I was fortunate to talk with Gina Werfel recently over Skype and interview her where she lives in Davis, near Sacramento,CA. I’ve long been enchanted by her paintings and was excited to get a chance to talk about her life as a painter and her concerns involving moving from being an outdoor landscape painter for many years to her current studio based abstract painting.
The writer Dewitt Cheng reviewed her 2012 show at the Alex Bult Gallery saying:
“Gina Werfel, a New York painter relocated to the rural Sacramento area to teach at UC Davis, has changed in recent years from making plein-air landscapes to exploring abstract, ambiguous fields of colored plasma, “fragments floating in a fluid space.” In the new abstractions, Werfel synthesizes shapes and colors remembered from her earlier work, motifs from daily life (including the studio), and the pentimenti, i.e., repentances, “the ghosts of previous decisions,” that accrue during painting and repainting.” “…Werfel’s new abstractions may have abandoned the window on the world for subjectivity and improvisation, but a feeling of landscape lingers in her “organic” palette and the forms evoked by her linear accents.”
I would like to again thank Gina for taking the time to speak with me at length about her work and concerns as an artist.
Gina Werfel has shown widely including the Adler and Co Gallery, San Francisco, Prince Street Gallery, New York, NY, Alex Bult Gallery, Sacramento, CA, Jane Deering Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA and many others. She is a Professor of Art at the University of California-Davis, Davis, CA
Larry Groff: What were some of your most important early influences that lead you to decide to be a painter?
Gina Werfel: I had always been interested in art growing up, every free minute I had was spent drawing or painting. My father died when I was very young and my mother, who never finished college, raised me. She too was interested in art as a child but her mother wouldn’t let her go to Pratt, which was her life’s dream. My mother was very supportive of me in pursuing my interest in art.
I grew up on Long Island where a family friend, a graphic designer with his own business, encouraged me to make art. I became very close to the painter Eli Friedensohn at Kirkland College (now incorporated with Hamilton College). He became a role model for me of a life as a painter.
I decided to design my own semester abroad in Italy with the help of Eli, who had received a Fulbright in Italy. The following summer, I went to the Boston University Summer Program at Tanglewood where I met Jim Weeks, a Bay Area figurative painter. These intersections with important artists helped me formulate my life as a painter. Elias Friedensohn also suggested I attend the New York Studio School (NYSS).
I started out at the NYSS studying with Gretna Campbell, Leland Bell and Esteban Vicente. Gretna was very supportive but I connected more with Mercedes Matter and transferred to her drawing class. Mercedes was one in a series of pivotal mentors. I had found my community of peers. This was what I wanted to do, to be around other artists, look at great art, to live and breathe painting and drawing.
LG: What in particular have you’ve learned from them that has the most relevance to your current work?
GW: Leland Bell taught me to look for color in the most neutral tonal situations, such as painting from the model. Mercedes was my main inspiration, teaching me about spatial connections and how to move from figuration to abstraction. Andrew Forge introduced me to British painters and a more conceptual approach to making art. I always remembered his quote from Degas, “Painting is not an outdoor sport” when I was feeling limited by plein-air painting.
LG: You helped run The NYSS summer program in Paris, how did that come about?
GW: Mercedes Matter had a reputation of ignoring women. I had a very different experience, she was an amazing presence for me. Her spirit of not saying no to anything was similar to mine. I remember painting late one night in spring of 1974 and getting together with Mercedes for a late dinner. The Studio School then had a Paris summer program and I asked Mercedes” Why don’t you let us run the Studio School in Paris this summer?” I was 23 at the time and I had just started dating my future husband. She said, “Great idea!” She paid for my airfare and we found a cheap place to live and we ran the program for two summers. Elaine de Kooning was there as well as George Spaventa, Nick Carone and Wayne Thiebaud. We also took the students out to meet Joan Mitchell at her home near Giverny.
LG: Did you have Louis Finkelstein as a teacher at the NYSS back then?
GW: Louis Finkelstein was an influence on me as well. Mercedes would bring him in occasionally. He once did a close reading of the philosopher Albert North Whitehead’s Process and Reality and because it was such a dense book there were maybe four of us who are brave enough to read it together just a few pages once a week sitting on the library floor with Louis. It’s interesting, after I left the school, Louis and Gretna became bigger influences on me.
During those two summers at the Studio School in Paris is when I started painting outdoors. I was also influenced at that time by my future husband, Hearne Pardee, who introduced me to plein-air painting. Once landscape painting became a big part of my practice, that’s when Gretna and Louis became more important to me. One of the things that wasn’t that clear to me while at the Studio School was how perceptual painting and drawing could ultimately lead to abstraction in my own work. I think what I admired in Louis’ paintings was that he worked in a place between representation and abstraction. Louis was also important to me because of his intellectual interests. The dense analysis that Louis brought to the Studio School was very important to me.
Another significant influence was Andrew Forge, who became the Dean while I was still at the NYSS. Andrew published a lot as a scholar and critic but was a very committed painter. He was very different from anyone else at the school; he talked about a whole host of British artists that I had never heard of before, like Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. He had studied with William Coldstream I believe. His was a more intellectual approach to painting than I have been used to at the Studio School.
LG: I don’t know if we hear as much about Louis and Gretna in the art world these days.
GW: It’s too bad they’re not better known. I think Gretna still has a following and Tibor de Nagy Gallery represents her estate. We rented their place on Cranberry Island in Maine for a summer. It was great to paint where Gretna had painted for so many years.
LG: You painted the landscape from observation for many years. Can you tell us something about that and how you’ve changed after moving to California and since 2008 have concentrated on painting abstractly?
GW: Back in the late seventies I got a grant for a residency at the Bear Mountain State Park. Alan Gussow, a painter, had set up an artist-in-residence program in the National Park System called the “Artist in the Environment”. For Bear Mountain, he chose 5 artists whose practices were quite diverse but we were all using the natural world as a resource–Melissa Meyer, Ned Smyth, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Rachel Bas-Cohain, David Grubb. David and I were the only observational painters. I had been feeling frustrated with painting the city, where the architectural forms seemed to inhibit my brush marks and gesture. I thought going to Bear Mountain would offer great views but it was totally green and enclosed. I started hiking into the woods to paint rocky stream beds in which I started to lose the horizon line. A few years later, when I interviewed for a teaching job at Vassar, an art historian said “Oh, Lennart Anderson calls you the woods painter”. Lennart was struck that I didn’t have a horizon in my woods paintings.
The location of my teaching jobs has influenced the kinds of landscape that I paint. While we were still in New York I was obsessed with painting in the woods, whether it was right across the river in New Jersey or hiking in Bear Mountain. When we moved to Maine I thought there would be tons of woods motifs, but there were none. Paper companies owned all the woods and much of my surroundings was young growth. I begin painting traditional landscapes but then every summer I started going out to paint on different islands. I realized that I didn’t like bright sunny weather; I wanted a kind of unity that comes with grey light and/or fog.
Throughout my four moves for teaching positions, water became more important to me. My growing up in Long Island as well as living in Maine made the ocean a very important subject, with my paintings incorporating tidal shifts and weather patterns. When I was recruited to Virginia and later to Connecticut where both places tended to be very overgrown, I painted still water ponds. After being recruited to teach here at the University of California at Davis I thought I could finally get back to painting water and hilly scenes again but once I arrived here I was shocked by how flat everything is, Kansas flat! I became very uncertain about what to paint. Eventually, I found the bald hills near Vacaville, where I painted for the next five years.
LG: Really I’ve thought the area around UC Davis was like what we see in Wayne Thiebaud’s paintings of the Sacramento River Valley.
GW: It is like that but he’s painting them from an overhead perspective. Anyway, for the next five years I would commute out to these hills, especially when they turned yellow – I loved them. Californians would always suggest that since I was a landscape painter I should paint these hills when they’re green! I’d tell them I hate green, I don’t want to paint green hills.
Since I was Department Chair and had young kids, I didn’t have the time to drive 45 minutes each way to my motif. I started painting locally at a dammed up stream where luxury homes were being built. One day I was painting a big house across the lake and I asked myself “Why was I painting this scene? This isn’t my life”. At that point I had only worked on my paintings outdoors. I hated this particular painting and decided to try something new. I brought the painting back to my studio and blew it up onto a large 48 by 60 canvas. It didn’t improve it. When I turned on its side, it started to look like an interesting abstract painting. So, that’s kind of how that transition happened. It was very exciting because some of the things I was always looking for in motifs, like when the wind would shift and break up the reflections in still water, I could accomplish in this kind of abstraction.
Besides freeing up the horizon line in the painting, moving into abstraction freed up my palette. I was enough of a realist painter that if the sky was grey I wasn’t going to paint it bright green. You asked me if I miss the stimulation from working outdoors. I do miss it, but I’m also figuring out how to incorporate observation, such as when I’m painting in my studio and I see a flood light that gives me an idea of a kind of mark I want to make or I just layer stuff that I perceive in different spaces into a single painting. I could never do that kind of layering when I was outdoors, except when painting reflections–where I could build up that kind of layering of space. I was putting up new images of my landscapes on my website a few weeks ago, they feel very different to me, but there was one I did a few years ago that is very close to what I do in my abstract work. Occasionally I might get an idea, like using an old doll to get a sense of a form I want to use, to layer that in. My source material is so much broader than when I was painting the landscape.
LG: Does your past involvement with observation-based landscape still play a role in your current work? Do you ever miss the structure of responding to observed situations and the excitement of painting outdoors or has the advantages of studio-based painting convinced you this is how you want to go forward with your work?
GW: When I am teaching on the French Riviera at Chateau La Napoule each summer, I still work outdoors as well as draw in museums in Paris from paintings and sculptures. I do still love the exhilaration of working outdoors, but it just may be that I am an outdoors person!
I don’t really feel like I’ve left observational painting behind as much as use it in a different way–collaged and improvisational. So I may start a painting based upon one of my son’s childhood drawings but then I turn the painting upside down to free it up from representation and then I’ll layer it with a segment of the view out of my studio window. I am constantly adding stuff from my everyday environment to free my mind from habitual ways of working- whether it is something incidentally observed like how my shoelaces are tied or the wires around my laptop or some flowers in a vase. The difference now is that I am not committed to one view of a motif but use perception as a tool to drive the work in new ways.
LG: What about working from the memory of a landscape or figure? Using that as a source for your abstract paintings?
GW: I could do that but the thing that fed me for so long in working from observation is that you discover new relationships that one doesn’t necessarily see when you’re trying to reconstruct something from memory. I also have a horrible memory!
LG: I am curious about the connection of your work to music. Hans Hoffman called rhythm the “the highest quality in a work” and he also said: “The general misunderstanding of a work of art is often due to the fact that the key to its spiritual content and technical means is missed. Unless the observer is trained to a certain degree in the artistic idiom, he is apt to search for things which have little to do with the aesthetic content of a picture. He is likely to look for pure representational values when the emphasis is really upon music-like relationships.”
Leland Bell, also stressed musicality when he said “Everything… has to be resolved through rhythms. You’re constantly massaging each form, trying to get it home, pushing further and further until these all coalesce into a marvelous kind of rhythm that reveals the life of the painting.”
LG: What might you be able to say about the connection of music to your work? Would listening to music while painting interfere or help with the process of creating musicality, rhythm in your work?
GW: Music and dance are critical to me. Even though I’m not a performing artist, those modes of movement, rhythm and sound are so important. So, on some level I don’t think it matters what my subject or style is as much as that I get that kind of rhythmic patterning that I like so much in music and dance.
I just saw the Twyla Tharp Company a couple of nights ago perform a 45 minute piece based on J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. So all afternoon today I’ve been listening to Bach- thinking that his notation is not unlike what I’m trying to do with paint.
I collaborated with a composer colleague, Pablo Ortiz, last fall for Art Silicon Valley/SF Art Fair. He chose one of my larger paintings, “Restraint” and wrote a short composition for two flutes. Once I heard his piece, I wanted to paint another “faster” painting to match the pace of his piece. Listening to music definitely helps loosen me up to explore new rhythms in painting. It can be anything, from Amy Winehouse to Sigur Ros or Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
LG: Gesture also seems very important to your work.
GW: Gesture is what animates my painting–it goes back to choreography and musical composition. I do listen to music as I paint–all kinds while working. It functions as another tool to unglue my mind from the everyday and instead focus on rhythm. I also try to watch contemporary dance like that of Merce Cunningham.
I want my paintings to have an excitement and energy in movement–pushing me to embrace more than I initially thought I could. I sometimes feel that my paintings show a side of me that I don’t reveal in my everyday life–exuberance and high energy!
LG: What stimulates you to begin the improvisation in your paintings? Is it possible to talk about how particular gestures, shapes and colors evolve in your work?
GW: Improvisation requires a suspension of planning. Sometimes it is just putting down colors and marks to see if they respond to one another. I think about Albers’ color theories and how relational colors are, using neutrals to contrast with higher keyed color. There is a lot of erasure in my process, and those obliterated sections of a painting give a depth to the image. I look for movement and gesture to push a painting forward.
“Improvisation is at the root of my practice—responses to the way a particular color or mark leads to another… Untethering myself from the demands of representation has allowed me to abandon the restrictions of a horizon line and naturalistic colors, and to explore without restraint some of the same issues that I had explored in landscape–dynamic, edgy movement, spatial complexity and atmospheric color and light… Speed, movement, gesture, allusions to the body and to landscape are all embedded in these paintings.” from “Gina Werfel – Persistence of Vision” catalogue
LG: Another great quote from Hans Hofmann quote has him saying: “Nature’s purpose in relation to the visual arts is to provide stimulus—not imitation… From its ceaseless urge to create springs all Life—all movement and rhythm—time and light, color and mood—in short, all reality in Form and Thought.”
As an Abstract painter, what aspects of painting from observation, do you feel is most important to teach in the studio classroom today?
GW: I love your Hoffman quote! Painting from observation teaches one how to “see” and we painters have a responsibility to teach our students how to see better than the average viewer. How does one learn to see space as a container that encloses figures and objects and that drawing is less about the documentary depictions of disparate objects or human figures? Also how can the exactitude of seeing lead to abstraction? In my own teaching, I use the perceptual approaches of Mercedes Matter, Charles Cajori and Nick Carone. They each taught drawing from the model as a network of intersecting planes and critical points in space. One didn’t just focus on the model but used him/her to locate points and planes.
LG: Can you speak about the importance of drawing in your work? I understand you also taught a NYSS Drawing marathon? What is that like?
GW: I don’t draw on a daily basis that much anymore except when I am traveling and in museums, but the presence of drawing is in most of my paintings- I am using the colored marks as a notation of space. I taught a marathon for the first time in September at the NYSS and I had a great experience. The title of my marathon was “Perceptual Abstraction” and I used various approaches to spatial organization to get the students to undo their habitual practices. The results were exciting to witness. The intensity of 9 hour days with models created an almost athletic disciplinary milieu. No one was allowed to sit down or take long breaks!
LG: What helps you best decide that the painting is complete?
GW: Completion of a painting is the hardest thing for me to decide. I work on several paintings at once and find that I keep working on them even after I think they were done when I left the studio the day before! Sometimes it is a studio visit and a visitor’s casual observation about a painting that opens up my mind to see it differently.
LG: What have you been currently working on that might be of interest?
GW: A newer development in my work has been the works on paper in acrylic and collage. I have taken risks that are harder to translate in the larger more sustained oil paintings. I never seem to tire of working flat on several pieces on the floor. The satisfying moment of gluing a small piece of paper to mark a point is still thrilling as well as being able to walk around a painting while working on it. A colleague was in the studio recently and he suggested that I should find a very large brush that I’d attach to a long stick on my back so I couldn’t see my marks as I made them while moving around the studio. I love that idea!!
LG: You’ve been a Professor of Art at the University of California-Davis since 2000. Wayne Thiebaud taught there for many years and UC Davis has a reputation of being among the best schools for studying painting. I understand you were instrumental in bringing Rackstraw Downes to speak at the Betty Jean and Wayne Thiebaud Endowed Lecture at UC Davis. What can you say about your experience at UC Davis and recommend to someone considering studying painting there?
GW: I have loved my time here at UC Davis. The legacy of the founding painting faculty- Wayne Thiebaud, Manuel Neri, William Wiley, Roy deForrest and Roland Peterson- is still richly present. Wayne is someone with whom I love to talk painting and I was excited to be given a chance to name our new endowment in Betty Jean and Wayne’s honor. Rackstraw Downes was our first speaker and Peter Schjeldahl will speak in March 2016.
I would encourage students to attend our MFA program if they wish to paint in an open and interdisciplinary environment rather than staying within a community of painters. I think differences in practice stimulate our MFA candidates to test their own boundaries.
I have also been team teaching first in Italy for four summers and now in France for the past five summers with my husband, Hearne Pardee, also a Professor of Art here at UC Davis. It has been an intense but fantastic experience each time. I love combining studio-based teaching with drawing in museums while living abroad.
I also taught for Yale’s new liberal arts college, Yale-NUS in Singapore last winter- it was my first trip to Asia and it just exploded my mind! I worked on paper and began to incorporate Chinese decorations into my paintings–pushing the layering of space with stencils of these forms. Yale-NUS also invited us to teach a collaborative weeklong class with the Sorbonne in Paris last summer and that too was a fascinating experience!]]>
Robert Dukes was interviewed by Neil Plotkin for Painting Perceptions in 2011 before his his show at the Browse & Darby in London. Mr. Dukes informed me recently of his upcoming show at his Browse & Darby gallery in London. (11 November – 04 December) Browse & Darby shows the work of leading representational artists, currently having an Euan Uglow exhibition, one of Robert Dukes former teachers.
Robert Dukes is London based painter who studied at Grimsby School of Art followed by the Slade School of Art with Patrick George, Euan Uglow, and Lawrence Gowing. Robert Dukes lectures at the National Gallery and teaches for the The Royal Drawing School.
Dukes shared with me some images of new work included in this show and also graciously agreed to share excerpts from the fascinating September 2015 interview with him and the art critic Andrew Lambirth. This comprehensive and engaging interview can be read in its entirety on the Browse & Darby from this link. An e-catalog is also available.
Painting from Observation
Andrew Lambirth: When you’re doing a painting from observation, it’s not just about the visual facts, is it?
Robert Dukes: No. But the emotional thing is either there or it isn’t. You can’t turn on emotion, you can’t generate it, and you can’t fake it.
On the Unfashionability of Still Life Painting
AL: Why do you think that still life painting is currently unfashionable? You don’t see a lot of it about, by contemporary artists, do you?
RD: No, you don’t.
AL: Has it always been unfashionable?
RD: It used to be that in the hierarchy of art it was low down monetarily-wise, so you’d think that the lesser painters would do it. But a good example is Melendez, who wanted to be a fashionable royalty portrait painter, but both he and his dad fell out with the court, so he ended up an impoverished still life painter. You wouldn’t know that looking at his pictures – they’re amazing. Why is it unfashionable now? I think it’s a broader question of why serious painting from observation is unfashionable. It’s not seen as cool or ironical or knowing enough, it’s just what it is. But that’s the reason I do it. I’m painting about painting really, not making an ironical distanced statement. I want to be in the painting, I want the marks to be the thing that I’m painting, which is the opposite of the current trend in painting.
The Importance of Drawing
AL: How important is drawing? Is it still central to what you do?
RD: It’s enormously important. I do think there are a lot of people who are serious figurative painters, who paint from observation, who don’t draw very much – and you can tell in the work. If I don’t draw a lot, the paintings don’t have what Robert Motherwell called ‘a precision of feeling’. When you’re painting, you have to feel where all these marks are going to land, and if you haven’t got your hand and eye co-ordination in from drawing, it’s going to look flabby.
AL: So what is a typical day?
RD: I get up about a quarter to eight and I draw from 9 o’clock to just after 10 o’clock, and if I don’t draw for at least an hour before I paint, I can’t do it. It’s like getting my eye in or doing scales. The first half-an-hour is absolute torture. It’s like anybody could draw better than that. It all goes in the bin. And maybe one morning out of 20, at the end of the session something comes out that is worth keeping.
The drawings are rarely related to what I’m painting that day, they’re usually copies from reproductions in books. Then I start painting just after 10 and try to keep going till 6 o’clock. I do very similar hours when I paint to the hours I worked in the National Gallery – in other words, office hours. I think it’s best to try and find a consistency, just as it’s important to have consistent sleep patterns. So it becomes natural – this is what you do.
Painting from the Middle Out
AL: Tell me about this idea of painting forms from the middle out.
RD: There was a thing I picked up on even at Grimsby, which came from Camberwell, which was not to try and draw a contour or an outline and then fill it in, but try to paint across a form. Gowing talked about that when I first went to the Slade. I want my paintings to have more and more plastic force, to be more realized, to be more there. I paint from the middle out because I don’t want to rely on an outline to define the form. Somehow the colour mixtures define where the edge is rather than monocular measurement.
It’s not as if I’m copying reality: the colours relate to the colours I’m seeing. There may be seven mixtures of colour across a quince in a painting. Obviously the gradation of tone across an actual quince in natural light is infinite, so you’re making equivalents. And you’re also trying to make something that will work as a flat shape. Ideally every single mark will have its own autonomy, have decorative quality, design quality as well as standing for volume or form. Sometimes you make a colour mixture and it feels completely like guesswork, yet it lands on the surface of the picture and it almost goes by itself, and that can somehow define the scale of the form…
Painting from the middle out, and not being in such a hurry to try and find the edges may seem to run counter to the idea of measurement. If you were measuring such a subject as two quinces, one of the first things you would measure would be where the furthest right-hand side is and how high is this quince to that quince, in other words the edges. In practice you utilize both methods, and you measure back into it. When you’re painting from the middle you often feel as though you’re modelling the forms and when you measure you feel like you’re carving back into the forms.
Transcription – Is It Cheating?
AL: I know that some people think that if an artist makes a copy of another artist’s painting, in some way it’s not an original work of art – it’s almost cheating. How would you respond to that?
RD: In some ways they may be right. It’s very hard to compose a painting from scratch, but even when I’m painting a still-life from observation I’m not copying it, I’m making equivalents in paint for what I’m seeing. As Coldstream said, even the most realistic painting looks nothing like reality. In the same way, when you copy a painting, you are – to a lesser or greater degree – transcribing what you’re seeing, you’re not trying to copy it so that someone will be gulled into thinking it actually is a Braque. That would be a pathetic thing to do. Just as pathetic as those poor souls who try to paint photographic realist pictures that get into the National Portrait competition every year. It must be a living death to paint those pictures. You can’t tell anything about the person who painted them; all you can say is that they’ll probably last longer than a photographic print. They don’t have any analogy of form or structure or design or decoration or human content.
AL: Let’s talk about the Balthus. Why did you pick that painting?
RD: Because it’s beautiful. I’ve done lots of Balthus transcriptions in the last ten years but I wanted to do something a bit bigger and more ambitious. (I’ve done lots of heads from the early Balthus portraits of Thérèse, the young girl that was the daughter of his concierge when he lived in Paris in the 1930s.) Anyway, this painting is from his chateau and I’ve edited out the tree and the farmer who appeared in Balthus’ version. So it’s not a direct transcription, and in doing that you realise how important those elements are in the original. I just wanted to paint it like a stage set. And this is why in a nutshell I wanted to paint it and paint more landscapes. I paint still-lives normally and they’re lumps. They’re usually one or two lumps, like one or two apples, in a bare space. Landscape is the opposite of that. This was like trying to paint a stage set or a big space that goes right to the edge of the canvas, rather than paint a single object in the middle of a space.
In any painting, even if it’s a single object painting, the whole surface has to be animated and that’s one of the reasons it’s hard to do single object paintings because they can just dominate the whole space and not work as a flat shape. But in a landscape the whole rectangle is animated right from the start.
AL: But certain shapes in your Balthus transcription are nevertheless leaping out at me: those two wedges and the pale quadrilateral field at the top. Is that true to the original?
RD: The two triangles at the bottom are sunlight coming through and they are very prominent in the picture. The field in Balthus’ painting is obfuscated by the tree, and so it’s not so prominent. One reason for copying anybody, and especially someone as good as Balthus, is that you become more and more in awe of how good they are. Everything in the original links up – it’s terrifying. What’s so amazing is that it seems like a game of analogy and rapport of forms and yet it seems very true to what it actually looks like.
AL: Do you agree with Auerbach that painting can’t really be taught? He said ‘all you can do is get people to where they jump in and swim’.
RD: Yes, but you can teach them certain things. I’ve been recently teaching painting for the Royal Drawing School, and there are aspects of it you can teach. What tone is, for instance. The worst question students ask – and they ask it all the time – is ‘how do I make a flesh tone?’ As though they only need one mixture to cover the face! They don’t understand it’s to do with all the other colours around it and the light conditions. That’s so fundamental. Tone is the hardest thing to teach, more than drawing or colour sense. You can also teach how to mix colours and keep a palette clean.
Tacked on the Studio Wall
All sorts of people like Freud and Auerbach have things written on the walls of their studios to remind them or egg them on. George Rowlett has “WORTHY IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH” written on his studio wall. All I’ve got in big horrible letters is: ‘MIX THE COLOUR”. It’s what I teach my students at the Royal Drawing School. If you don’t get the right colour mixture, even if you draw as well as Leonardo da Vinci, it will not sit. But I’m a bit like that myself: I try and force it, or make it work with drawing. But if I get a colour and really believe in it, it sort of falls off the brush and lands in the right place. And if it’s the wrong colour it’s like magnets opposing each other: it tries not to sit on the canvas.]]>
This past summer Alan Feltus and his wife Lani Irwin graciously invited me to visit in Italy at their marvelously restored stone farmhouse with an adjacent studio converted from a barn. Their property, where they’ve lived since 1987, is surrounding by an exquisite flower garden overlooking unforgettable vistas of the Umbrian countryside. I was fortunate to not only view many of Alan Feltus’ paintings in his studio but also to talk with him at length about painting, especially about the incredible artwork in nearby Assisi. Painting Perceptions is very grateful to Mr. Feltus for his generosity of time and energy with this email interview. Tina Engels also contributes important questions to this interview that you read towards the end of the article. Alan Feltus also agreed to our reprinting a 2005 essay he wrote on composition that was previously published in American Arts Quarterly.
Alan Feltus is represented by Forum Gallery, NYC
From the Forum Gallery: … Born in Washington, DC in 1943, Mr. Feltus studied at the Tyler School of Fine Arts and later received a B.F.A. from Cooper Union in New York and an M.F.A. from Yale University. He has received many awards for his work, such as a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant in Painting, the Augustus Saint-Gaudens Award from Cooper Union, and the Raymond P. R. Neilson Prize from the National Academy of Design.
Alan Feltus has had one-person gallery exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles and Washington D.C., as well as Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans and Rome. His work has been included in exhibitions at the American Academy in Rome (New York and Rome), The Joseph H. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Washington, D.C.), The National Academy Museum (New York), and the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C.
He has also been commissioned by the American Medical Association in Washington, D.C., and The Montana Building in New York. In 2001, he received the Raymond P.R. Neilson Prize given by the National Academy of Design in New York. He is also included in several important public collections such as The Arkansas Art Center in Little Rock, AR, The Bayly Museum in Charlottesville, VA., The Corcoran Gallery of Art and The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., The National Academy of Art in New York, NY, The Oklahoma City Art Museum and the Wichita Art Museum in KS.
Larry Groff: As a youth you had a unique early exposure to various artists. Your mother and Mercedes Matter shared a house near East Hampton where Jackson Pollack lived nearby and you also visited Alexander Calder’s studio with your mother. You assisted in the studio on 57th street of your mother’s artist friend, Sari Dienes, who became an important early influence. She had well-known artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg visiting her studio. What was this life like for you back then?
Alan Feltus: When I was a boy growing up in the city, New York was smaller. There weren’t nearly as many art galleries then as there are now and they were on 57th Street and on Madison Avenue, my neighborhoods. Back then the Museum of Modern Art was much more wonderful than it became after its recent transformation into something altogether too large and too crowded with visitors. Their own collection had the best examples of works by the best artists. For a few years we lived on 57th Street, five blocks from MoMA and I went there frequently on my own. I would go to see foreign films in the basement auditorium with its rumbling every time the subway passed. I would enter into the world of those films. I had favorite paintings upstairs I would re-visit each time I was there. The Metropolitan Museum and MoMA were places I loved to spend time in.
Sari Dienes was a Hungarian artist I knew well. My mother rented a studio apartment in the building where Sari had her studio. I was like a studio assistant to Sari in those years, in the 1950s. It was probably more than anything else the atmosphere of her studio that intrigued me. The dim light from large windows and her collections of things she made into her assemblages, most of which were found on her walks in the city. And it was the idea of living as an artist, a maker of things. Sari taught me to see beauty in everything and to be interested in all kinds of things. I hardly knew Rauschenberg and Johns, who were around in those days, because I was a very shy boy, unable to talk to people. I saw their exhibitions and I liked their work.
LG: I understand that when you were in the Yale Graduate program you copied an Arshile Gorky painting of himself with his mother (The Artist with His Mother). What did you learn from this experience and what influence did this give you in your work?
AF: That wasn’t exactly a copy of a Gorky painting that I made. My idea was to paint a Gorky that Gorky never painted. It was an indirect kind of copy. I worked from a photograph of Arshile Gorky with his daughter, Maro, on his shoulders standing next to André Breton in the landscape. I was looking at the photograph of Gorky as a boy with his mother taken in Armenia from which Gorky made two paintings and several drawings. I was very interested in the paintings by Gorky and de Kooning and also John Graham, whose work I only got to know when I started that project. It was their early figure paintings from when they and their paintings were quite close that I wanted to know as well as I could. I wanted to internalize how those paintings were made.
In the early figure paintings by those three painters I saw how painting had transitioned from the late 19th century, through Cézanne, and into the 20th century; a bridge between past centuries of figurative painting and a kind of abstraction that was still figurative and relevant in our time. In their paintings there was a kind of re-inventing of the figure into something very elegantly stylized, with a flatter space and clear reaffirmation of the picture plane.
I absorbed what I could of their early figurative paintings and how each of their work moved into a more nonobjective abstraction without losing the elegance of form characteristic of the earlier figures. I was too young to begin to know where my own work was going to go, so borrowing what I learned from immersing myself in their visual language gave me something from which I could gradually find what would be my own. I let the Gorky-de Kooning-Graham influence carry through my paintings until it dissipated on its own.
LG: Do your paintings have autobiographical elements to the narrative and a reason for painting similar themes over and over.
AF: What I paint is, in some respects, my interior world, so, yes, my paintings can be seen as partially autobiographical. They have qualities like stillness and quiet that I seem to need in my paintings, and that probably has to do with growing up as a very shy and introverted child in the shadow of a beautiful but very difficult mother. I was a silent observer taking in all kinds of things that formed who I was, and who I would become as an artist.
In 1993 I made a series of paintings about myself and my mother. The theme was somewhat related to Gorky’s mother and son paintings, but it was unlike those in that what I wanted to do was to see if I could better understand how I managed to survive the very difficult relationship I had with my mother. The first of those paintings had a young boy standing with a few toys at his feet, looking anxious while his mother was self absorbed reading, paying no attention to the boy. Neither of us was like myself or my mother in appearance, but I put symbolic things in the painting that were specifically about us. My mother was in her nightgown, with her I Ching book and the three coins she used to find specific passages that would address questions she had about her life. My toys were minimal, as in those early years we moved back and forth from cheap hotel rooms to the apartments of my mother’s friends when they would be on vacation, with very few possessions, living out of suitcases with little sense of security. The other paintings in that series were about my adolescent years, living with my mother in Rome, where we were for my last year of high school.
I paint figures in interiors with a few pieces of furniture and often newspapers or letters on tables or on the floor or being held by a figure. I repeat imagery of that sort because that is what I want to paint. I am interested in the psychological play that can be variously interpreted between my figures. So it becomes over and over that I paint similar imagery, but no two paintings are the same. I can think of many painters whose paintings are very much more alike than mine. They I question. Myself, not
LG: How much does your history and personality affect your painting? Conversely, how much does your painting affect you as a person?
AF: My paintings have to be about myself. For that not to be so would mean I paint meaningless paintings, or paintings about things chosen randomly. A teacher might assign a subject or an idea for students to work from. An illustrator will be asked to illustrate a given idea or product. Centuries ago all painters illustrated Biblical or historical stories, or made commissioned portraits. Their challenge was to make great works in spite of those dictates. Given the freedom we have today, I would hope artists would work with what is inside of them in some way.
My identity as a person is largely tied to who I am as a painter. I can be anonymous when I am out and about, separate from the paintings I make, unknown to people around me, and that anonymity is good. I can’t be away from my studio for an extended period without starting to feel lost, as though I don’t know who I am and what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s a disconcerting feeling. I like when I meet someone who already knows my work. But, like the rest of us, I am a person affected by all kinds of things other than, and in addition to my work.
LG: You spent time in Provincetown when the elderly Edwin Dickinson was living there. You’ve stated that Edwin Dickinson is one of the contemporary painters you admire most. Can you share some of your thoughts about Dickinson and why a painter whose work is often observation based has such appeal for you as a studio painter working primarily from invention and memory?
AF: Dickinson painted from observation in his large figure compositions, and his self portraits, and in his smaller fast landscape paintings, but his paintings are not very much like what he observed. That, of course, is true of almost all painters painting from observation, but in Dickinson’s case, more so than most. What Dickinson did with his figures in their large cluttered interiors and his very strong, often almost fierce, self portraits, and his partly smeared quick landscapes is his alone, and that interests me a great deal. I don’t separate those who paint from observation from those who work from invention and memory. I see paintings, and not kinds of paintings. And I think what I consider to be good paintings are going to mix observation with something else. That can’t be helped. A thousand choices are made while the landscape or the still-life painter or the maker of portraits works.
LG: I’ve read that Edwin Dickinson’s The Cello Player, Henri Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy, Felice Casorati’s Susanna, and The Artist and His Mother by Arshille Gorky are the four most influential contemporary paintings to your work.
Would you care to say something about why such an unexpected selection?
AF: Dickinson’s Cello Player was hanging in what is now called the Smithsonian American Art Museum when I started teaching at American University in 1972. It has a figure playing a cello surrounded by beautifully painted teapots and books and instruments seen from above in a subdued light. I liked the grays ranging from a delicate mauves to earth yellows and umbers. I liked the quiet of the painting. I liked its scale. So it talked to me. And that kind of knowing paintings will exert some influence on my own work.
I have loved Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy since I was about ten years old. It was one of the paintings I would stand in front of at the Museum of Modern Art. Although Henri Rousseau is considered to be a primitive painter, and the little I remember reading about him as a person suggests both he and his paintings were naive, I find his Sleeping Gypsy to be purest poetry. In what may be a contrary way of thinking, I have sometimes said Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy is more sophisticated than the paintings of Monet, because Monet was just interested in capturing the light of different times of day on haystacks, or on a church facade. That isn’t about poetry, that’s a mechanical exercise compared to the poetry in a good Rousseau.
When I was painting at the American Academy in Rome (1970-72) Felice Casorati’s Susanna was hanging in the in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, in the Borghese Gardens. That one painting was the one that interested me most in the whole museum. I saw that painting as having everything I thought I would want in a painting of mine. It had a nude woman and a clothed man, each sitting on a chair, and a third a chair, a few objects, newspapers on the floor and a bit of the architecture of the room space. And I loved how it was painted. It was there in my studio at the American Academy that I found the direction my work was going to take, and that single painting was key to that. Casorati is one of many very good Italian figure painters working mainly between the wars who interest me. Of those only de Chirico and Morandi were known to most American painters and students. Fortunately, now their work can be seen on internet.
The Artist and his Mother by Arshile Gorky is mentioned above. Those four paintings might be my selection of the four most influential single paintings for me. Of course there are many, many paintings and many painters who have been very important to me over all the years I have been painting.
LG: Balthus would also seem an artist that influences your work, can you say something about what his work means for you?
AF: Balthus isn’t among those four painters named above because your earlier question was about what four single paintings most directly influenced my work. Rousseau isn’t one of the artists who most influenced me. That particular painting, The Sleeping Gypsy, had a place in my life from long before I went to art school, before I became familiar with the work of Balthus. I have learned a lot from Balthus because there is a strong and deliberate concern for composition in nearly all his paintings. The Street, painted by Balthus in 1933, also hung in the Museum of Modern Art, and it also had a strong influence on my work. But it would be several Balthus paintings rather than a single painting that have spoken to me.
Originally written in 2005 and printed in American Arts Quarterly
Figurative paintings, like abstract or nonobjective paintings, want to work in formal terms, quite apart from their image and their associations. A painting may be about a person sitting on a chair in a room, but it is also a complex fitting together of shapes that can be appreciated as such, apart from any representational reading..My own paintings, although carefully rendered and perhaps seen as realism, are invented images with all manner of visual distortions and unreality. In my paintings, composition is intuitive by nature, rather than based on any imposed system where the placement of forms is governed by a geometric framework A painting that is organized intuitively is arrived at by instinct, maybe quite unconsciously. I have always liked painters whose compositional structure is as apparent as their narrative content, from Giotto and Piero della Francesca to Balthus. For me, a painting wants to achieves a balance between the structural language and the subject matter.
What are the aspects of intuitive composition? First of all, the need to find a balance must be central in such a discussion. We relate to balance in an image as we do in real life. Things in equilibrium are stable and not disturbing. I like quiet paintings. My paintings have to be stable and quiet in order to work for me. Some painters need disquiet. (Compare the seventeenth-century paintings of Vermeer and Jan Steen, painters from the same culture yet totally different in this way). Balance is intuitive. We achieve it automatically as we paint, each of us having our own kind of balance. Things adjust in position until they are within equilibrium.
LG: Ingres’ manner of painting the figure would seem to be something you’ve thought a great deal about. Your figures are precisely drawn but more to satisfy the needs of the painting or to get at some mysterious quality rather than wowing us with verisimilitude. What are your considerations when drawing and painting the figure?
AF: I want, and seem to need, to have paintings create a kind of quiet that is conveyed by how figures are drawn and painted, and how paintings are composed. It is due to the arrangement of figures and how everything can be so carefully considered that in a finished painting nothing should be able to be shifted, or eliminated. Nothing new can be introduced. I think all paintings I like have that in common.
Ingres redesigned human anatomy and created a rarified, unreal world rendered so exquisitely that we accept it all as real. When I see paintings that do that I tend to like them.
LG: There is often an unusual geometric and gestural configuration underlying how the figures relate in the painting. You don’t use models other than looking in a mirror, how much does other art play a role in your composing? Can you say something about how you go about making a painting?
AF: I don’t compose a painting with any structural system in mind. The structure comes intuitively. I start painting directly on the white oil ground of a stretched canvas. I make a few pale marks that might be the two sides of the torso of a figure. And the same with a second figure, watching the interval between the contour of one figure and the next, and watching those in relation to the edges of the canvas, I continue to put pale brush marks on the white ground, making changes and covering the white of the ground. Within minutes I will be redrawing what I see there, adding arms and legs, and necks and heads. The parts of a chair might be suggested, and maybe the line separating floor from wall. A diagonal shadow across the floor. I’m looking at what will be solid parts of the figures and what will be the spaces between those. I might put a table top in the bottom of the painting that in effect pushes the figure back a little in the space. And I might put some objects on the table top.
That will go on for days, with changes, and scrubbed out painted over lines. Limbs moved. White ground being covered in a tentative color, a little less pale now. Form becomes more solidified. Figures emerge and move about. And I’m watching what the painting is about almost as though it’s not me painting it. An idea might emerge that I hadn’t started with. I might see a female nude and another figure that might be a man, or it might be another woman, maybe partly clothed. And everything remains subject to revision until things find their places, and then I repaint what is there until I’m satisfied with what I have.
I take breaks to look at books. Casorati and Balthus. Degas. It isn’t that I get ideas from seeing other paintings so much as I am being encouraged by looking at great paintings, or having something like a kind of color being suggested. I stop painting when the daylight fades and start again the next day. I begin a second painting when the first is at a state that excites me in some way, when something promising suggests itself.
When I have two canvases started and both are covered and there is no more white ground showing, and many adjustments have already been made, then I usually stay with one of the two canvases until it is close to being finished, and then I put the other one on the easel. I use mirrors all the time to better understand the form of anything I can see of myself in the mirror. Not using models is both making things harder for me and giving myself greater freedom. I started painting without a model when I didn’t have the money to pay a model, and I grew to prefer being alone in my studio. Then working without a model became how I worked, without questioning it.
LG: Early Renaissance painters like Giotto, Piero, etc are clearly an influence in your work. I’ve read that you also used photographs that you took of Roman Portrait busts as source material for some of your paintings.
Have you ever sculpted? What attracts you to the roman portrait bust? Can you say something more about this?
AF: I rarely use a photograph of a Roman portrait sculpture or of a head from a painting by someone else or a photograph of a person in my paintings. Sometimes I photograph sculptures in museums from all sides and angles thinking I will use them as source material, but I rarely look at those photos. It is more the quality of the sculpture or painting that has an influence. It’s subtle and indirect and I may not realize I am being influenced by something that way. I look at those things some when I find I need to understand the structure of a head in a particular position my figure is in, but usually I don’t find an image that matches the position of a head or the direction of the light in my painting. So I am left to struggle with my memory and my mirrors.
LG: Your figures sometimes have an androgynous quality, is this something you think about?
AF: No. I think that is part of what happens in my paintings without much thought. But I do have kinds of faces and bodies that I like and others I dislike. When I paint looking at myself in a mirror I tend to make what I paint look younger and more beautiful than what the mirror reflects.
LG: Your figures often stay within a certain age – rarely very old or very young. Have you ever made a figure in your painting that you’ve fallen in love with? Do your figures result from any sense of an ideal form or beauty?
AF: Have I ever made a figure in a painting that I have fallen in love with? Interesting question. No, I’d like to experience that, though.
In Greek mythology Pygmalion fell in love with his sculpture of a very beautiful woman, and in that story she came alive. In my life, rather than in my paintings, in a sense that happens. I have such experiences with very beautiful women I see somewhere, but that stays nicely within my fantasies. The figures in my paintings usually fit within that younger age when people are more beautiful. They are nicer to spend my studio days with. However, occasionally that changes. A few years ago I made two paintings about me getting older and dreaming about being again with a beautiful young woman. So in those the man is older. One was more or less a self portrait and the other not.
My idea of ideal beauty I do work with.
LG: I was very touched by your marvelous gift of some 1911 stamped envelopes and letters from Milano with outstandingly ornate penmanship that you bought at a flea market while I was visiting you in Assisi this summer. For many years your paintings often depict people with letters, envelopes, blank sheets of paper, or perhaps a newspaper. What do these letters mean for you and where are these letters coming from?
AF: I collect old letters. The monthly antique markets always have envelopes and postcards and only the ones with stamps of significant catalogue value are expensive. I buy a few each time I go to the markets. They have stamps printed in a single color and beautiful calligraphy. Only once did I copy an actual stamp on an envelope in a painting. I make up the stamps and the writing. They are not clear enough to see in any detail. I paint envelopes and pieces of paper in my paintings for their compositional meaning and because I like how a letter is from, or to, someone outside the image of the painting. That changes the narrative in subtle ways that I like. I think, maybe the letters and newspapers in my paintings started when I saw Felice Casorati’s Susanna in the museum in Rome in 1970, but I can’t be sure because I have always liked envelopes and stamps and how various painters painted newspapers, creating the sense of columns of print and headlines without anything actually being legible.
LG: Your paintings would seem to be a psychologist’s delight. Your figures have an enigmatic emotional tone that often suggest existential, sexual, and perhaps philosophical mysteries. Have you ever talked to a therapist about your paintings?
AF: No. I haven’t talked to a therapist about my paintings. I believe the paintings that don’t have those kinds of mysteries are likely to be the ones we find boring, We should be grateful that therapists haven’t had their way with painters.
LG: Your work celebrates the slow, quiet, meditative, qualities in painting. Like most really great paintings, they slowly unravel with repeated close looking in front of the actual painting. With this in mind, what are your thoughts about the shortened attention spans and where many people are more apt to snap a cellphone photo than to spend much time standing and looking closely at the painting. I read recently where a museum studied the average time viewers spent in front of a painting, was something like 10 seconds. Does painting in this Attention Deficit Disordered future ever worry you?
AF: No, I am not worried about that. A study like that is meaningless. I will walk through museums filled with great paintings and only stop in front of a few of them. If I stop in front of one painting for ten minutes (and that one painting might be one I have stood in front of for many hours over many museum visits) what does that do to the average time I spent in front of a painting in such a study? I believe my paintings, and the paintings I like made by other painters, can be visited over and over, and can be seen in memory and thought about when we are no longer in their presence. And there is nothing new in that. We paint for ourselves and for those who will spend time looking at paintings.
LG: Your subject matter of a few figures in an interior has been remarkably consistent over the years. Do you ever want to paint something completely different?
AF: No, I seem to want to stay with my kind of imagery. I haven’t lost interest in what I do. I don’t feel as though I am repeating myself and I’m not sure that would bother me if I did. Think about your own favorite painters of all times and countries. Generally their work stayed fairly consistent through their career, or at least in their mature years of making paintings. For me it is the painters whose work hardly holds my interest even for a few seconds that I wonder about how they stayed so long within one kind of imagery. How did they have a continued appreciation for what they were doing? I think often it was success that urged such artists to keep repeating what they were known for, to supply works for an eager market. That’s not my game.
LG: I read where you once said “That which is not about technique is harder to teach, or maybe impossible to teach”. What is the most important point you’d like to get across in your lectures and teaching?
AF: One can learn to render exquisitely so that figures and objects might look astonishingly real, but that skill has little to do with good painting. it can also be part of great painting, but it is not a prerequisite of good painting. The technique to render flawlessly is teachable, and is taught by painters who probably learned those techniques from teachers who in turn, in my opinion, didn’t understand what makes great paintings.
I tried to teach how paintings are constructed, referring to the paintings I found most important. Students begin their studies with little or no understanding of composition and of what separates a great painting from a lesser painting. I tried to instill in students a passion for learning and a sense that finding one’s self is what matters most, and that that takes years.
LG: How does one make extraordinary paintings?
AF: We can ask ourselves what paintings interest us most throughout the history of art. And then we can ask ourselves why we chose those paintings. And we might start to find answers to those questions. The answers will be personal. Some of us love paintings others of us dislike. And that is how it should be. I talk to students about what makes some paintings extraordinary, what makes one painting of the same subject matter stand apart from hundreds of other paintings of that subject matter. The answers to that question will vary from one person to another. But it is in thinking about such questions that answers begin to come.
Questions from Tina Engels
Tina Engels: Your paintings convey subtle tones of color and light that as a whole emanate overall warmth. Do the warm tonalities reference the warm Italian light, specific painters of interest to you, specific genres of painting or is it something else you are drawn to?
AF: I don’t know the answer to that. It may be all of those things, but the way I understand it, my color is what I have to have in my paintings, like the quiet. I paint out bright colors if they creep in. I like a kind of unity of color, a rightness of color within a painting. And in the simplest of terms I dislike a painting that is all warm or all cool in color. There has to be some of one with the other. I want my paintings to feel as though they have air, and that has to do with color. And the color of a painting wants to stand out as being exceptional, whatever its nature is.
I work with a rather limited number of colors and those are intermixed or adjusted in slight ways by mixing complimentary colors together. That is, a red will be reduced in its redness by a little green, and so on. But I do that kind of adjusting without thinking.
TE: The paintings create the subtlest arabesques and fluidity of form. Is this something that evolves in the construction of the work or an abstract element pondered in advance and would you be willing to discuss the creation of these varied rhythms that seem so important to the work?
AF: Nothing I do is pondered in advance of starting a painting. Everything results from seeing what emerges on the canvas in front of me and reacting to that, triggering a series of adjustments. And that continues for weeks or months as I work on a painting. But this is me. Other painters work very differently. There is no right or wrong way to make a painting, more or less, assuming we are talking about good painters.
TE: On Giotto and the cycle of 28 frescoes in the Upper church of the Basilica di Saint Francesco in Assisi, would you be willing to comment on the authorship of these frescoes, do you have and thoughts on Giotto as auteur or not?
AF: First of all, I want to say that those are extraordinary frescoes, and the question of attribution exists because there are no documents stating that Giotto was paid X number of gold florins for his work in the Basilica of San Francesco. And there are no documents indicating who other than Giotto painted them. Giotto was the most celebrated painter of his time, so all the Italian books and postcards state that those are Giotto’s frescoes. But they are not all that much like the undisputed Giottos, such as those in Padova. Whether Giotto painted the frescoes or another artist painted them, or perhaps students of Giotto painted them, makes no difference to what they look like. They and the other frescoes in the basilica are wonderful. The totality of the basilica, built on two levels, one atop the other, every inch frescoed, is what brought Lani and me to settle in the hills outside of Assisi in 1987.
About a year and a half ago Lani and I met Mark Webber in Naples and we looked for frescoes by Pietro Cavallini that Mark had on a list. Pietro Cavallini was believed by some scholars to be a likely painter for having painted the Assisi frescoes in question. The last place we visited was Santa Maria Donnaregina Vecchia. It is a little known, hard to visit church next to the church of Santa Maria Donnaregina Nuova. There we saw three enormous walls painted by Pietro Cavallini in four horizontal tiers extending up to a great height, and more of them, and more amazing in quality, than any of us had begun to expect to find. So, maybe the Assisi Giottos of the Upper Church of San Francesco were painted by the Roman painter, Pietro Cavallini.
TE: You have a unique artistic relationship with your wife Lani Irwin and your sons, Joseph and Tobias Feltus. Would you share something about how your familial artistic community has influenced your work?
AF: Certainly there are various influences between the four of us. And at the same time we are each distinctly separate in our work, except for when we collaborate. Tobias and Joseph have collaborated on photography and film projects, and to some extent Lani and I have collaborated with Joseph on short films. I made a lot props and parts of sets in 1 to 6 scale for the film Joseph is working on now. And Lani and I and Tobias made some props for Joseph’s award winning film, Solo Duets, a few years ago.
My interest in Gorky’s paintings and Balthus’ paintings has been shared by Joseph, as can be seen in his films, but I’m not sure how much or little any of their work has influenced my painting. Lani and I have been together 42 years sharing studios and discussing paintings, so there will have been influences both ways between us. Certainly having the continual support of a very creative family has helped me to be the painter I am.
Most images in this article courtesy of Forum Gallery, NY
Figurative paintings, like abstract or nonobjective paintings, want to work in formal terms, quite apart from their image and their associations. A painting may be about a person sitting on a chair in a room, but it is also a complex fitting together of shapes that can be appreciated as such, apart from any representational reading..My own paintings, although carefully rendered and perhaps seen as realism, are invented images with all manner of visual distortions and unreality. In my paintings, composition is intuitive by nature, rather than based on any imposed system where the placement of forms is governed by a geometric framework A painting that is organized intuitively is arrived at by instinct, maybe quite unconsciously. I have always liked painters whose compositional structure is as apparent as their narrative content, from Giotto and Piero della Francesca to Balthus. For me, a painting wants to achieves a balance between the structural language and the subject matter.
What are the aspects of intuitive composition? First of all, the need to find a balance must be central in such a discussion. We relate to balance in an image as we do in real life. Things in equilibrium are stable and not disturbing. I like quiet paintings. My paintings have to be stable and quiet in order to work for me. Some painters need disquiet. (Compare the seventeenth-century paintings of Vermeer and Jan Steen, painters from the same culture yet totally different in this way). Balance is intuitive. We achieve it automatically as we paint, each of us having our own kind of balance. Things adjust in position until they are within equilibrium.
Another crucial aspect of composing is how elements relate to one another and to the edges of the canvas. Paintings should not look like randomly cropped pieces of something that continues beyond the edges of the canvas. A painting is an object, complete and unique unto itself, different from the world around us. A painting is a transformation of something observed or invented. Transformation is necessary.
To understand the relationship between composition and the recognizable subject, think of Picasso’s Cubist paintings. What we see is an abstracted image, which might portray some objects on a table in a room, but is above all a collection of shapes and colors and textures that reflect, or relate to, the vertical and horizontal edges of the picture plane. It is a construction that is very much about underlying structure. We assume that music and poetry are based on underlying structures. As children we learn about the way words and notes are organized to create form. Paintings also depend on such structures.
We don’t refer to Cubist paintings as realist, of course. Realism, in any of its guises, tends to lose this balance between formal structure and image. For me, that is a problem. Too often we read the image and miss the painting.
Completely abstract paintings, in which there is no figure, landscape, still life or other subject, are about composition itself. We see the paint as paint. We see the color and texture and value and the way paint was applied, the gestural touch of the painter’s hand..
I think of myself as choreographing figures and objects when I make a painting. A painter has complete control over the precise relationships between forms. Everything can have an exact position and character that will remain forever unchanged. This fixedness is unique to painting (and photography). The painter wants to find the most perfect visual arrangement of forms he can find. When a painting is finished, it should be that nothing can be moved or added or taken away without upsetting the whole of the painting. One doesn’t want be haunted later by inadequacies not seen while painting. Of course, this is a near impossibility.
If every element in a painting is a part of the composition, then any line or color, any object or any space between objects, has been positioned, and then adjusted and adjusted again, to work in a precise way with everything else. This holds true for the division between floor and wall, the shape of a cast shadow, the presence of a book or a teacup. If I paint a piece of drapery or a piece of paper on a chair, that element is there because it has a compositional purpose. It might serve to continue a visual line across the painting’s surface, establishing a relationship to those several parts that now line up in a particular way; at the same time, it might help define the way space reads in the painting. A piece of paper painted in perspective becomes a tipped plane. Placed on the floor, such a shape can hold an otherwise ambiguous area of color down as a floor and thus define the space. If the feet of a figure or the legs of a chair are not within the edges of the picture and are therefore not seen touching the floor, the space behind or next to the figure might read as wall—unless we place some shape there that would hold it down as floor. We can create a whole complicated patterned floor drawn in perspective, or we can paint, in effect, one square of a checkered floor that serves the same purpose. Of course, spatial ambiguity is sometimes also desirable. Wall can read as wall and at the same time as floor and not wall. Any element, such as the piece of paper on the floor, can serve many purposes. It will also be given a gesture. In terms of the narrative within a painting a tipped plane may be an envelope or a letter, introducing associations that would not be there if that something were a small piece of cloth
Every form in a painting is given a gesture. Gesture does not belong exclusively to faces and body language. A piece of drapery, a book or a chair or a piece of floor seen between the other objects can be said to have gesture. An artist makes forms as he makes gestures. He can’t help it. In fact, it is this quality that allows us to recognize the hand of a particular artist in a small detail from an unfamiliar painting.
We are who we are as artists because of what we paint and how we paint it, but we are also defined by our limitations. It matters what we want to make and what comes forth as we work—intentions informed by knowledge and desire, subject to our best abilities and our limitations. I see my limitations as part of my identity as a painter, and I know the struggle involved in the making of any painting is necessary. I usually consider paintings that seem to have been made without struggle to be suspect. Painting is very difficult work, requiring endless patience.
Back to interview]]>
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.]]>