out what is it that’s missing here. I always think about it. The negative reviews … I always think about why doesn’t this quite click? It’s almost like a detective thing, finding what’s the missing ingredient for me, and obviously, I’m sure the artists don’t agree with me on that, but it’s like what’s not happening there for me?
LG: I often get the impression that the art world, especially in print magazines, doesn’t pay much attention to painting these days, especially observational painting. I’m sort of curious if you can throw some thoughts out there why that is, or perhaps you think that’s not true and perhaps unfair for me to say that. I’m not sure that you’d consider yourself an “insider” but I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this subject.
JK: I think the art world, there’s so much more stuff that’s made and discussed and so the column inches per medium and per sub-medium within, or per sub-genre within the medium, are just proportionally smaller. When Fairfield Porter was writing, like seventy percent of what you saw in serious galleries, in all galleries, really, was probably painting. Now, within the galleries, let’s say the several thousand galleries that would conceivably get reviewed in print magazines, let’s say, painting probably gets shown forty percent, and so I’m not entirely convinced that the column inches aren’t proportional to just how much is being shown of it in any given moment.
I think observational painting, and this is something that I think we all wrestle with, it labors under a pretty heavy burden, the same way that Vivaldi … having him played in malls around America for decades hasn’t helped him. It’s pretty hard to hear the Four Seasons, and not, for me at least, think of malls. When I heard some performance of it on the radio, and it was truly amazing, I actually could hear the song again, without this kind of overlay of having it … sort of this cheesy overlay, and I think observational painting, because it is default “art” for a lot of people, has to deal with that.
JK: It’s also really hard to write well about observational painting in any interesting way. I always think about how easy is it to write a pretty straightforward press release about some sorts of work. I think observational painting is one of those things that you really have to understand well to be able to make an interesting argument about it.
That’s not necessarily true of appreciating it because I actually think a lot of people like observational painting because they think they get it on some level, but it’s very hard to put that into words. It often quickly gets into philosophy, about who we are and our relationship to the outside world. A lot of it, in my way of thinking about observational painting, goes back to what you were talking about earlier: how do we experience the world differently and similarly to other people and how is one viewpoint speak in a convincing way? I think it’s one of those genres that’s particularly hard to write about in a way that people who aren’t already observational painters would find engaging.
LG: One reason for that, for good observational painting anyway, is about the formal painting issues, visual issues rather than narrative. Issues like socio-political-psycho-sexual or any of those other concerns are far less relevant to what you see in the paint. You would need to to have some background in art history or knowledge of painting to appreciate it fully.
JK: I don’t know if I agree entirely in that I think in a way observational painting for me, the formal issues are the way that you get to all the other stuff. You can’t get to the other stuff, the other stuff is not in the foreground. You have to go through the formal understanding of the work to get to those other things. I think people respond to good observational painting because on some level it’s speaking to those bigger life things.
I think for example all those formal issues are at play in pure abstract painting, but the audience for pure abstract painting, I would guess, is smaller than for observational painting. Not necessarily in the art world, but just in general. I think people respond to observational painting because it speaks to issues beyond the formal, but you have to have the formal there to be able to get to that other stuff.
It’s like hearing one concert pianist play the same song another one played, but you get a whole different set of concerns. It makes you think about childhood and death versus thinking about dreams and materialism or whatever. I think the really good writers that I like about observational painting, and Fairfield does this, can read the formal stuff and then take it to the next level of understanding a larger picture with it.
I feel like sometimes observational painters now, I’ve heard of a few, they’ll do something where the other stuff, the psycho-sexual or the socio-political or whatever is foregrounded in a way that makes it very easy to get to in a press release-able way. I find that disappointing because it seems like a shortcut to me. Like they should get there through the formal stuff that you were describing and have it there as opposed to getting that payoff right up front. Then you get tricked back into enjoying the formal stuff.
LG: What about somebody like Rackstraw Downes? You mentioned him a few times. When I see his work I don’t really think of any narrative other than the visual narrative that he’s set up for him, his process, the whole thing. Now I’m sure people writing about it can think of stuff, but it really I suspect would have no relation whatsoever to what he was thinking about.
JK: I don’t know if that’s true.
LG: I can’t say that for certain but that is the impression I get.
JK: I read some of his books. Yeah, actually it’s funny you mention him because he was one where it really did click for me that you could do these two things at once. He’s so formally strong. There was a painting I saw at a group show at the Yale art gallery and it was also in grad school when I was trying to figure out how to make observational paintings that I could stand behind. He had a really small painting of a suburban New Jersey neighborhood with one of those oil tanks that rise, you know those ones that rise and fall depending on what’s inside?
JK: He had really nailed the light. The tank was really low, and he had really nailed the light and shadow on those little lines of metal on the empty armature of the hexagonal structure . To me that painting was so strongly about a kind of way we live in the environment that it seemed like a painting version of … you know the photographer Robert Adams? He’s one of those New Topographers from the ’70s who shot a lot of development in the west. It was this western landscape. I mean this is the same thing I’m really interested in, this western landscape that we sort of know and adore from the 19th century and then the way you have all these ticky-tacky houses everywhere and the inevitable, seemingly unstoppable encroachment of development.
I felt like Rackstraw was doing it, and Adams, they’re beautiful photos but in a way photography has this tendency to foreground the socio-political or whatever. Rackstraw was doing that too. When I see those Rackstraw paintings I think about urban planning, maybe because my mom is an urban planner, but I think a lot about class and the way people live in New York. The way that for example you have tennis courts and tenements right next to each other. What dreams went into thinking about putting those tennis courts there and the layers of urban planning that create these big highways and then what gets torn down? What are the old buildings that get left behind?
For me those Downes paintings are formally amazing, but they’re really, even before I had … I’ve never written anything about him, so I guess without having written about him to me they seem very much to engage with these other external concerns. Then with somebody like Lois Dodd there’s the whole issue of her being a woman and a single mom, I think a lot of the writing about her from the ’70s, like Pat Mainardi who wrote a lot of great stuff about her, and they were strong feminist statements in both the way she was painting, which was very anti-macho, but also the subjects. They were paintings of laundry drying or domestic interiors.
There were paintings of the woods too that had a strong formal… The external stuff was there. It’s less on the surface for me than Rackstraw. The way she paints the nude figure in the landscape with those paintings she does of the woman with her laundry. Observational painting is all about the gaze. She does not sexualize that figure at all. It’s hard for me to think of a male painter who paints the female nude in such a unsexualized manner. It’s a totally different way of looking at the female nude. The gaze becomes very important. Who’s looking? How do they look? Is it different? I feel like I’m a city guy looking at the country out here. That comes through in the gaze. I don’t live in the country so it’s a very different relationship.]]>
March 26-April 25, 2015
Lori Bookstein Fine Art (Gallery website has online exhibition)
The painter John Dubrow has already made his mark on the New York art scene. But what is especially rewarding about his latest work, currently on view at Lori Bookstein, is the way it continues to explore and evolve. In his case, the evolution isn’t towards a more provocative technique or motif – if anything, these aspects of his work have taken on a more utilitarian cast. The articulateness lies elsewhere, and in a trait that may not be evident to every viewer: in his forceful and eloquent arabesques of color. If your definition of active color is simply high-chroma hues or academic, volumetric modeling, his particular gifts may not be apparent. But if you see in color a chance of compositional purposefulness – as evidenced by painters ranging from Chardin to Matisse – Dubrow’s work will consistently impress.
Color has always been the moving force in Dubrow’s paintings, which to my eye has been strongest when recording nature in its broad, stark contrasts: overhead canopies of leaves, hanging viscerally above receding planes of lawn. In more complexly modulated motifs—portraits, hillsides of houses—the duty of representing seems to slight cramp the synthesizing of the purely optical. But this appears to be happening less in the newest work, which turns figures and buildings with equal dispatch to planes of nuanced, weighted color.
Increasingly, Dubrow’s paintings reveal an intriguing disjunction between heavy mark-making technique and fleet articulations in color. The textures of his crusted, almost-crater-like patches of pigment can feel clotted, as if applied and re-applied with dull deliberation. (In point of fact, the artist worked for several years on most paintings in the show. His favorite means of applying paint is with a hand.) But this misses the paintings’ intent. All attention clearly bends not towards technique but to how each color leverages every other color. And this is where Dubrow consistently excels.
At a glance, a painting like “Playground” (2012-14) is an enigma. In terms of framing a motif, it practically inventories a scene, much like a camera’s split-second recording of a slice of life. Yet these objects are not the least bit frozen in place. Each element, reduced (or is it expanded?) to a facet of color, struggles against its location, acquiring in the process a particular character—looming, receding, insisting, rising—within a larger orchestration. In other words, objects acquire meaning through rhythmic intervals, not illustrational or stylistic means. The painting becomes a living mesh of shapes, each uniquely responding to the transformative pressure of light.
At bottom left, the grayer forms of figures hum amongst the absorbent blue-grays and purple-grays of a broad shadow. One surmounts the shadow, her shirt abruptly shifting from deep earthy brown-greens turn to a brilliant chartreuse; in an effect unique to artist’s paint (and not reproducible in print or on a monitor), one palpably experiences the weight of light.
Dubrow continues, in coordinated fashion. A trail of figures, overlapping in their illuminated and shadowed portions, slips into the distance at right. Between these two zones, a series of mid-toned horizontals—various medium-toned violets, reddish-beige, and ochre—establish the receding ground plane that supports from below. Overhead, extending the canvas’ entire width, a lowering canopy of leaves—churning through degrees of shadowed green—compress the space beneath, already animated by the luminous shifting facets of people and ground.
In “Audrey, Weavings” (2015), hues of pinkish-terracotta, ranging through a variety of tones imposed by light, carve the subject’s facial features. Quietly luminous against a sofa’s more subdued hues, they culminate as a mass barely surmounting the sofa’s tide of purple-gray. Again, deprived of the more superficial means of description—feathery or smooth modeling, polished or slashing strokes—all elements reflect, with startling directness, the unadorned force of color.
Best of all, “Leaning Trees, Winter” (2015) captures, in ragged horizontal bands, the four states of light within a street scene: the remote ultramarine glow of sky; the hard pinkish-browns of sunlit ground; their shadowed counterparts in deep retiring purples; in-between them, a clattering horizontal of building facades, turned yellow-beige, brick red, and off–white by the vicissitudes of sunlight. Impossibly different, but bound together by the circumference of the painting, each zone presses against the others, charging the space. Streaming across the entire proceedings are the vertical trunks of trees, holding far aloft their forking branches, and melting into the forms of striding pedestrians below. Like the best paintings here, we have the sense of being brought suddenly, unblindered and blinking, before a sunlight-animated vision.
Optical sensations, maximized within a contained arena: this summarizes the powers of the language of painting to recreate what we see. If you’re the type of person who wonders at how Corot exceeds Daubigny and Harpignies, or how Matisse transcends Max Weber, it’s a gratifying experience.
“Leaning Trees, Winter” is notable for the clarity of its hierarchy of colors—it’s top-to-bottom apportioning of pressures that spins off each element in its own unique and lucid moment. Not every painting in the show is quite as decisive. In some other canvases, the on-the-fly-responses seem to slow down to accommodate a complication here or wade through a diffuseness there. This is only to say that at points the color lacks the supreme articulateness of Chardin, or the certitude of Matisse. But every painting impresses with its priorities. Many a painter can deploy an evocative technique, or quirks of subject and style. But to speak with color—this is a different, higher order of expression, one Dubrow is clearly driven to pursue.
Please see John Dubrow’s website for more detailed images of the paintings and much more.]]>
I am looking forward to meeting Kurt Moyer in July and August of this summer at the JSS in Civita in Civita Castellana, Italy where he is teaching an affiliate workshop. I am grateful to him for taking the time to have this email interview with me about his painting. Moyer lives and works in Rochester, NY and is represented by the The Gross McCleaf Gallery in Philadelphia and the Warm Springs Gallery in Charlottesville, VA. He has shown in the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, Allentown Art Museum, Pennsylvania State Museum, Penn State University, and the Phillips Museum at Franklin and Marshall College among others. Moyer will be having a solo-show at the Gross McCleaf Gallery in January 2016 and will also be featured in a “Landscape” show there July 2015.
Larry Groff: What were your early years like as a student and as a painter? How did you become a painter?
Kurt Moyer: I had a great childhood, but not one particularly steeped in art. My parent’s property backs up against the French Creek State Park in Pennsylvania, so as a boy I had miles of woods to explore. I am certain that those childhood experiences with nature helped form my direction as an artist. Like many other young artists, I can remember being singled out as somebody who could draw well. My parents were very supportive and enrolled me in extra art classes at an early age. These classes at local art studios, and later, figure drawing courses for high school kids at the Moore College of art and Design provided me with a good foundation. I was also fortunate to attend a public school that had a well-funded art department including separate classes in Drawing, Painting, Ceramics, and Photography. Both the art teachers were very good, but it was Mr. Kuhn, the Ceramics teacher, who provided me with the clearest model for what a career in the arts could look like. Tragically, he was killed in a car accident in my junior year of high school. It’s hard to know how much of an influence this had on me, but I followed his earlier advice and enrolled in Kutztown University (his alma mater) as an art education major.
LG: Who have been some important influences for you and why?
KM: It was at Kutztown that I really discovered the enormity of painting.
My focus quickly shifted and I discarded the idea of being an art teacher and a ceramicist. I discovered a different path in painting and printmaking, and fully recognized the lifetime of study and work that lay ahead of me. At that time, there was no way I could pursue a teaching degree, or stand in front of a class and teach something that I had only just discovered myself.
Although there are many artists and teachers who influenced me, George Sorrels is the person I credit most with forming me as an artist. He had already been teaching at Kutztown for almost 30 years when I enrolled in his class and he was nearing the end of his career as a teacher. He taught me that painting was capable of embodying our most profound emotions—that both making and viewing painting can transport us in a spiritual sense. George opened my eyes to artists of the past and gave me a faith in the language of painting that I have never lost.
At the core of my education were regular painting excursions that he and I would take out into the countryside. It’s hard to underestimate what you can learn by watching a great artist build a painting from start to finish. He was a true mentor and supported me in many ways, including passing down materials and even hiring me to deliver his (sometimes still wet) paintings to his gallery in New York. We kept up with these painting sessions for many years after I graduated, often meeting up with other area artists and KU grads, John David Wissler, Michael Allen, and William Kocher.
LG: What are some of your most important considerations when starting a painting?
KM: When it comes to landscapes I am looking for a connection to a place, and every now and then I find a location that’s perfect for me. I have a couple of sites that I feel like I can go back to over and over without ever losing interest. Partially it is because the light or color is so beautiful and the structures form a good composition, but these places also have something else special, something harder to identify.
In the summer I work from outdoors as much as possible. Recently we moved to a house where I have a few good subjects right in my backyard. This “Edge of the woods” painting was made only a few steps from my studio.
I am also fortunate that about six years ago, just before my daughter was born, a great friend and talented artist, Jason Tennant, invited me to build a small cabin on his land. I jumped at the opportunity to build what I thought could be a great source for my paintings, a sort of studio-in-the-woods. I knew that after my daughter was born I might not have the opportunity to build it. So every day I would load up my truck with as much lumber as I could and drive the hour or so to the site. I spent the next couple of months hammering the cabin together. It’s a tiny structure, only one 12’x12’ room with a nice deck to paint from. I positioned the cabin to overlook the pond and almost immediately started a series of large canvases that represent the light at different times of day.
LG: In your paintings of Bathers there are many wonderful groupings of figures in the landscape. Can you tell us something about how you came to this subject matter? Are there certain painters you reference or are inspired from when posing the figures? Can you tell us something about some of the issues you are thinking with regard to your composition and the placement of the figures? Do you make studies from life or use photographic references of models with the bathers in the woodland landscapes? What kinds of reference material do you use with the beach figure paintings and can you say something about your process of making a larger figure composition?
KM: When I was growing up in South Eastern PA I would often visit the Barnes Foundation and the Philadelphia Museum of art. These collections house many of Cezanne’s bathers, including two of his important “Large Bathers” that he worked on in the last years of his life. These museums and their extensive collections of French impressionism had a huge influence on me and certainly helped shape the kind of art that I am making today. In fact, The Barnes and Philly collections are so full of bather-themed paintings by Cezanne, Renoir, and Matisse that I just accepted “Bathers” as a subject for painting that was as common-place to me as “Landscape” or “Still life”.
I admire Cezanne’s approach to the subject above all others. Particularly, I like how the figures in his paintings exist as a representation of humanity. I don’t see them as individuals nor do I see narratives to be figured out—especially in the later works. They are not all about abstraction either, his figures seem to exist to echo our sensuality and to serve the overall effect of his painting.
For me this subject feels right and I plan on following it wherever it wants to go.
My bather paintings often start with some small kernel of an idea—not a clear vision of what the piece will look like in the end. Usually I begin with an arrangement of male and female figures that feel at least plausible. I have discovered that more than three figures seem to work best—any less makes the painting feel more intimate than I want.
Then I start directly on the canvas in full color and without a lot of preplanning—letting all the elements move around until they finally settle into their place. I often reference my earlier landscape paintings for color, and sometimes I will dig through piles of old figure drawings to help me fix poses. In the summer I occasionally hire models to pose outdoors. These sessions are wonderful and produce invaluable color studies, and sometimes, under the best of circumstances, they even contribute directly to a larger work.
I use photographs rarely, mostly for landscape reference. I try not to rely on them for my drawing and never for color.
LG: How much does observation inform your work?
KM: My year is split roughly in half—generally the summer months are spent working directly from observation and painting from life. While the winter months are focused on studio-generated work. Almost as soon as the leaves start to change color I go into my studio and I don’t paint from the landscape again until spring. Of course I see the beauty in winter but, at least for now, it’s not a part of my work and I have almost no desire to paint it. In the summer my feeling towards the landscape is very primal, and I work frantically to drink it all in. Then it switches off like a light and I return to my studio.
The feeling that I want to achieve with my bather paintings is clearly a “summer feel” so I am able to use my plein air work as resource material to get me through the winter months. We have pretty drastic seasonal changes here in Rochester, NY and I have learned to adapt.
LG: Anything special about your painting technique? What paints do you put out on your palette? Anything note-worthy about how you paint?
KM: I don’t think so. I have included a photo of my palette if it’s of any interest to you or your readers. I have been buying almost all my paint from RGH, a small paint manufacturer from upstate NY. I use a pretty common set of about 20 colors. This is the order they appear on my palette:
I use a very small amount of medium: 1/3 cold-pressed linseed oil, 1/3 Linquin, 1/3 Gamsol
LG: Many of your paintings, especially your landscapes, have an impressive level of naturalistic light and color, why is this important to you?
KM: That’s very simple. The world is a beautiful place!
People connect very quickly to paintings with naturalistic color. It reminds us of our shared experience.
LG: You are teaching a painting workshop at the JSS in Civita this summer in Civita Castellana, Italy.July 20th—August 3rd. Can you tell us something about how you go about teaching your workshop there? What has been your attraction to the JSS in Civita?
KM: I am very proud to be associated with the JSS. And I am honored that Israel Hershberg has asked me to come back to teach this year. I think that Israel and Yael Scalia have set up an amazing program in Civita. It’s hard to imagine a better opportunity for someone interested in landscape painting than to go work from the same sites that Corot used to make such pivotal paintings. Of course there is no shortage of amazing landscape to paint in Italy, but the opportunity to study alongside so many other artists is what makes this program special. This year’s guest of honor is Ann Gale, who I think is a fabulous painter. I purposely scheduled my class so that my students and I will be there at the same time as Ann. I am also looking forward to meeting some very impressive master class students and artist-in-residence painters as well. I really think this confluence of people is the real reason to go. As I mentioned earlier, I feel like painting with other artists is the best way to learn. Even if you only get a glimpse at the way they approach their craft.
We are all such visual and experiential learners—so in my class I will do a lot of demonstrating. I often paint along with my students so that they can see how I think my way through a painting. The core of my teaching is helping students to see and translate what is important to them into a successful painting. Often this means simplifying a complex landscape into more manageable pieces and identifying which colors are most crucial for creating space. My class is open to anyone interested in working directly from the landscape to improve their painting. It’s going to be a great experience—and I still have a few spots left!
LG: What is most important to you about painting?
KM: At least once a month I walk into my studio and I feel like my paintings are all wrong. I never feel like I have been wasting my time -but I often feel like I am standing at the bottom of a big mountain and I have a long way to go.
So I feel like the struggle has important role to play in painting. But so does the feeling of connection to a larger world and the moments of pure joy that come when everything seems to be falling into place.]]>
Langdon Quin, a highly respected painter living in both Italy and upstate New York is having an exhibition of recent landscapes at The Painting Center from March 31–April 25, 2015.
Quin has exhibited widely, both nationally and internationally. Since receiving his MFA in Painting from Yale University in 1976. He is the recipient of many awards including a Fulbright Fellowship, a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Grant, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and two Ingram Merrill Foundation grants. He is also a member of the National Academy of Design in New York City.
His work is in prominent public and private collections both here and abroad. In addition, he has had a distinguished academic career teaching and is currently a Professor Emeritus of Painting and Drawing at the University of New Hampshire.
Quin has had numerous one person shows in galleries on both the east and west coasts. These have included The Thomas Deans Fine Art in Atlanta , the Kraushaar Galleries, Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, New York, Alpha Gallery, Boston and Hackett Freedman Gallery, San Francisco.
I am very grateful to Langdon Quin for spending the time and energy in talking with me about his background, process and thoughts on painting during our Skype call from his home in Italy.
Larry Groff: The Painting Center has an essay about your upcoming show on their website says that you recalled vividly that Fairfield Porter “likened painting to poetry in urging the consideration of “particularization of experience” Porter also said along this line of thinking: “You can only buck generalities by attention to fact,” Porter continued. “So aesthetics is what connects one to matters of fact. It is anti-ideal, it is materialistic. It implies no approval, but respect for things as they are.” I’m curious to hear what you might have to say about how this thought has affected you.
Langdon Quin: Yes, Porter gave a talk at Yale that was, I think, taken from an essay he published “Technology and Artistic Perception” in the American Scholar journal; this was shortly before he died, so it later seemed to me a summing up of his idea about why painting was important in an age where everything was changing by the minute.
At that point it was 1975, and it seemed, in retrospect, just incredibly prescient that he could identify and insist on a place for painting likening that activity to poetry—both forms filling a need has to do with specifying the particular experience that people have in relation to something seen, felt, remembered, imagined, whatever it was, because technology and its generalizing tendencies was eradicating those important subtleties.
The thing I remember distinctly was this rather simple analogy that worked for me, and stays in my head: He said, “Most of you here [but I wasn’t one of them, because I was/am old enough] are too young to remember a soda fountain, a place where you would sit on a stool and somebody would mix a Coca-Cola for you with a certain amount of seltzer and a certain amount of syrup, and that became your drink. So, it was particular to that place and one would perhaps prefer one soda fountain to another because of the way they mixed the Coke, or made a cherry Coke or some other variation.
Then, Coke became bottled, and in doing so it became uniform, and it all tasted the same. So, it just stays in my mind as a kind of metaphor about Porter and his identification of the primacy, and importance, he placed on distinct material realities, that were worth celebrating in at time when new technology was seeking to blur such distinctions.
it gave me a way of understanding Porter’s work, because he just wanted to be terribly specific about not just what he was seeing, but also what he was feeling about the things he was seeing. Like all of us, he made stronger paintings as well as making some pretty ordinary paintings, but this intent of his to particularize experience seems most clear in the late work. In these, it seemed there was something inspired in a kind of materialistic identification with the paint in reference to whatever he painted, not just to make it illusionistic; but to make it feel like the place, something that was imbued with another layer of physicality and intervention, made manifest in the paint handling itself.
I’ll say that. I’ve always been drawn to people like Corot and French painting of the 19th century and other periods. The 19th century French model for me of late however is less Corot, than Courbet. Courbet’s landscapes look like observed places, they breathe light and air, but they also have a transformative power that’s palpable. So that’s the kind of landscape painting, that I’m admiring these days; I see it in Courbet, I see it in Balthus’s Chassy paintings, I see it in Hodler, I see it in Soutine, Bonnard, Morandi, and others. Our conversation is prompted by my landscape show coming up, but I do paint figures and still lives as well.
Larry Groff: What lead you to become a painter and what were your early years like as a student and young artist?
Langdon Quin: I had the benefit of a wonderful high school teacher who passed away some years ago. His legacy is felt today at the school, in the form of the gallery that is dedicated in his name and memory, the Mark Potter Gallery at The Taft School. It hosts terrific shows in the school’s beautiful space.
More than anything, I think he was a model for me as a way to live a life and to embrace all kinds of experience. I was swept up with my enthusiasm for him and his passion about life’s possibilities. It was as simple as that. I was a suburban kid from Atlanta, and I had won a scholarship from some Atlanta people to go to that boarding school in Connecticut. No one in my family that I can think of had any artistic inclinations. So, this teacher was the person that got me moving early on in the direction I took towards becoming a painter.
Like most of us, as a child I showed some propensity or talent for drawing and doing things in classes that, from third grade up, sooner or later got recognized. But this certainly didn’t make me feel like I could, or would want to become an artist.
I’m wasting too much time telling you a perfectly, as I say, ordinary story, but Mark was important to me. Fast forwarding quite a bit to 1973, Caren Canier (my wife) and I, without knowing each other previously, met in a summer program at The Tanglewood Institute in Lenox, Massachusetts, where we studied with Gabriel Laderman.
We had an intense, long summer with Gabriel in our faces for a couple of months. There was really a big door that opened for me there, thanks to his auspices. I am forever indebted to Gabriel. We became friends later, and I’m still in touch with his children. Gabriel died a couple of years ago, but he was a wonderful teacher and very important to me. I certainly would count him as a major influence.
Without totally discouraging me, he made me realize that I really didn’t know anything, and that I had a lot of catching up to do. I remember distinctly,(I was 25 at the time) when. he said, “You should go back to school and enroll at KCAI. ” In those years, he was very enthusiastic about the teaching of Stanley Lewis, Wilbur Niewald, Lester Goldman, and other people at the Kansas City Art Institute. He said, “You should go back to Kansas City and start over.” I said, “I’m 25. I’m not going to start over as an undergraduate.” I guess he was okay with that, but he may have been right with that recommendation.
Larry Groff: I’ve heard that the painter William Bailey has been an important mentor and friend. Can you say something about what that has meant to you and your work? Who have been some other important figures for you?
Langdon Quin: Eventually, I was accepted at the Yale Graduate program and I studied there with a number of people, including William Bailey.
Bill and I are very close friends. He was enormously important to me. I would say that he gave me an understanding of color theory, based on Albers, that I hadn’t really understood in spite of some study.
My understanding of color was, up until that point, completely intuitive. I could mix warm and cool, but I didn’t know about the qualities of color juxtapositions and how they can be weighted against each other abstractly and also drawn from observable phenomena. Bill really gave me more than a clue—he gave me a vision of the way that can happen and be used expressively. His belief in the importance of drawing was also very meaningful to me.
My other teachers there, to whom I am also indebted, were Gretna Campbell , Bernard Chaet, and Lester Johnson. This group, together with Gabriel, I would say, were the significant influences as I was developing as a student. I later came to know James Weeks very well, when he taught at Boston University. He and I shared an office, in fact. I was an adjunct instructor at the time, and he was a full-time professor at Boston University. I taught at BU for five years, and throughout my time teaching there we were good friends and quite close.
Larry Groff: Where you at BU when Philip Guston taught there or he had already passed away?
Langdon Quin: My wife, Caren, was a grad student there finishing in 1976 . She had been an undergrad at Cornell and then went to BU. She was very close to Guston and counts him as one of a couple of very important teachers.
I met him on a number of occasions, when he would come back to Boston from Woodstock… At that point, he was pretty much cutting the cord with BU and would appear a couple of times a year to do a critique or a conversation with people. He was not present on a regular basis in the late 70’s. I spoke to him a couple times in those last years before he died in 1980. But, I won’t say that any influence came from a direct personal connection.
My years in Boston were good years, but I think of them especially positively because of my association with Jim Weeks. He was a wonderful man, and the things that he did in his work I came to understand and appreciate in subsequent years. I looked at Jim’s work and thought about the things he said, and later decided, “He was right!” It’s a shame that he’s a neglected painter, at least in terms of the public awareness of him.
Larry Groff: What was some of the things that you remember the most that he might’ve said that was important to you, in terms of moving your work forward? Is there anything in particular he would say?
Langdon Quin: Well, if I could make a connection in terms of “Boston” people, and what they meant to me, I’ll say that Jim’ s idea of spatial compression with shifting play between two and three dimensions is one of the things I also admired in Guston. Everybody these days seems to love Philip Guston. Unfortunately, he’s been the progenitor of a particular kind of cartoony imagery one sees a lot of today, but I think the thing that’s missing in most of the people’s understanding of his contribution is that his paintings had a surface tension that was so considered and so taut. One really feels the heft and pressure of the forms he made and their juxtaposition. The subject matter has an offhand look to it, but it’s really quite charged in formal terms. That was true of Weeks, as well. Weeks’ paintings, to me, had this wonderful surface tension. I mean, the way he would compress two and three-dimensional things together, and then separate them and relax them, open them up, close them down. It’s not a language I really understood at the time, but I’ve come to understand it better. That is the way it works with good teachers, I think—it takes a while to get what they are talking about and trying to do in their work.
When you’re first hearing something from someone you admire, you’re trying to get it from the back of your head to the front of your head. so you can use it .But you don’t quite get it because that takes some time, and when finally you do start get it, you can’t thank them, because they’re gone! Nonetheless, I feel that way about Jim Weeks and Gabriel, certainly, who’ve both passed on. I think they were both terrific artists and educators.
Larry Groff: Does William Bailey’s involvement with classical arrangements and composition from a modernistic perspective have much influence on you? I think I can see similar concerns with a more classical sensibility in your compositions.
Langdon Quin: The question is of great interest to me, Larry. But, in a way, I can’t comment intelligently. I suppose Bill and I do share a classicizing instinct, but I don’t really know what that looks like. I mean, Bill’s not a landscape painter, and I am, and surely the ideas about color and drawing he passed along to me have found their way into my landscapes. We’re all drawn to people that have a form sense that we identify with and admire. In Bill’s case, his sense of interval, pace and arrangement, exist in worlds he makes up. On the other hand, just about everything I do is grounded in observation. Nonetheless, his form sense is something I really respond to, and maybe I reflect something of that influence in my apprehension of landscape motifs. My work, I don’t think, looks so much like his. But, I take it as a compliment however; that you think there’s an observable connection. I’m thankful for my training with him and greatly admire his accomplishment.
Larry Groff: Not the outward appearance, I meant more that what you might select to paint or how you might place emphasis on the horizontality and intervals has a classical feel to the composition at times. Of course the subject matter’s completely different. Like you said how color affects his. I think of his color as very subtle and subdued. His color is deeply felt and wonderful, but completely different than yours. I wouldn’t easily see a connection of his color to yours at all until you brought it up.
Langdon Quin: No, I think Bill probably likes aspects of my work and appreciates our shared history and respect for particular painters. But I’d guess he thinks my color is in a very saturated range that doesn’t always work. It may be that I’m trying to reconcile things that he’s tried to reconcile as well, but with a totally different palette and approach. I’m interested in the possibilities for more saturated color in the landscape, more in the spirit of Bonnard than say, Corot, both of whom I consider great colorists. But, I mean, compared to everything else that is out there in the art world that passes as experiment and color, my efforts fall in a pretty narrow traditional range, and that is fine with me.
Larry Groff: : Can you talk about your process in painting the landscape? Does it differ significantly from how you go about making your figurative work and still lifes?
Langdon Quin: I think people think of me as a landscape painter but I do make other paintings. The ideas for those paintings have a different, slower-forming genesis. But in my day-to-day experience, the landscape seems to intrude most and calls out more for its recognition and observation.
Whenever I make a painting of any kind, whether it’s landscape, figure or still life, I have to have seen that situation in the world. I have to have experienced it. Even if it’s just momentarily, even if it’s just a drive- by event; if I have seen it, then I can believe it and I can develop it, or try to, at least. That pertains to the landscape, figure, still life, whatever. It all starts from there.
But returning to your question about my landscape process, I start from small oil studies done on the spot. I have a few French easels and I just set them up. I do quick paintings and drawings. Then my practice these days, certainly for a landscape, is to bring those things back and develop larger paintings in the studio from them.
What could be more traditional than that? It’s so historical. That’s what just about everybody I admire did. It’s not set in stone; it just seems to work most easily like that. I had up until the last 10 years or so, occasionally set up big canvases outside and tied them down with guy wires and things. I just don’t care to do that anymore. Too much bother!
I enjoy painting more if I can develop pictures in the studio based on plein air sketches and then make the compositional choices and color changes that the painting suggests to me. So, at that point, it’s not what is dictated by allegiance the actual motif, and studies from it, but what happens after those initial encounters.
I want keep the life and quality of the motif alive, but I don’t want to be tethered to it. I want to be able to change it and move things around. I’m more of a studio painter in that sense, than I used to be in my 30s and 40s.
Larry Groff: So you don’t feel restricted by the particulars of the scene that you’re painting in the studio? If a house were in one location, you’d be willing to move it to an entirely different place if you wanted?
Langdon Quin: It usually doesn’t amount to a change as big as that. I don’t make dramatic changes in the alignment of forms so much as the color and the importance of different forms, the elaboration of the form. They pretty much stay in the same place. The drawing and the positioning of forms is more or less what I start off with. It usually stays that way, although I do make changes like that sometimes.
The main changes have to do with the palette and the kind of articulation of passages, whether they’re pronounced or diminished or played up and down in terms of their importance. But it’s all grounded in a set of things that I’ve seen and then manipulate.
Certainly this is accurate with regard to landscape; the figure paintings are a different thing. The show coming up is all landscape. It’s more appropriate I guess that I talk to you about that.
Larry Groff: Feel free to talk about whatever is important to you. I was asking you kind of more all about landscape because of the show, but I love your other work just as much. In particular I was admiring your still lifes. I was looking at your catalog again and I’d forgotten what incredible still lifes… Like the still life with 2 tables from 2004, a fabulous painting.
Langdon Quin: Thank you. The still life… I would say of the 3 forms, if we can simplify it and say the 3 forms, that the still lives are the most dependent on direct observation. When I paint a still life I’m sitting there in front of it, and stay put in front of it pretty much from start to finish.
When I’m painting a landscape, I start them outside. I draw, paint from the motif, I bring them in and they become studio paintings. If I’m doing a figure painting, it’s a similar thing. I’ll paint from a figure. I’ll make a figure painting, a little figure painting, then I’ll think, “oh, well that one would look like something possible if I could put it with this other figure painting that I’ve also done from observation, and then some grouping and/or narrative might emerge in pairing the two”.
The two of them then start to take off as a combination that becomes complete invention. I don’t have the same models back or anything like that. It becomes another studio enterprise altogether. They’re slower to develop and I don’t think I’m very good at it, in the sense that I can’t resolve them (figure compositions) as comfortably or happily as other things.
I’m a little more tentative about those things and their successes or failures. After this show, I want to paint more still lives and get back to some figure painting ideas.
Larry Groff: I loved your Danaë painting, a fairly recent figure composition, I think. Another incredible painting.
Langdon Quin: That’s a weird painting. I don’t think of it as being terribly successful, but something I got very involved with. It was almost completely invented. I had a model at a certain point but the model wasn’t doing what you see in that picture. It was all-associative. When I thought about all the images, whether Titian, Correggio or the many other great Danaë paintings that artists have made, I wondered, what if Danaë was angry at being disturbed when Zeus appeared in whatever form he chose, and she was irritated and refusing him rather than acquiescing? It was just a kind of whimsical departure from the traditional idea. It was based on some figure paintings I had done from models but then changed dramatically. I don’t know about that picture. I don’t want that to be my last figure statement.
But another one that you might see on the website is called La Capriata, which is a group of 6 men perched on some precarious scaffolding, working on a construction project. That was something I actually saw, and I looked at it and said, “That’s a painting!,” After I watched them, I immediately sat down and made some drawings from memory… The workers disappeared later, of course, They’d gone home for the day, but the memory of their grouping against the sky was very intense.
I developed that out of a very crisp, clear memory. It wasn’t the fantasy that the Danaë painting was. It was based on a very compelling, searing visual thing that I saw and I thought, again, going back to what I said earlier—If I’ve seen it then I can believe it. I know it happened. Then I can think about developing it.
The times like the Danaë painting where I haven’t really seen that situation. I don’t really totally believe in the fiction nor my process in picturing it. Those are the ones I’m more tentative about because, I don’t know, they weren’t grounded in something seen, something observed.
Whether it’s still life or figures or landscape, I feel most comfortable if I initiate something from direct experience. Those are the things I can get behind because I know they exist or existed.
Larry Groff: You had an earlier painting, the La Bottega, the family portrait that was on the cover of your catalog. That seemed like it probably involved this painting from memory yet it still seems very specific.
Langdon Quin: That’s a good example, as those are all people I know. That’s a place that I know very well. I know what everything looks like there. I have seen those people go up and down those steps and I’ve seen those people working in the background.
The development of that image perpetuated a kind of painting experience because it was informed by an awareness of those people and their interaction with their environment. Also, I could re-visit the place, just drive over there with my car, sit there and say, “Oh yeah. That looks like this. That looks like that.” Go back, make a few drawings, and keep working on it. It was all part of an observable place and time, even though the picture was a studio painting.
Larry Groff: I curious to hear how you might reference other art in your work, especially the color. Some of the color in your landscapes brings to mind early renaissance Italian fresco painting to me. Is that something you think about or is it more just your personal color sensibility? Or has it more to do with your location that is particular to Umbria? I’m hoping you could talk about the relationship of your color and other art.
Langdon Quin: Well, I remember many years ago somebody saying to me, “Your palette is so unique.” I thought, really? I didn’t feel that. I’m not at all objective, or aware of that. I can’t answer your question except to say that whatever affinities may appear in my palette or my view of color or how color may be operating, they’re not conscious or calculated on my part. I’m not trying to mimic someone else. The things I do with my own palette and the things I admire in painting are wedded in some way that I’m just not really aware of.
Larry Groff: It’s not a conscious process then?
Langdon Quin: Not at all.
Larry Groff: I suspect that for most people, it’s just their sensibility or personality that comes through without their control. But perhaps what makes up your personality comes out of your love for particular kinds of situations and particular types of art.
Langdon Quin: I’m impressed by the luminosity and the intensity of light in lots of different kinds of painting. French painting, but also Italian painting. The idea of a painting giving off light enchants me. I‘ve read of Alex Katz asking the same kind of question—how much can the painting act as a container of light, how much light can it emit? In terms of the painting’s luminosity, in terms of its color’s expressive suggestion? How much can it push out from the wall? Those are things I really like about certain painters.
Again, Balthus comes to mind. Especially the paintings from his chateau in Chassy, and his other 1950s works. Bonnard is another major figure to me. He makes a painting glow. I want my painting to glow and I want them to contain a light. They need to be tonal but they also need to be luminous in terms of the modulations between their tonalities and their local color identifications.
I suppose this is a late modernist idea about color. It’s not a 19th century or earlier idea about a directed light moving through time, space and different narrative moments within the frame of a single image. I want the whole thing to be materialized and a container of light that acts at once. This is a modernist idea even if not many people in our postmodern art world value that, or see it as such.
I would say that in the last 20 years or so, the tonalities of my paintings have gotten much lighter. That effort has been purposeful—to make the paintings as positive, meaning pushing away from the wall, as they can be.
Larry Groff: Many of your landscapes have an open, scrubby quality to the brush strokes that lets the white ground of the canvas show through, at least from what I can see on the computer screen. I’m hoping you might say something about this.
Langdon Quin: I don’t paint on toned canvases. I start a painting on a primed white canvas, lead primed white canvas. I really believe that referencing the whiteness of the canvas is important to keeping the glow of the paint present because the more you paint on them, the darker pictures get naturally. They run into all their problems with muddiness, chalkiness, etc.
If you start on a white canvas, you’re constantly referencing the white canvas. I purposely leave a piece of white canvas available somewhere in the painting so I can keep cueing things to that piece of white canvas. Keeping the value structure up because if it starts to get too dark then I know I’m in trouble.
I never paint on a toned canvas. I think it’s a mistake. I was a teacher for many years; I wouldn’t let students tone their canvases. I said, “Start with a white canvas. Always. Divide it and refer to the white as a moment on the scale of light to dark. Use that as a key of how to develop the rest of it.”
Larry Groff: Do you work fairly thin, thin paint, to utilize the transparency of the paint over the white ground to get luminosity?
Langdon Quin: The rougher the canvas, the better to me, whether it’s a quick painting or a long painting. I think that the roughness of the canvas enables me to create accidents that then suggest things and I can follow the suggestion and run with it for a while.
In answer to your question, I do start things pretty thinly, but just to lay them in. Then I drop the paintbrush and I pick up the palette knife and I start just trying to build a surface that feels right. That doesn’t mean that it stays that way. I scrape it down, build it up, scrape it down again, build it up. That activity of going back and forth between thick and thin is part of the process.
There’s a painting, a very large landscape I did a number of years back that I worked on for a long time. There are places in it where the paint is quite thick and there are other places where bare canvas is showing. It stayed bare in those places only because it keeps feeling right in terms of its value and strength in a color way.
Not that I’m trying to, I don’t know, trying to make a quilt of thick and thin paint at all. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s thick or thin. If it works, it works. I do enjoy the process of building up the paint and tearing it down, building it up again, tearing it down. Seeing what all those scumbles can come up with. That’s the pleasure, especially in studio painting
Larry Groff: You work on canvas, not linen generally. Is that the case?
Langdon Quin: It’s all linen.
Larry Groff: On the catalog it said canvas. I was…
Langdon Quin: I say canvas but I use the term loosely. It’s all linen. I don’t paint on cotton duck anymore. I haven’t for years. Although, I have no objection to it. Good cotton duck is certainly better than bad linen. For the most part I use linen, and I used buy Utrecht linen. They made/imported a kind of linen I loved. But they don’t anymore. I buy my linen here in Italy for the most part, and use it here and back in NY. My practice really these days has to do with starting paintings here in Italy and then taking them back to the U.S., I roll things up, I take them back, I work on them there, I bring them back, I go back and forth with tubes under my arms all the time.
My paintings rarely get more than 4×5 feet because that’s all I can carry on a plane. Oftentimes they’re a lot smaller, but that’s about as big as they get. Sometimes I’ve done paintings joining two side-by-side 4×5 panels that are more comfortably broken down and rolled up.. I’m moving back and forth between 2 different places. That’s my life these days and that’s what I do. Tubes and more tubes!
The linen I prefer is rough and has a lot of imperfection in it. That’s what I like. I like it almost like sack cloth. Just something that creates plenty of accidents as I put the paint on it and play with it.
Larry Groff: Do you, this is an aside really, for my own problem. I have been using linen most of my life, too. Lately I’m getting a little disenchanted with it because I have so many problems with it sagging out here. You would think it’s relatively dry, it would be less of a problem. It’ll be tight as a drum, it’ll be perfect, and then a few days later I’ll come and it will be all sagging and waving like a flag. It drives me crazy.
Langdon Quin: Yeah, I know. I know. It’s a problem certainly. That’s one of the reasons I stopped buying stuff from Utrecht, I would get linen that the warp and the weft, I don’t know what it was, they weren’t the same fibers or something. I would get all these little bows around the edges of the canvas. I said, “Screw this. I’m not going to buy their stuff anymore.”
I eventually just stopped. Yeah, linen is always subject to humidity and other things. I have a guy in Queens, New York who makes stretchers for me. He’s great, prompt and careful. His name is Victor Anchissi. I key them out when they get saggy. It hasn’t been a problem. I do know what you mean however.
Larry Groff: So, maybe it’s the quality. Regretfully, I’m using cheaper linen. Perhaps if I used better quality, it would be less of a problem?
Langdon Quin: Yeah, maybe. I don’t know. It’s mainly a matter of, seems to me, of using stretchers that you can key out. The problem is once you finish a painting and you’ve got it all keyed out and it looks fine, you put it in a frame then you attach the framing, then you’re stuck with it. If it starts to sag then what do you do?
Larry Groff: You and your wife, Caren Canier—who is also a painter, divide your time between living in Troy, NY and Gubbio in Umbria, Italy. How long have you lived there and what is your place in Italy like? Have you become close to your neighbors? What is it like to live there?
Langdon Quin: It has been a major component of my life and hers. I can’t think of a better way to put it, really. We’ve been here for 33 years,. I taught in the US for 30 plus years, finishing up at the University of New Hampshire in 2010. I always came here in the summertime in those years, but since I retired I’ve been able to come for shorter periods in the winter as well. I do that whenever I can, and I’m here right now for several weeks, which I usually do every February and March. Then I leave, go back to the States, and come back from May through mid-September.
Our place is an old farmhouse that has seen better days, but we keep picking at it and keeping it lovely and pretty much in the vernacular, historic form for this kind of house. It’s sort of a “farmette”. We have gardens, some grapes, some olive trees, and it’s lovely. It’s very nice. Our children have grown up here as well, so they have attachments to it, but probably nothing like ours. We’ve been doing this for a long time. I have a studio here, and I have a studio in New York state, where I live in the US. We’re pretty close to New York City, so we’re there for a couple of days just about every week.
We’re triangulating between these places, and we’re lucky to be able to do that. I spend a lot of time traveling, a lot of money traveling, but at the same time it feels good to move around. I generate a lot of painting ideas here in Italy, and as I said before, I roll up the canvases, and build ideas with those starts I can make, and take them back to the States, work on them there, and often bring them back here. I have sets of stretchers in both places that fit these paintings, so I try to make the transitions as easy physically as I can.
The house in Italy is in a very quiet, rural place. We’ve been here a long time so we have plenty of Italian friends and neighbors that we see a lot of. As with any home, we have our problems with household things, but it’s still nice. We don’t have central heating, which makes it uncomfortable sometimes in the winter and we live with woodstoves and fireplaces going all day. It’s a bit rough, but lovely. I will never complain about it.
Larry Groff: That sounds like such a wonderful life, I’m very jealous! This leads to my next question, which is, does having a deep personal connection to a place, such as in Umbria or Troy, NY is essential to the life or success of your painting? Or is that connections more just a point of departure? That the painting then takes a life of its own, and it becomes more about the formal issues and about the painting itself, rather than the actual thing that you’re painting, or are they inseparable to you. I’m curious for your thoughts about that.
Langdon Quin: In a way, I would like it if my paintings were seamless, that is, a viewer might see that it’s a painting of Italy but that would feel incidental; it wouldn’t look terribly different from a painting of New York State insofar as its feeling. I do paint the landscape in New York State. It’s more dictated by seasonal restraints however. The New York State landscape is quite beautiful, and I value it. The light there is different than it is here in Italy, and different kind of forces on view, and certainly not uninteresting. It’s not like I’m saying,” oh, I can only paint the landscape in Italy”.
It’s about the painting. The initiation of the painting has to do with the place, but the continuity of its development is particular to the painting and not the place. I can do that wherever I am, as long as I have the materials to do it. I do have another kind of feeling about surroundings in the US… at least where I live in New York State,. The culture and history of the relationship of the people to the landscape is very different from the Italians I know about.
I’ll just try to simplify this by saying that one is a sympathetic relationship, and one is an antipathetic relationship, the latter, representing the American side of it. We beat up our world there, and treat it badly and abuse it. And certainly that happens here in Italy as well, but you don’t sense it as much in the countryside because rural people are still so careful about their cultivation and land management, and they seem to prize it more. It’s more part of their patrimony, and lives, and I admire that and respond to that. In America, at least in New York State where we live, it’s a more problematic relationship to the land, which is not uninteresting as an idea in terms of developing something narratively/pictorially, but at the same time it’s kind of a bummer in any social sense.
Larry Groff: I would think Troy would be closer to Italy than any other places. I’ve heard that Troy is one of the few smaller towns like that that have retained its identity. It hasn’t changed quite as much over the years.
Langdon Quin: Our mailing address is Troy, but we live in the country, east of Troy, towards the Massachusetts-Vermont line. We’re out in the landscape and it’s really quite lovely where we live, and we’ve been blessed not to have a lot of rampant development. The last major battle we had locally, was over a Wal-Mart moving in nearby, a decade or so ago. And, as in every other place in America, you can’t stop Wal-Mart. So we tried, but it’s there. But so far, our immediate surroundings haven’t changed too dramatically. However, it is a landscape that’s definitely threatened.
Farming has stalled statewide, and local Hudson Valley farms are shutting down and closing. It’s just a very transitional world there, and you feel it. I don’t sense that as much where we live here in Italy, so that’s among the positive things about being here. I paint the landscape in New York State, but I hold off in the winter, especially in this terribly brutal winter we’ve had this year. I really enjoy being in my studio upstate, but I just don’t get out to paint the landscape much, because it’s just so tough to do that. It’s not very inviting or hospitable.
I’m usually focused more on other forms… I draw a lot from the figure, and paint from the figure, and try to develop more figural ideas when I’m in the States. The ideas are slower to develop, so it’s not a period that I tend to I produce a lot in. Here in the summer months, I can get things rolling more quickly. The days are longer. It’s 8 o’clock in the morning and I can be in the studio if I choose to, and not return ’till 8 at night…
Larry Groff: Who are some of your favorite contemporary living painters?
Langdon Quin: Although I try to look at everybody, I can’t say that I have any particular contemporary heroes right now. There are certainly lots of painters out there whose work I admire. I’m reading a little biography by Phoebe Hoban about Lucian Freud Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open (Icons).
But whereas I like Freud’s work. I don’t think he has had any influence on my work, it’s just … He’s a celebrated artist that I respect, and I certainly admire others such as Antonio Lopez Garcia. Their work is impressive to me, and I admire much about their ambitions, and I respect them, but I’m not exactly worshipful. There are lots of people I can mention. Leonard Anderson, Stanley Lewis, Leland Bell, Louisa Matthiasdottir… Another painter who comes to mind, whose lovely show I saw a show about 6 months ago, is E.M. Saniga, whom I don’t know personally.
Larry Groff: He’s a great painter and person. I got to meet him in Civita Castellana, when I was at the JSS in Civita program.
Langdon Quin: Yeah. I saw a show of his, and I thought, this guy is something special. Gillian Pederson Krag is another person that I do know quite well. She’s under many people’s radar, but she’s a terrific painter.
Larry Groff: She’s great, Elana Hagler had an interview with her on Painting Perceptions…
Langdon Quin: She’s wonderful. In fact, she’s my wife Caren’s former teacher, and they’re very good friends, and I am as well. There are plenty of people that I see on Facebook but I don’t know personally, but impress me such as this guy, Emil Robinson’s work, I admire his work (http://emilrobinson.com/home.html)
Larry Groff: Another excellent painter. I also got to meet him a couple of times and had an interview with him.
Langdon Quin: I don’t know him personally. I have to say that I’m pretty negative about aspects of Facebook, but the good thing about it is that it makes you realize that there are lots and lots of people out there who are painting with great intelligence and great sensitivity, that you’re probably not necessarily going to see in Chelsea or anywhere else in New York City. But, it’s gratifying to know that such good painting still flourishes. That feels hopeful; to know that there are people out there that can respond. That’s the way it is when you teach, as well. There are always students that still want to make pictures of people or whatever, and they either do it, or don’t do it once they move on. But they want it at the outset, and need it then, and come to you for that information. You know, life goes on.
Larry Groff: Do you feel optimistic about the future of representational painting, as you’ve grown to love it, the kind of work that you do?
Langdon Quin: No, I wouldn’t say I’m optimistic at all. Actually, I would say I’m a bit cynical about it. For the following reason: I think the saddest thing is that for a lot of people that I know that for a lot wonderfully talented artists who are capable of doing great things, the marketplace and the art world do a lot of damage. They combine to dull the sense of urgency to paint for some very fine painters. If you’re not going to sell the work, you’re not going to show it, then why do it? That’s depressing, and yet most of those people, including myself, just try to keep doing it because that’s what we do. No. I’m not very positive, I’m afraid.
I talk to people about it, and some people say, “Well, all it would take is one or two perceptive art world critics, or dealers, or this or that, and suddenly the whole thing could change positively.” I don’t believe that. I think that the culture is losing its capacity to really embrace painting as a poetic, and essential form. If at all it’s embraced embrace it as something else: celebrity, style, or whatever…
Larry Groff: Fashion.
Langdon Quin: Fashion. Yeah. I don’t like to think about that part of it, so to answer your question, no, I’m not optimistic at all.
Larry Groff: A thought I’ve had for quite some time is the art world’s elevation in importance of conceptual-based art and the fall of painting about visual concerns feels like we’re heading toward some kind of neo-medievalism, in that the painting has become increasingly more about ideas that one contemplates not unlike what people did with the icons during the medieval era. Irony is becoming a new catechism of hipness and beauty no longer has much relevance. Of course visual imagery is still there, but often more to illustrate a concept than to celebrate beauty.
Langdon Quin: Exactly. Even though it’s said that “irony” was over years ago as the expressive vehicle of the art world, it still appears to me that it’s driving the bus !Is distance from any sort of poetic interpretation of things, or an earnest interpretation of things is so huge. And that’s really disturbing. I don’t know when it’s going to change, or if it’s going to change, but it’s certainly seems bleak these days.
It makes me think that, in spite of its power in the marketplace, New York is a terribly provincial place because that’s such a singular attitude that prevails. And that’s just small-minded, and doesn’t make any sense to me. That’s why I say I am not encouraged. I do know that there are places in the Midwest, on the West Coast, everywhere, where people are doing good things and feeling productive and positive about it, so maybe I should cheer up.
Larry Groff: I understand. It’s particularly difficult for people who live away from the bigger art centers. Where I live in San Diego, I think there are a lot of people in the art world here who want to emulate the New York scene. They’re getting at it from maybe 10 years ago or something, but they are even more dismissive of people doing work from observation or other kinds of a sophisticated relationship to the history of painting. They all want to be about the cutting age, but they don’t really think about art history, I think, in a way, and it makes it really difficult for people who are, because you can’t get shown. If you can’t get shown, because they think you’re old fuddy-duddies or something, then you can’t sell your work or get hired as a teacher and it becomes very difficult to make it as a painter.
Langdon Quin: That’s why, at this point in time, some 35 years or whatever it is after speaking with Fairfield Porter that I just cherish that encounter with him—because he seemed to be taking such a stand in opposition to what you describe… Even then he realized what the lay of the land was, and how important it was to embrace an idea about painting that would really transcend trends, time, and shifts in popular culture. I think he was very important in that way. That does make me feel like there is a conversation still going on, however attenuated, and that’s good. This is part of it, you and I talking like this.
Larry Groff: Other people get to read this, and it gives them ideas, so we’re helping to perpetuate this continuum of ideas about making good painting.
There is a poetic quality to so much of your work. I think all really great painting has that, for me it’s the visual poetics that really makes the painting succeed more than anything. Much more than the level of skill in depicting things or the level of realism, or whatever, it’s has to first engage me from the feelings, the mood, the poetics.
What would you suggest for someone, a young person just starting out, wants to do this kind of painting, representational painting, whatever you want to call it, to really appreciate the sense of poetics, the visual poetics. Is there something you would recommend?
Langdon Quin: I don’t think you can really recommend so much. I think It’s nascent or it’s not nascent, meaning that if they want to image something then they have to figure out how to do it, and have to seek out somebody that can teach them how to proceed, or look at something on the walls or in books. The will to image something is pretty hard- wired in many people. That’s what students bring to a beginning painting or drawing class. There’s some fundamental wish to do it, and they don’t know about the art world, or culture, or anything else. They’re just following an intuition that feels important, and that’s what a good teacher will have to build on.
I guess the answer to your question is: if you don’t feel it and you don’t really look around the world and think how beautiful this or that is. Or, “gee, wouldn’t it be nice to image that”—if that’s not there in the first place, there’s no way you’re going to just decide that that’s what you’re going to do. It has to be there in the first place, and I think it is for many people. I think it’s part of our makeup, that we want to image things, and how quickly you get swept up in fashion, or trends, or this or that, is going to dissuade you from doing that, but the people that want to do it are going to find a way to do it, I hope.
It gets harder and harder, but I think that will go on, and remains the refreshing thing about teaching. When I taught in New Hampshire, all these corn and milk-fed young people who were my students came from pretty conventional backgrounds, and weren’t particularly sophisticated, but they wanted to make images., They wanted to make pictures and they wanted to construct figures. Whether or not it continued in their lives in any way later is a different thing, but I think the will to do that is often there. That’s what’s hopeful, I suppose.
Larry Groff: Right. One thought that I had, kind of a grim thought, but I see many things in this society falling apart, and are not really being sustainable. It’s too much to get into now, but it feels like … The one thing that can be real is painting, and it gives you a reason to live. The whole world could be falling apart, but you’ve got a great painting in front of you that you’re working on, it’s sort of, like, so what? I’ve got this painting, and it gives you a reason to keep going. It gives hope and it gives a reason to live.
Langdon Quin: Painting is a political act, and if you paint that harbor, Larry, and you say, ‘I saw this and it looked like this, and it felt like this,’ and, again, paraphrasing Porter, ‘You particularize an experience and you make it an individual stance in a form that can be shared,’ it’s essentially a political act. You are saying to other people, “I want you to see this the way I see it,” and when you do that, it may or may not resonate with a viewer, but it means something to try. Again, to reference Porter, because I think that’s what he was saying, it’s that ‘this is what you have to do. You have to communicate the particularities of things that life in its visual realm presents’
I was fortunate to become good friends with Christopher Chippendale while we studied with George Nick during our undergraduate years at Mass Art back in the mid-80’s. Christopher and I also both went through the same graduate degree program at Boston University, however not at the same time. We continue to keep in touch and it has been a great pleasure to compare notes and observe the paths both our works have taken over the years.
Christopher Chippendale is represented by Soprafina Gallery, Boston and has been a member of the Painting faculty at Mass Art for twenty-two years. In addition to his work as an artist, Chippendale has been the recipient of numerous grants and awards, published critical essays on art, curated and juried many exhibitions.
The Soprafina gallery will have a solo exhibition of Christopher’s new work in November of this year and he will teach a summer landscape painting workshop this July at the ART New England summer program.
I am grateful to Christopher for putting the considerable time and effort into such thoughtful and articulate writings in response to my questions.
Larry Groff: What led you to decide to become a painter?
Christopher Chippendale: In the summer of ‘74, my brother, who had himself studied painting before becoming a photographer, wanted to stage and then photograph a tableau vivant based on Manet’s Le dejeuner sur l’herbe. At the time, we were living at a place called Wood’s Ranch—a sprawling, ranch-style rambler on an old estate, surrounded by magnolias and lemon groves at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains in southern California. For the tableau, it was decided that I would take the part of the young gallant who, in Manet’s painting, reclines on one arm while gesturing casually with the other. My brother took the role of the second dandy, seated in the “picnic” center, whilst my then girlfriend sat for the female nude to the left, looking out at the viewer. Atop her discarded habillements, we arranged the same objects as seen in the foreground left of Manet’s Le dejeuner: a picnic basket, some fruit (they appear to be lemons), a hat (we apparently had no bonnet). An over-grown thicket of scrub and lemon trees served as our Bois de Boulogne. My brother set the camera on delayed timer, jumped into his pose and, with the click of the shutter, our playful re-enactment of Manet’s once-scandalous painting joined us to it—in California fashion—forever.
In the following months, a couple dozen prints of our mise-en-scene were produced in the darkroom and, that December, reflecting the wittiness of my brother’s conceit, we sent these out to friends as our Christmas greetings. Ten years later, when I enrolled in art school in Massachusetts to study painting, I came finally to realize the vocation that had been eluding me. Becoming a painter was the first vocational decision I had made in my life with absolute certainty and resolve. Like any momentous decision, it reframed the significance of events that preceded it, making them clearer and necessary, in this case fitting them into the larger narrative of my becoming a painter. Even minor events like our staging of Manet’s painting—which now took on an affectionately prophetic significance—looked fateful in light of my painting decision.
A few years earlier, when I was seventeen, I set out hitchhiking from my home town in California with a vague notion that I was “going abroad.” Nine months later I was in Afghanistan. I had wandered, alone and without an itinerary, through much of Europe, into Turkey and across the Black Sea to Iran, to Herat and as far east as Kabul. I have always been a wanderer, much more drawn to voyaging than to destinations. The openness of setting out with only marginally described objectives engages me still, as a painter, and it informs my work. I do not know the destinations of my paintings. I seek my subjects in the work itself. Like Cezanne, I seek in painting (“Je cherche en peignant”).
I returned to California from Europe and Central Asia and lived for five years in a remote cabin, high in a mountain canyon in the Angeles National Forest. This was my return to, and embrace of, the idea of living a “natural life.” It was also a retreat from the world such as I’d experienced it during my travels abroad, and a place for me to reflect upon them. I read literature and philosophy, wrote poetry, took long hikes, played music, drew and painted, swam daily in the stream outside my cabin door, communed with friends, and worked building trails and fighting fires for the National Forest Service. During one interlude from this period of my life I posed, with my brother and girlfriend, for the aforementioned Le dejeuner.
Looked at in one way, this was a paradisiacal episode of my life. I came eventually to see in it, however, an untenable future. I realized that I needed to be in the world, which I knew little about. I had grown less ambivalent about the value of a formal education, and was drawn to the history I had experienced in my travels, and in the literature and philosophy I read. I decided to move across the country to New England to go to college.
College was in many ways an extension in formal terms of what I had begun on my own already. I majored in French and French literature, writing my thesis on the idea of consciousness in Proust. As part of my program, I went to study in Paris. There, I took a cheap garret room in a five-story walk-up in the 6th arrondissement, and enrolled in French language classes. My interests, however, were in the life and culture around me. I would often cut classes and, as if this prefigured what lay in my future, spend my days wandering around the city, drawing and going to museums. In my daydreams I imagined myself returning to Paris to study painting at the Ecole des Beaux Arts.
Some weeks before my scheduled return to the U.S., I ran out of money. With no prospects of formal employment, I spent my last twenty-five francs on a book of early English ballads transcribed for alto recorder, and I descended into the metro. I busked there, two hours each day, for pocket money and to pay my hotel bill, changing venues daily to avoid harassment from the local gendarmes. To hold up my sheet music while I played, I used a collapsible stand which I fabricated, ironically enough, from the legs of a broken French easel I had found on the street one night.
You ask what led me to decide to become a painter. I think I was always predisposed to become a painter, but it took some important side-roads and divagations along the way for me to discover the rightness of that decision.
Larry Groff: You studied with George Nick, who has been a leading figure and advocate of painting from observation. What can you remember about his teaching that has been most influential for you?
Christopher Chippendale: On a practical level, Nick instilled in me the core conceptual and foundational tools that would continue to serve as a cornerstone of my painting to the present day. On a personal level, his way of thinking about painting helped orient me to a more outwardly focused, concrete way of looking at and being in the world. His was an existential influence and, therefore, for me, an influence of the most crucial kind—one that began with, and was ever refocusing my wandering attention to, the facts of the observable world directly in front of me.
Nick urged me to adopt a clear, that is to say, presuppositionless view of whatever I painted. I was not to presuppose anything in addition to what was actually given. Emphasis in his studio was upon immediate perception, upon what was there, before us, and upon seeing it as such, without past and without future. Nick wanted his students to make an effort, in a deliberate way, to cancel or put aside the normal habits and assumptions with which they approached the world in their everyday understanding. Our charge was to take visual sensations simply as they presented themselves, and only within the limits in which they did so.
To accomplish this required, besides an undistracted Zen-like focus upon the immediate world before us, an examination of the processes by which we, as individual painters, saw the world and transcribed it. Our outwardly focused concentration upon the given had also an inward, requisite component—call it self-examination—through which we should aim to discover how our conceptions of things colored, like tinted glasses, what we saw within the motif. Thought itself, in other words, had the power to transform the visible. One of my duties as an observational painter, I learned, was to understand the manner and mechanisms by which my own individual conceptions of things, whatever their origins, acted upon and informed my perceptions. As Nick’s own teacher, Edwin Dickinson, put in a phrase reflecting the richness of his own circumspection: “The seen distortion is what a thought did to the sight.”
Nick guided us like a courtroom lawyer to question the veracity of what we saw, as evidenced on our canvases, and to question how our conceptions of things distorted how we saw them. Observational painting, I learned, was geared towards something much more essential and original than representing the motif. In my best work I didn’t presume to know what the motif was. Painting, as Nick taught it, was oriented away from the known world, towards the phenomenal one, away from our conceptions of things and towards things themselves. Painting did not serve a mediating role—it served an investigative one. Its function was not to express the predetermined, but to determine, in fact, what was, and to express that directly in ways that only painting could, and as accurately as possible.
Nick’s approach to observational painting reflected a defining 20th century philosophy, existential in nature, and committed to the truth of the unmediated. “Not ideas about the thing but the thing itself,” as Wallace Stevens put it, in a late, great poem of his by that title. It was a philosophy with which I resonated. I found in painting, moreover, a means to express it. I found there a palpability, a physical process that clarified for me a need to locate and express my experience of the world in concrete terms, which is to say, in things themselves.
Observational painting, I learned, was not a mimetic art form. We were not in the business of copying or duplicating what was before us, but of transposing it through paint, and through the forms we each adopted as individual painters. Our goal was not to match or try to outdo what nature did best, but to interpret it through metaphors that were “parallel” and in every way “true” to the facts we perceived, except in being literal about them. Ideas of “truth” in observational painting were, accordingly, not limited to ideas of “likeness” or verisimilitude. One could be absolutely true to the richness of one’s perceptions without being literal about them, in the same way that poetry can bear witness with great precision to truths and realities that lie far outside of, and are in fact inexpressible within, the jurisdiction of the literal.
I found observational painting richly full of paradoxes and contradictions, often vexingly so. Nick taught me to think more with my brush. I learned from him that making was itself a form of expressed thought, and that solutions were to be found in painting itself. Standing before the easel, considering the variables that arose in my paintings with every passing moment, I learned that it was ultimately important to act—to paint—in clear material terms, and sooner rather than later. If recklessness was the consequence, and errors and mistakes the result, then these were simply the facts and uncertainties of painting. Risk, in Nick’s view, would forever trump cautiousness, and I inferred from his approach, which I came largely to adopt myself, that being overly guarded and calculating in painting was ultimately a dishonest act.
The existential overtones of this approach to painting were clear and compelling. Nick’s insistence on the need to paint in the face of paradox and ambiguity, moreover, underscored the importance he placed on intuition, and he suggested a place for us to apply it. He encouraged us to paint at the threshold of the unknown, where there were no ready answers. “Paint more like a Martian,” he might say when we were painting too literally, implying that painting beyond what we already knew, and forgetting any preconceived ideas we had regarding the motif before us, would push us to see and reconstruct the world around us in fresh and original ways.
To illustrate the kind of painting I am speaking of here, which Nick modeled in his own work and encouraged us to essay in ours, I can share with you an important exchange I had with him on the occasion of his forty-year retrospective at Mass Art in ‘93, four years after I had left his studio. I was standing alongside him in the gallery before a long and narrow painting of his called Muddy River, in which a heavy-handed build-up of light-valued pigment in the middle of the canvas served to represent a wind-blown highlight reflected on the River. Seen up close, from the position where Nick had painted it, that ungainly chunk of paint struck me as overly two-dimensional in its effect and weirdly out of place: it sat brazenly upon the canvas surface and did not conform at all to the three-dimensional plane of receding water upon which it so obtrusively lay. Yet, as one backed away about ten feet from the painting, that seemingly coarse application of pigment sat right down into the illusionistic, three-dimensional space of the river where it seamlessly took its place. So I asked him: “How did you know, when painting that passage, while standing, that is, directly before the canvas, that that crude chunk of paint when seen from ten feet would sit right down into the three-dimensional world you were also describing? Speaking quickly, as though he were still flush from the victory of having just painted it, Nick turned to me and said, in clear, declarative terms: “I willed it! You have to will these things!”
Flummoxed by his response, and embarrassed that I couldn’t grasp straight away the sense of what he had just told me, I said nothing, while my thoughts swirled. Was this some kind of Buddhist riddle? What did Nick mean, “I willed it”? What mysterious powers did he possess that, by simply wanting something badly enough, and forcing his will to achieve it, it came to pass? Surely this was no fantasy; the canvas before us did not lie. The passage in question was clear and marvelous. Its construction, as paint, was tangible. This might be an example of wish fulfillment, but it was the opposite of wishful thinking. How, then, did this notion of willpower fueled by artistic desire correspond to the notion of craft? How did one learn how to do such things?
In time, with more experience of my own as a painter, I came to appreciate the sense of Nick’s response to my question. I came to grasp the nature of his accomplishment, and to understand its relationship to craft. I came to see this particular passage in Muddy River, moreover, as an emblem of his painting philosophy, and a distillation of much of what I had learned from him. Nick’s philosophy of painting, and the source of his success in Muddy River, lay in a dynamic recipe of several components: hard work and the state of preparedness hard work engenders; an absolute commitment to the terms of the instant; a willing embrace of the adventure and risks of the unknown; and a concomitant reliance on intuition to guide critical action when painting outside the provinces of acquired knowledge.
In stressing the importance of hard work, Nick insisted on the discipline of finishing every painting one began, however bad, or good. He once told me I ought to be “chained” to my easel, after I had abandoned a painting that was causing me too much pain and difficulty, and had gone to him for counsel and sympathy. When it came to matters of importance in painting—like finishing a painting, like pushing harder than one could possibly imagine to find and give shape to one’s subject—Nick was single-minded, hard-nosed, and a realist. He knew full well the inherent resistance of oil paint, that vexing, “oleous paste in its sticky inconvenience,” as Lawrence Gowing called it. He knew, also, the undercurrents of despair that accompany many artists’ realizations of the gap between their ambitions, on the one hand, and their actual achievements on their canvases, on the other. When, in no uncertain terms, he gave me to understand that the endeavor I had embarked upon as young painter would be unremittingly tough and full of setbacks, he was speaking from experience. He was also introducing me to the code and honor of being a painter.
Being a painter, he was saying, meant owning up to the privilege of contending with the struggles which shape and define one’s voice and one’s calling. Being a painter meant shouldering, proudly, and without expectation of outward recognition, an unconditional belief in the value of what one strives for in one’s work, and in the efforts needed to obtain it. Being a painter meant persevering in one’s darkest hours—the St. Crispin’s Eve many painters know—and believing, no matter how bad things look, that with faith in oneself, and with a new day approaching, one will find an answer. Such moral agency, as I found studying under Nick, had a profound impact upon me. It was one thing to study and learn the craft of painting in many of its objective manifestations. It was another to feel compelled by the greater purpose underlying it.
Like Cezanne, or FDR, Nick himself was a person of action, of doing, not of theories and speculation. He believed that finding one’s way to solutions and discoveries in painting was best facilitated through the only agency over which an artist has significant control: the production of a high volume of work. As his daughter, Katya—herself an artist and a keen and intimate witness to her father’s daily practice—once observed: “Creating a high volume of work…[was] for my father a moral obligation.” Of all the modern painters, I think, in this, Nick most resembled Cezanne. The image of his decades-long routine of setting out each day an hour before dawn in his oversized studio truck, so as to be on location and set up—his paint laid out, his brushes in hand—and poised to paint as the sun’s first rays broke upon his motif, mirrored Cezanne’s commitment and ultimate sacrifice.
Famously prodigious, Nick’s productivity in and for itself was not, of course, the goal or end-game of his practice. The goal of always producing was the state of readiness such practice produced. The goal was the greater potential for success that such conditioning made possible. Being prepared made more viable the chances of his succeeding when out on the frontiers of his own painting, where it mattered most, where there were no well-trodden roads, nor familiar stars to guide him. Nick painted for these moments. He trained for them, prepared for them and, when they arose, he was ready for them.
Through Nick I was thus exposed to a kind of painting that was geared to the uncharted, the unexplored. His was a kind of “frontier painting,” one which demanded of its practitioners a frontiersman-like preparedness and a come-what-may openness to whatever might lie ahead. I knew first-hand about improvisational modes of creating, about working extemporaneously with contingencies as they arose in real time. I had practiced and performed improvisationally for many years as a jazz string bassist. Nick’s approach mirrored for me also the openness of my setting out to travel years before without a set itinerary. It was an approach that did not prematurely foreclose upon the possibilities to be discovered by an overly determined agenda. It validated a way of thinking about painting where, as the Welsh novelist Gwyn Thomas put it: “The beauty is in the walking. We are betrayed by destinations.”
Nick did not teach painting as a performative art form in which something already known and mastered was simply repeated, however marvelous or accomplished such repetitions can sometimes be. Painting, as he taught it, was never about a particular “look” or brand or style. He taught painting as a performative art in that it was geared to the moment, to painting, literally, alla prima: at the first, at the beginning, before time. For me, Nick’s approach offered a compelling rebuttal to the notion that, as a human being, I wasn’t able to grasp my experience as it unfolded. In Nick I saw someone for whom action was more than a translation, a mere echo of the original. Even if one held to the absurdity of an instantaneous painting, Nick’s approach presented the possibility, at least, of narrowing the disconnect between language (whatever its form) and life. Such ideas would simmer and percolate and, years later, take on a critical role in my work as a painter.
The kind of time Nick painted in, and taught his students to pay attention to, was present time. One learned to respond to conditions before one, not as one would hope or wish or conceive of them to be, but, as immediate revelations. Even when I would sometimes return to a passage a fourth, a fifth time, in my efforts to get at something which eluded me, Nick urged me to approach that passage each time as at the beginning, as a vehicle for the exploration of the now. I learned that I wasn’t in front of my easel to “fix” things already made or given, but to discover them anew. In such a philosophy, each day is a new one. I wasn’t to be bothered or hampered by what went before. This was a progressive attitude, one which looked forward and was forward-looking. This was painting about the now, about one’s thoughts and feelings now, about the light in its particular aspect now, like his wind-blown highlight upon the Muddy River.
Painters paint as a condition of not knowing. This, at least, was one credo I took from Nick’s classes. I learned that I wasn’t in front of the easel to arrange or to construct meaning, but to discover it. Preempting craft (what I knew and could perform already) in the moment of a painting’s execution, was a requisite of painting in the moment, a requisite necessitated by the exigencies of the moment, when there simply wasn’t time to figure things out. When, however, having put out from safe harbor—from all that is known and familiar—and finding myself, as upon a wide open sea, “boldly launched upon the deep,” as the narrator in Moby Dick says of the Pequod, and “soon…lost in its unshored, harborless immensities,” I had better be ready. Nick, I would argue, in his best paintings—and as a condition of them—has thrived most on these moments of being “unshored” and “harborless,” and it is precisely at such moments that “willing,” funded by the preparedness, hard work and intuition underlying it, played its critical role.
In painting, as in all the arts, there are epiphanic moments: particular pieces or passages that stand out or rise above in an artist’s work. The promise such moments hold out is an important—perhaps the most important—ingredient that keeps the painter going to the next painting, and to the next: the idea, the feeling or hope, of breaking through. Nick’s attitude towards inspiration was emphatically unromantic. He knew there were no conjurer’s tricks, no incantations with which to summons the Muses. But he knew how to be ready for them if they arrived, and he knew how to trust his intuition as his guide. As Robert Frost once said, “You’ve got to act on insufficient knowledge. You’ve got to have that kind of courage.”
Larry Groff: In your essay, “Fluidity in Focus,” you discussed why it has been important for you to “forget what you know,” and engage directly with visual sensations, translating those sensations into color patches, and that you need to be in tune with the immediacy of the moment.
You stated that this “is an approach to painting based in finding rather than making, in perception rather than in preconception.”
Doesn’t “finding rather than making” also mean that plein air painting is just more fun than studio based, more purely conceptual work? Or, to put it another way, aren’t you saying that a big attraction to painting outdoors is the visual excitement of changing light and other surprises of nature that challenge you in a way that is more meaningful?
Christopher Chippendale: I see my work in a tradition of painting where the notion of forgetting plays an important role. In that tradition, forgetting is a technique employed by painters in the service of discovering things in an original way. It has an established history in the discourse of observational painting. Constable spoke of his desire to “forget that [he] had ever seen another picture.” Corot wrote of the need to “[detach] yourself completely from what you know,” and Monet told his student Lilla Cabot Perry to “forget what objects you have before you.” When Hawthorne taught students to translate objects into “spots” of tone-color, he added, “Don’t think of things as objects. Think of them as spots coming one against another.” He thereby encouraged students to forget what things were, while prompting them to consider what they saw solely in terms of the tone-color sensations that things presented. My own teacher, George Nick—himself a recipient of Hawthorne’s counsel as transmitted through his teacher, Edwin Dickinson—routinely doled out phrases like “forget what you know” and, borrowing from Mallarmé, “abstract your eye from memory.”
Each of the above utterances was shaped by the specific historical circumstances that gave rise to it. Taken together, however, they echo a consistent theme. For each of these painters, the idea of forgetting was an intentional strategy employed to help them disrupt the easy, homogenizing channels through which visual sensations were resolved by conventions and habits of mind into symbolic forms. The idea of forgetting, then, as I intend it, has been employed by generations of observational painters as a means to circumvent the familiar, culturally determined ways of looking at things, which dominate and make possible the normal conduct of our daily lives. It is the tyranny of such conventions and habits of seeing that these painters have sought to sidestep through the practice of forgetting.
As a tool of seeing, forgetting has an atomic interest; it is concerned with origins, with trying to locate and express the basis, or bottom, of what is perceived. Importantly, its use by painters presupposes a foundational trust in direct visual impressions as a basis for their work. Both “finding” and “making,” as I use these terms, relate directly to this notion of forgetting. Making concerns the execution of an idea, something determined beforehand. Finding, as I mean it here, presumes no such predetermination. One “finds” things precisely because one doesn’t expect to. The work of the finder is neither goal—nor destination—driven.
You ask me whether finding, rather than making, also means “that plein-air painting is just more fun than studio based more conceptual work.” In response, I want to acknowledge, first of all, that the terms of your question do not disguise your intent to be at least a little provocative. Painting out-of-doors, or anywhere else, as I’m sure you know, is not like going to the amusement park. I do, certainly, sometimes feel a special kind of excitement when painting out-of-doors in a direct, improvisational manner. My excitement is partially propelled, I think, by my feeling on some such occasions an evaporation of a barrier that I often feel separates me from the world. I put in abeyance my critical mind, my skepticism, my penchant to analyze, and give myself over as completely as possible to the process of painting. Perhaps the excitement of such moments is that, being completely absorbed in the moment, I lose all sense of time and, with it, all sense of my being a sentient creature in time’s passage. I forget, that is, my own mortality. Painting, in such moments, “outside of time,” I do sometimes feel as though I existed, not in mortal clock-time, but in the originating moment of the experience that I am simultaneously depicting.
To be clear, though, I don’t find painting out-of-doors to be in the least lacking in intellectual rigor, or in any way conceptually deficient, as your questions suggest. Those were the criticisms leveled against the Impressionists: that they were mere passive recorders, that they were sensual, anti-intellectuals, that their work lacked thought and planning, that, by accepted standards, it was formless, lax and without structure. Wherever I am painting, but in particular out of doors, I am engaged with a fundamental problem: that of trying to make sense of (that is to say, to make order of, to structure) a number of shifting, unstable variables of both an objective and subjective nature.
Standing before the easel, I am looking both for a synthesis of vision and a concurrent means of transposing to the canvas a representation that feels true to the changeable qualities and complexities of what I see. I am working with and against my own history as a painter in my efforts to see clearly and respond honestly to what is before me. I am working with and against the schemata of painting approaches of the past. I am letting myself go, one moment, reacting to the immediacy of my enterprise, and then checking myself, the next, stepping back from my easel, attempting to make sense of the interpretations I have set down upon my canvas. I am trying very hard to get at my subject, to determine what it is exactly that I am painting, all the while fabricating a form to express it. These are complex procedures, procedures of the mind as well as of the hand.
All that said, I think the “big attraction” for me in outdoor painting is its amplification of a fact that I find always present: that, try as I might to see or interpret the visual world as something fixed and finite, there is ultimately nothing ever stable or fixed about appearances, anywhere. Some situations (painting indoors or under controlled lighting) may offer the convenience of seeming to be unchanging, but all studio-based artists working perceptually know that the more you look at something the more you see, and there is simply no end to it. In conditions such as these, what becomes obvious is that it is not the motif that is changing, but the painter—his perceptions, his feelings and his projections upon the motif before him. Such changeability in the painter confirms the truth of what Zola meant when he wrote (in 1866): “A work of art is never anything but the combination of a man, the variable element, and nature, the fixed element” (my italics). This subjective and self-reflecting “variable element” in painting, and its relationship to the perceived world, is where many of my interests stem from in my work as an observational painter.
Larry Groff: Why is the painter’s experience before the sensations of nature so important? Why should we care about what some painter feels while painting outside?
Christopher Chippendale: I think the short answer to your first question is that we wouldn’t have art of any kind if we didn’t have artists’ experience, whether those experience were before “the sensations of nature,” as you put it, or before anything else. Speaking for myself, I cannot separate my experience from the work I produce. Yet I should say here, in answer to your second question, that I neither paint nor reflect upon my painting process in order to elicit interest in my painting experience. I paint and I reflect upon my process in order to get at my subject, to define it more clearly and—as far as may be—efficiently.
In this regard, I am not concerned if others care (or don’t care) about what I myself feel or experience when painting outside, or anywhere else. I am glad if people are interested in my paintings, but my efforts are not geared towards communicating my experience to others. My efforts are geared towards ascertaining what that experience is, what its perimeters are, what forms and aspects it takes, the colors it assumes. My focus is on what I see and on trying to get the stubborn paint to do what I want.
As I’ve suggested, perceptual painting for me is not a mimetic art form. I am not involved in copy work, but in trying to find and shape the right expression for my experience before the motif. I am not involved with copy work because there is never one thing for me to copy, any more than there is one fixed point in time, or one given form, or one given color. There are only forms and colors and experience that change and modulate the more I look at things, or the longer I do.
I am an observational painter. I am engaged with the art of trying to find and lay down upon my canvases accurate translations of what I see. I want to show how things really are, or how I experience them to be, yet how things are is attenuated by my awareness of their mutable character, and by the fact that my experience of them, as defined by the attributes of a particular moment, changes from one instant to the next. These changes may be generated from the outside (as by measurable shifts of light as occur when working out-of-doors) or from the inside (as by my changing moods or sensibilities) or by the simple fact that the more and longer I look at something the more I see. My experience, like my motif, is unfixed, variable and ongoing; it exists over time and, as such, it changes over time.
What is of consequence to me is not my experience but the work that arises from it, the achievements and qualities which that work shows. I am the ultimate arbiter of its success. I will look at my work and find that it either does or does not succeed in showing (according to my terms and understanding) how things really are, or how I need or want or them to be, in order to express what I am after. Usually—nine times out of ten—my work falls short, which keeps me going to the next painting, and to the next.
Larry Groff: Why is it important for the artist to paint what is “true”? Isn’t getting such things as the “right color” measured differently by each painter? That if Corot, Cezanne, Van Gogh all painted exactly the same scene, each would make a completely different painting, but all would be equally true?
Christopher Chippendale: The fact that the criteria of “what is true” is determined differently by each artist does not alter the importance of painting what is true, or of trying to do so. What is true is, after all, not a given. In the case of observational painting, determining what is true depends upon site-specific information and highly individualized processes and ways of seeing which are unique to each artist. Accordingly, we can appreciate work from a wide range of styles (you mention Corot, Cezanne, Van Gogh) without calling into question whether the work of one or another of these artists is more “true” than that of the others.
In the tradition in which I work, observational painters scrutinize the world that is immediately before them. They check and cross check like doubting Thomases what they see. They adopt a skeptical, circumspect eye both towards their own assumptions and towards appearances. They train themselves to let go of their acquired knowledge in the interest of seeing things “truly” as they are, without prejudice. And they do all this to establish, as unequivocally as possible, the terms of the particular truth of the particular painting before them. The British painter, Rodrigo Moynihan, put it this way, while considering (in a 1934 essay) the late work of Cezanne. In Cezanne’s scrutiny and approach, Moynihan recognized what he termed “that skepticism of the true ‘eye’ painter, whose creative spirit must proceed by assuming nothing in its search for a synthesis of vision, which, while not pretending to be absolute, is true under the particular laws which govern it.” Not absolute, but true under the particular laws which govern it. That, to me, seems like a pretty good recipe for one’s goals for a painting. Such an approach necessitates, Moynihan goes on to say, “The visual attitude in painting, as opposed to the conceptual or idealistic [one] and… the artist… directed not to the perfection of a pre-conceived form but by the appearance of his painting.”
Most of the problems with the concept of “truth” for observational painters (as for everyone else) stem from its appropriation as an absolute concept. Even your phrase, “paint what is true” carries an overtone of a compunction to paint something already determined, something fixed and established, as though “what is true” were some fixed notion existing independent of the painter’s efforts to determine it. For some—for those who hold “the conceptual or idealistic” attitude towards painting—“what is true” is in fact a fixed, preexisting notion, to whose standards they feel their work should conform. From my point of view, what is true does not exist independent of my efforts to determine it.
Ideas of truth in observational painting, at both the institutional and individual levels, are not sacrosanct, irreproachable, singular, beyond question. Most histories of painting tell a history of orthodoxies of truth and of challenges to those orthodoxies. The most famously quoted modern example was the institutionalized painting of the French academy and the Impressionists’ reaction to that orthodoxy. The same kind of struggle, between the purveyors of institutionalized ideas of truth and those marginalized by those hegemonies, continues today. In the field of representational painting, for example, a monopoly of today’s curators, galleries, art theorists and graduate painting programs have preferred on the whole to follow the trend of championing a kind of painting based on the meanings of represented subject matter, rather than on how things are made. Understandably, this does not sit well with those observational painters for whom the emphasis of their art remains upon the how of painting as a primary means of expression. As Andrew Forge said of Monet’s later work: “To unravel its meaning is in a sense to enter into its making.”
We are surrounded at every moment by institutions, sciences, policies, schools, religions that have either set themselves up in the name of “truth,” or claim to speak in its name. Such a proliferation of “the truth” or of “true discourse” (oral, visual, what have you) has had a pronounced effect upon us. “We must speak the truth,” Foucault said, adding, “We are constrained or condemned to confess or to discover the truth.” Foucault’s larger concern was the analysis of power. Who sets the standards of truth? Who are the purveyors of truth? What relations of power are involved in the production of discourses of truth? Observational painters, including the schools and spokespersons for the particular styles or brands of observational painting, do not operate independently from this will to truth, nor from the powers it serves. We all have a stake in it, and our individual practices are implicated by it. We understand the social construction of the individual today much more than we did a generation or two ago. One of our obligations as individual painters, I believe, is to identify and question the standards and ideas of truth that our own work serves.]]>