I was fortunate to become good friends with Christopher Chippendale while we studied with George Nick during our undergraduate years at Mass Art back in the mid-80’s. Christopher and I also both went through the same graduate degree program at Boston University, however not at the same time. We continue to keep in touch and it has been a great pleasure to compare notes and observe the paths both our works have taken over the years.
Christopher Chippendale is represented by Soprafina Gallery, Boston and has been a member of the Painting faculty at Mass Art for twenty-two years. In addition to his work as an artist, Chippendale has been the recipient of numerous grants and awards, published critical essays on art, curated and juried many exhibitions.
The Soprafina gallery will have a solo exhibition of Christopher’s new work in November of this year and he will teach a summer landscape painting workshop this July at the ART New England summer program.
I am grateful to Christopher for putting the considerable time and effort into such thoughtful and articulate writings in response to my questions.
Larry Groff: What led you to decide to become a painter?
Christopher Chippendale: In the summer of ‘74, my brother, who had himself studied painting before becoming a photographer, wanted to stage and then photograph a tableau vivant based on Manet’s Le dejeuner sur l’herbe. At the time, we were living at a place called Wood’s Ranch—a sprawling, ranch-style rambler on an old estate, surrounded by magnolias and lemon groves at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains in southern California. For the tableau, it was decided that I would take the part of the young gallant who, in Manet’s painting, reclines on one arm while gesturing casually with the other. My brother took the role of the second dandy, seated in the “picnic” center, whilst my then girlfriend sat for the female nude to the left, looking out at the viewer. Atop her discarded habillements, we arranged the same objects as seen in the foreground left of Manet’s Le dejeuner: a picnic basket, some fruit (they appear to be lemons), a hat (we apparently had no bonnet). An over-grown thicket of scrub and lemon trees served as our Bois de Boulogne. My brother set the camera on delayed timer, jumped into his pose and, with the click of the shutter, our playful re-enactment of Manet’s once-scandalous painting joined us to it—in California fashion—forever.
In the following months, a couple dozen prints of our mise-en-scene were produced in the darkroom and, that December, reflecting the wittiness of my brother’s conceit, we sent these out to friends as our Christmas greetings. Ten years later, when I enrolled in art school in Massachusetts to study painting, I came finally to realize the vocation that had been eluding me. Becoming a painter was the first vocational decision I had made in my life with absolute certainty and resolve. Like any momentous decision, it reframed the significance of events that preceded it, making them clearer and necessary, in this case fitting them into the larger narrative of my becoming a painter. Even minor events like our staging of Manet’s painting—which now took on an affectionately prophetic significance—looked fateful in light of my painting decision.
A few years earlier, when I was seventeen, I set out hitchhiking from my home town in California with a vague notion that I was “going abroad.” Nine months later I was in Afghanistan. I had wandered, alone and without an itinerary, through much of Europe, into Turkey and across the Black Sea to Iran, to Herat and as far east as Kabul. I have always been a wanderer, much more drawn to voyaging than to destinations. The openness of setting out with only marginally described objectives engages me still, as a painter, and it informs my work. I do not know the destinations of my paintings. I seek my subjects in the work itself. Like Cezanne, I seek in painting (“Je cherche en peignant”).
I returned to California from Europe and Central Asia and lived for five years in a remote cabin, high in a mountain canyon in the Angeles National Forest. This was my return to, and embrace of, the idea of living a “natural life.” It was also a retreat from the world such as I’d experienced it during my travels abroad, and a place for me to reflect upon them. I read literature and philosophy, wrote poetry, took long hikes, played music, drew and painted, swam daily in the stream outside my cabin door, communed with friends, and worked building trails and fighting fires for the National Forest Service. During one interlude from this period of my life I posed, with my brother and girlfriend, for the aforementioned Le dejeuner.
Looked at in one way, this was a paradisiacal episode of my life. I came eventually to see in it, however, an untenable future. I realized that I needed to be in the world, which I knew little about. I had grown less ambivalent about the value of a formal education, and was drawn to the history I had experienced in my travels, and in the literature and philosophy I read. I decided to move across the country to New England to go to college.
College was in many ways an extension in formal terms of what I had begun on my own already. I majored in French and French literature, writing my thesis on the idea of consciousness in Proust. As part of my program, I went to study in Paris. There, I took a cheap garret room in a five-story walk-up in the 6th arrondissement, and enrolled in French language classes. My interests, however, were in the life and culture around me. I would often cut classes and, as if this prefigured what lay in my future, spend my days wandering around the city, drawing and going to museums. In my daydreams I imagined myself returning to Paris to study painting at the Ecole des Beaux Arts.
Some weeks before my scheduled return to the U.S., I ran out of money. With no prospects of formal employment, I spent my last twenty-five francs on a book of early English ballads transcribed for alto recorder, and I descended into the metro. I busked there, two hours each day, for pocket money and to pay my hotel bill, changing venues daily to avoid harassment from the local gendarmes. To hold up my sheet music while I played, I used a collapsible stand which I fabricated, ironically enough, from the legs of a broken French easel I had found on the street one night.
You ask what led me to decide to become a painter. I think I was always predisposed to become a painter, but it took some important side-roads and divagations along the way for me to discover the rightness of that decision.
Larry Groff: You studied with George Nick, who has been a leading figure and advocate of painting from observation. What can you remember about his teaching that has been most influential for you?
Christopher Chippendale: On a practical level, Nick instilled in me the core conceptual and foundational tools that would continue to serve as a cornerstone of my painting to the present day. On a personal level, his way of thinking about painting helped orient me to a more outwardly focused, concrete way of looking at and being in the world. His was an existential influence and, therefore, for me, an influence of the most crucial kind—one that began with, and was ever refocusing my wandering attention to, the facts of the observable world directly in front of me.
Nick urged me to adopt a clear, that is to say, presuppositionless view of whatever I painted. I was not to presuppose anything in addition to what was actually given. Emphasis in his studio was upon immediate perception, upon what was there, before us, and upon seeing it as such, without past and without future. Nick wanted his students to make an effort, in a deliberate way, to cancel or put aside the normal habits and assumptions with which they approached the world in their everyday understanding. Our charge was to take visual sensations simply as they presented themselves, and only within the limits in which they did so.
To accomplish this required, besides an undistracted Zen-like focus upon the immediate world before us, an examination of the processes by which we, as individual painters, saw the world and transcribed it. Our outwardly focused concentration upon the given had also an inward, requisite component—call it self-examination—through which we should aim to discover how our conceptions of things colored, like tinted glasses, what we saw within the motif. Thought itself, in other words, had the power to transform the visible. One of my duties as an observational painter, I learned, was to understand the manner and mechanisms by which my own individual conceptions of things, whatever their origins, acted upon and informed my perceptions. As Nick’s own teacher, Edwin Dickinson put it, in a phrase reflecting the richness of his own circumspection: “The seen distortion is what a thought did to the sight.”
Nick guided us like a courtroom lawyer to question the veracity of what we saw, as evidenced on our canvases, and to question how our conceptions of things distorted how we saw them. Observational painting, I learned, was geared towards something much more essential and original than representing the motif. In my best work I didn’t presume to know what the motif was. Painting, as Nick taught it, was oriented away from the known world, towards the phenomenal one, away from our conceptions of things and towards things themselves. Painting did not serve a mediating role—it served an investigative one. Its function was not to express the predetermined, but to determine, in fact, what was, and to express that directly in ways that only painting could, and as accurately as possible.
Nick’s approach to observational painting reflected a defining 20th century philosophy, existential in nature, and committed to the truth of the unmediated. “Not ideas about the thing but the thing itself,” as Wallace Stevens put it, in a late, great poem of his by that title. It was a philosophy with which I resonated. I found in painting, moreover, a means to express it. I found there a palpability, a physical process that clarified for me a need to locate and express my experience of the world in concrete terms, which is to say, in things themselves.
Observational painting, I learned, was not a mimetic art form. We were not in the business of copying or duplicating what was before us, but of transposing it through paint, and through the forms we each adopted as individual painters. Our goal was not to match or try to outdo what nature did best, but to interpret it through metaphors that were “parallel” and in every way “true” to the facts we perceived, except in being literal about them. Ideas of “truth” in observational painting were, accordingly, not limited to ideas of “likeness” or verisimilitude. One could be absolutely true to the richness of one’s perceptions without being literal about them, in the same way that poetry can bear witness with great precision to truths and realities that lie far outside of, and are in fact inexpressible within, the jurisdiction of the literal.
I found observational painting richly full of paradoxes and contradictions, often vexingly so. Nick taught me to think more with my brush. I learned from him that making was itself a form of expressed thought, and that solutions were to be found in painting itself. Standing before the easel, considering the variables that arose in my paintings with every passing moment, I learned that it was ultimately important to act—to paint—in clear material terms, and sooner rather than later. If recklessness was the consequence, and errors and mistakes the result, then these were simply the facts and uncertainties of painting. Risk, in Nick’s view, would forever trump cautiousness, and I inferred from his approach, which I came largely to adopt myself, that being overly guarded and calculating in painting was ultimately a dishonest act.
The existential overtones of this approach to painting were clear and compelling. Nick’s insistence on the need to paint in the face of paradox and ambiguity, moreover, underscored the importance he placed on intuition, and he suggested a place for us to apply it. He encouraged us to paint at the threshold of the unknown, where there were no ready answers. “Paint more like a Martian,” he might say when we were painting too literally, implying that painting beyond what we already knew, and forgetting any preconceived ideas we had regarding the motif before us, would push us to see and reconstruct the world around us in fresh and original ways.
To illustrate the kind of painting I am speaking of here, which Nick modeled in his own work and encouraged us to essay in ours, I can share with you an important exchange I had with him on the occasion of his forty-year retrospective at Mass Art in ‘93, four years after I had left his studio. I was standing alongside him in the gallery before a long and narrow painting of his called Muddy River, in which a heavy-handed build-up of light-valued pigment in the middle of the canvas served to represent a wind-blown highlight reflected on the River. Seen up close, from the position where Nick had painted it, that ungainly chunk of paint struck me as overly two-dimensional in its effect and weirdly out of place: it sat brazenly upon the canvas surface and did not conform at all to the three-dimensional plane of receding water upon which it so obtrusively lay. Yet, as one backed away about ten feet from the painting, that seemingly coarse application of pigment sat right down into the illusionistic, three-dimensional space of the river where it seamlessly took its place. So I asked him: “How did you know, when painting that passage, while standing, that is, directly before the canvas, that that crude chunk of paint when seen from ten feet would sit right down into the three-dimensional world you were also describing? Speaking quickly, as though he were still flush from the victory of having just painted it, Nick turned to me and said, in clear, declarative terms: “I willed it! You have to will these things!”
Flummoxed by his response, and embarrassed that I couldn’t grasp straight away the sense of what he had just told me, I said nothing, while my thoughts swirled. Was this some kind of Buddhist riddle? What did Nick mean, “I willed it”? What mysterious powers did he possess that, by simply wanting something badly enough, and forcing his will to achieve it, it came to pass? Surely this was no fantasy; the canvas before us did not lie. The passage in question was clear and marvelous. Its construction, as paint, was tangible. This might be an example of wish fulfillment, but it was the opposite of wishful thinking. How, then, did this notion of willpower fueled by artistic desire correspond to the notion of craft? How did one learn how to do such things?
In time, with more experience of my own as a painter, I came to appreciate the sense of Nick’s response to my question. I came to grasp the nature of his accomplishment, and to understand its relationship to craft. I came to see this particular passage in Muddy River, moreover, as an emblem of his painting philosophy, and a distillation of much of what I had learned from him. Nick’s philosophy of painting, and the source of his success in Muddy River, lay in a dynamic recipe of several components: hard work and the state of preparedness hard work engenders; an absolute commitment to the terms of the instant; a willing embrace of the adventure and risks of the unknown; and a concomitant reliance on intuition to guide critical action when painting outside the provinces of acquired knowledge.
In stressing the importance of hard work, Nick insisted on the discipline of finishing every painting one began, however bad, or good. He once told me I ought to be “chained” to my easel, after I had abandoned a painting that was causing me too much pain and difficulty, and had gone to him for counsel and sympathy. When it came to matters of importance in painting—like finishing a painting, like pushing harder than one could possibly imagine to find and give shape to one’s subject—Nick was single-minded, hard-nosed, and a realist. He knew full well the inherent resistance of oil paint, that vexing, “oleous paste in its sticky inconvenience,” as Lawrence Gowing called it. He knew, also, the undercurrents of despair that accompany many artists’ realizations of the gap between their ambitions, on the one hand, and their actual achievements on their canvases, on the other. When, in no uncertain terms, he gave me to understand that the endeavor I had embarked upon as young painter would be unremittingly tough and full of setbacks, he was speaking from experience. He was also introducing me to the code and honor of being a painter.
Being a painter, he was saying, meant owning up to the privilege of contending with the struggles which shape and define one’s voice and one’s calling. Being a painter meant shouldering, proudly, and without expectation of outward recognition, an unconditional belief in the value of what one strives for in one’s work, and in the efforts needed to obtain it. Being a painter meant persevering in one’s darkest hours—the St. Crispin’s Eve many painters know—and believing, no matter how bad things look, that with faith in oneself, and with a new day approaching, one will find an answer. Such moral agency, as I found studying under Nick, had a profound impact upon me. It was one thing to study and learn the craft of painting in many of its objective manifestations. It was another to feel compelled by the greater purpose underlying it.
Like Cezanne, or FDR, Nick himself was a person of action, of doing, not of theories and speculation. He believed that finding one’s way to solutions and discoveries in painting was best facilitated through the only agency over which an artist has significant control: the production of a high volume of work. As his daughter, Katya—herself an artist and a keen and intimate witness to her father’s daily practice—once observed: “Creating a high volume of work…[was] for my father a moral obligation.” Of all the modern painters, I think, in this, Nick most resembled Cezanne. The image of his decades-long routine of setting out each day an hour before dawn in his oversized studio truck, so as to be on location and set up—his paint laid out, his brushes in hand—and poised to paint as the sun’s first rays broke upon his motif, mirrored Cezanne’s commitment and ultimate sacrifice.
Famously prodigious, Nick’s productivity in and for itself was not, of course, the goal or end-game of his practice. The goal of always producing was the state of readiness such practice produced. The goal was the greater potential for success that such conditioning made possible. Being prepared made more viable the chances of his succeeding when out on the frontiers of his own painting, where it mattered most, where there were no well-trodden roads, nor familiar stars to guide him. Nick painted for these moments. He trained for them, prepared for them and, when they arose, he was ready for them.
Through Nick I was thus exposed to a kind of painting that was geared to the uncharted, the unexplored. His was a kind of “frontier painting,” one which demanded of its practitioners a frontiersman-like preparedness and a come-what-may openness to whatever might lie ahead. I knew first-hand about improvisational modes of creating, about working extemporaneously with contingencies as they arose in real time. I had practiced and performed improvisationally for many years as a jazz string bassist. Nick’s approach mirrored for me also the openness of my setting out to travel years before without a set itinerary. It was an approach that did not prematurely foreclose upon the possibilities to be discovered by an overly determined agenda. It validated a way of thinking about painting where, as the Welsh novelist Gwyn Thomas put it: “The beauty is in the walking. We are betrayed by destinations.”
Nick did not teach painting as a performative art form in which something already known and mastered was simply repeated, however marvelous or accomplished such repetitions can sometimes be. Painting, as he taught it, was never about a particular “look” or brand or style. He taught painting as a performative art in that it was geared to the moment, to painting, literally, alla prima: at the first, at the beginning, before time. For me, Nick’s approach offered a compelling rebuttal to the notion that, as a human being, I wasn’t able to grasp my experience as it unfolded. In Nick I saw someone for whom action was more than a translation, a mere echo of the original. Even if one held to the absurdity of an instantaneous painting, Nick’s approach presented the possibility, at least, of narrowing the disconnect between language (whatever its form) and life. Such ideas would simmer and percolate and, years later, take on a critical role in my work as a painter.
The kind of time Nick painted in, and taught his students to pay attention to, was present time. One learned to respond to conditions before one, not as one would hope or wish or conceive of them to be, but, as immediate revelations. Even when I would sometimes return to a passage a fourth, a fifth time, in my efforts to get at something which eluded me, Nick urged me to approach that passage each time as at the beginning, as a vehicle for the exploration of the now. I learned that I wasn’t in front of my easel to “fix” things already made or given, but to discover them anew. In such a philosophy, each day is a new one. I wasn’t to be bothered or hampered by what went before. This was a progressive attitude, one which looked forward and was forward-looking. This was painting about the now, about one’s thoughts and feelings now, about the light in its particular aspect now, like his wind-blown highlight upon the Muddy River.
Painters paint as a condition of not knowing. This, at least, was one credo I took from Nick’s classes. I learned that I wasn’t in front of the easel to arrange or to construct meaning, but to discover it. Preempting craft (what I knew and could perform already) in the moment of a painting’s execution, was a requisite of painting in the moment, a requisite necessitated by the exigencies of the moment, when there simply wasn’t time to figure things out. When, however, having put out from safe harbor—from all that is known and familiar—and finding myself, as upon a wide open sea, “boldly launched upon the deep,” as the narrator in Moby Dick says of the Pequod, and “soon…lost in its unshored, harborless immensities,” I had better be ready. Nick, I would argue, in his best paintings—and as a condition of them—has thrived most on these moments of being “unshored” and “harborless,” and it is precisely at such moments that “willing,” funded by the preparedness, hard work and intuition underlying it, played its critical role.
In painting, as in all the arts, there are epiphanic moments: particular pieces or passages that stand out or rise above in an artist’s work. The promise such moments hold out is an important—perhaps the most important—ingredient that keeps the painter going to the next painting, and to the next: the idea, the feeling or hope, of breaking through. Nick’s attitude towards inspiration was emphatically unromantic. He knew there were no conjurer’s tricks, no incantations with which to summons the Muses. But he knew how to be ready for them if they arrived, and he knew how to trust his intuition as his guide. As Robert Frost once said, “You’ve got to act on insufficient knowledge. You’ve got to have that kind of courage.”
Larry Groff: In your essay, “Fluidity in Focus,” you discussed why it has been important for you to “forget what you know,” and engage directly with visual sensations, translating those sensations into color patches, and that you need to be in tune with the immediacy of the moment.
You stated that this “is an approach to painting based in finding rather than making, in perception rather than in preconception.”
Doesn’t “finding rather than making” also mean that plein air painting is just more fun than studio based, more purely conceptual work? Or, to put it another way, aren’t you saying that a big attraction to painting outdoors is the visual excitement of changing light and other surprises of nature that challenge you in a way that is more meaningful?
Christopher Chippendale: I see my work in a tradition of painting where the notion of forgetting plays an important role. In that tradition, forgetting is a technique employed by painters in the service of discovering things in an original way. It has an established history in the discourse of observational painting. Constable spoke of his desire to “forget that [he] had ever seen another picture.” Corot wrote of the need to “[detach] yourself completely from what you know,” and Monet told his student Lilla Cabot Perry to “forget what objects you have before you.” When Hawthorne taught students to translate objects into “spots” of tone-color, he added, “Don’t think of things as objects. Think of them as spots coming one against another.” He thereby encouraged students to forget what things were, while prompting them to consider what they saw solely in terms of the tone-color sensations that things presented. My own teacher, George Nick—himself a recipient of Hawthorne’s counsel as transmitted through his teacher, Edwin Dickinson—routinely doled out phrases like “forget what you know” and, borrowing from Mallarmé, “abstract your eye from memory.”
Each of the above utterances was shaped by the specific historical circumstances that gave rise to it. Taken together, however, they echo a consistent theme. For each of these painters, the idea of forgetting was an intentional strategy employed to help them disrupt the easy, homogenizing channels through which visual sensations were resolved by conventions and habits of mind into symbolic forms. The idea of forgetting, then, as I intend it, has been employed by generations of observational painters as a means to circumvent the familiar, culturally determined ways of looking at things, which dominate and make possible the normal conduct of our daily lives. It is the tyranny of such conventions and habits of seeing that these painters have sought to sidestep through the practice of forgetting.
As a tool of seeing, forgetting has an atomic interest; it is concerned with origins, with trying to locate and express the basis, or bottom, of what is perceived. Importantly, its use by painters presupposes a foundational trust in direct visual impressions as a basis for their work. Both “finding” and “making,” as I use these terms, relate directly to this notion of forgetting. Making concerns the execution of an idea, something determined beforehand. Finding, as I mean it here, presumes no such predetermination. One “finds” things precisely because one doesn’t expect to. The work of the finder is neither goal- or destination-driven.
You ask me whether finding, rather than making, also means “that plein-air painting is just more fun than studio based more conceptual work.” In response, I want to acknowledge, first of all, that the terms of your question do not disguise your intent to be at least a little provocative. Painting out-of-doors, or anywhere else, as I’m sure you know, is not like going to the amusement park. I do, certainly, sometimes feel a special kind of excitement when painting out-of-doors in a direct, improvisational manner. My excitement is partially propelled, I think, by my feeling on some such occasions an evaporation of a barrier that I often feel separates me from the world. I put in abeyance my critical mind, my skepticism, my penchant to analyze, and give myself over as completely as possible to the process of painting. Perhaps the excitement of such moments is that, being completely absorbed in the moment, I lose all sense of time and, with it, all sense of my being a sentient creature in time’s passage. I forget, that is, my own mortality. Painting, in such moments, “outside of time,” I do sometimes feel as though I existed, not in mortal clock-time, but in the originating moment of the experience that I am simultaneously depicting.
To be clear, though, I don’t find painting out-of-doors to be in the least lacking in intellectual rigor, or in any way conceptually deficient, as your questions suggest. Those were the criticisms leveled against the Impressionists: that they were mere passive recorders, that they were sensual, anti-intellectuals, that their work lacked thought and planning, that, by accepted standards, it was formless, lax and without structure. Wherever I am painting, but in particular out of doors, I am engaged with a fundamental problem: that of trying to make sense of (that is to say, to make order of, to structure) a number of shifting, unstable variables of both an objective and subjective nature.
Standing before the easel, I am looking both for a synthesis of vision and a concurrent means of transposing to the canvas a representation that feels true to the changeable qualities and complexities of what I see. I am working with and against my own history as a painter in my efforts to see clearly and respond honestly to what is before me. I am working with and against the schemata of painting approaches of the past. I am letting myself go, one moment, reacting to the immediacy of my enterprise, and then checking myself, the next, stepping back from my easel, attempting to make sense of the interpretations I have set down upon my canvas. I am trying very hard to get at my subject, to determine what it is exactly that I am painting, while all the while fabricating a form to express it. These are complex procedures, procedures of the mind as well as of the hand.
All that said, I think the “big attraction” for me in outdoor painting is its amplification of a fact that I find always present: that, try as I might to see or interpret the visual world as something fixed and finite, there is ultimately nothing ever stable or fixed about appearances, anywhere. Some situations (painting indoors or under controlled lighting) may offer the convenience of seeming to be unchanging, but all studio-based artists working perceptually know that the more you look at something the more you see, and there is simply no end to it. In conditions such as these, what becomes obvious is that it is not the motif that is changing, but the painter—his perceptions, his feelings and his projections upon the motif before him. Such changeability in the painter confirms the truth of what Zola meant when he wrote (in 1866): “A work of art is never anything but the combination of a man, the variable element, and nature, the fixed element” (my italics). This subjective and self-reflecting “variable element” in painting, and its relationship to the perceived world, is where many of my interests stem from in my work as an observational painter.
Larry Groff: Why is the painter’s experience before the sensations of nature so important? Why should we care about what some painter feels while painting outside?
Christopher Chippendale: I think the short answer to your first question is that we wouldn’t have art of any kind if we didn’t have artists’ experience, whether those experience were before “the sensations of nature,” as you put it, or before anything else. Speaking for myself, I cannot separate my experience from the work I produce. Yet I should say here, in answer to your second question, that I neither paint nor reflect upon my painting process in order to elicit interest in my painting experience. I paint and I reflect upon my process in order to get at my subject, to define it more clearly and—as far as may be—efficiently.
In this regard, I am not concerned if others care (or don’t care) about what I myself feel or experience when painting outside, or anywhere else. I am glad if people are interested in my paintings, but my efforts are not geared towards communicating my experience to others. My efforts are geared towards ascertaining what that experience is, what its perimeters are, what forms and aspects it takes, the colors it assumes. My focus is on what I see and on trying to get the stubborn paint to do what I want.
As I’ve suggested, perceptual painting for me is not a mimetic art form. I am not involved in copy work, but in trying to find and shape the right expression for my experience before the motif. I am not involved with copy work because there is never one thing for me to copy, any more than there is one fixed point in time, or one given form, or one given color. There are only forms and colors and experience that change and modulate the more I look at things, or the longer I do.
I am an observational painter. I am engaged with the art of trying to find and lay down upon my canvases accurate translations of what I see. I want to show how things really are, or how I experience them to be, yet how things are is attenuated by my awareness of their mutable character, and by the fact that my experience of them, as defined by the attributes of a particular moment, changes from one instant to the next. These changes may be generated from the outside (as by measurable shifts of light as occur when working out-of-doors) or from the inside (as by my changing moods or sensibilities) or by the simple fact that the more and longer I look at something the more I see. My experience, like my motif, is unfixed, variable and ongoing; it exists over time and, as such, it changes over time.
What is of consequence to me is not my experience but the work that arises from it, the achievements and qualities which that work shows. I am the ultimate arbiter of its success. I will look at my work and find that it either does or does not succeed in showing (according to my terms and understanding) how things really are, or how I need or want or them to be, in order to express what I am after. Usually—nine times out of ten—my work falls short, which keeps me going to the next painting, and to the next.
Larry Groff: Why is it important for the artist to paint what is “true”? Isn’t getting such things as the “right color” measured differently by each painter? That if Corot, Cezanne, Van Gogh all painted exactly the same scene, each would make a completely different painting, but all would be equally true?
Christopher Chippendale: The fact that the criteria of “what is true” is determined differently by each artist does not alter the importance of painting what is true, or of trying to do so. What is true is, after all, not a given. In the case of observational painting, determining what is true depends upon site-specific information and highly individualized processes and ways of seeing which are unique to each artist. Accordingly, we can appreciate work from a wide range of styles (you mention Corot, Cezanne, Van Gogh) without calling into question whether the work of one or another of these artists is more “true” than that of the others.
In the tradition in which I work, observational painters scrutinize the world that is immediately before them. They check and cross check like doubting Thomases what they see. They adopt a skeptical, circumspect eye both towards their own assumptions and towards appearances. They train themselves to let go of their acquired knowledge in the interest of seeing things “truly” as they are, without prejudice. And they do all this to establish, as unequivocally as possible, the terms of the particular truth of the particular painting before them. The British painter, Rodrigo Moynihan, put it this way, while considering (in a 1934 essay) the late work of Cezanne. In Cezanne’s scrutiny and approach, Moynihan recognized what he termed “that skepticism of the true ‘eye’ painter, whose creative spirit must proceed by assuming nothing in its search for a synthesis of vision, which, while not pretending to be absolute, is true under the particular laws which govern it.” Not absolute, but true under the particular laws which govern it. That, to me, seems like a pretty good recipe for one’s goals for a painting. Such an approach necessitates, Moynihan goes on to say, “The visual attitude in painting, as opposed to the conceptual or idealistic [one] and… the artist… directed not to the perfection of a pre-conceived form but by the appearance of his painting.”
Most of the problems with the concept of “truth” for observational painters (as for everyone else) stem from its appropriation as an absolute concept. Even your phrase, “paint what is true” carries an overtone of a compunction to paint something already determined, something fixed and established, as though “what is true” were some fixed notion existing independent of the painter’s efforts to determine it. For some—for those who hold “the conceptual or idealistic” attitude towards painting—“what is true” is in fact a fixed, preexisting notion, to whose standards they feel their work should conform. From my point of view, what is true does not exist independent of my efforts to determine it.
Ideas of truth in observational painting, at both the institutional and individual levels, are not sacrosanct, irreproachable, singular, beyond question. Most histories of painting tell a history of orthodoxies of truth and of challenges to those orthodoxies. The most famously quoted modern example was the institutionalized painting of the French academy and the Impressionists’ reaction to that orthodoxy. The same kind of struggle, between the purveyors of institutionalized ideas of truth and those marginalized by those hegemonies, continues today. In the field of representational painting, for example, a monopoly of today’s curators, galleries, art theorists and graduate painting programs have preferred on the whole to follow the trend of championing a kind of painting based on the meanings of represented subject matter, rather than on how things are made. Understandably, this does not sit well with those observational painters for whom the emphasis of their art remains upon the how of painting as a primary means of expression. As Andrew Forge said of Monet’s later work: “To unravel its meaning is in a sense to enter into its making.”
We are surrounded at every moment by institutions, sciences, policies, schools, religions that have either set themselves up in the name of “truth,” or claim to speak in its name. Such a proliferation of “the truth” or of “true discourse” (oral, visual, what have you) has had a pronounced effect upon us. “We must speak the truth,” Foucault said, adding, “We are constrained or condemned to confess or to discover the truth.” Foucault’s larger concern was the analysis of power. Who sets the standards of truth? Who are the purveyors of truth? What relations of power are involved in the production of discourses of truth? Observational painters, including the schools and spokespersons for the particular styles or brands of observational painting, do not operate independently from this will to truth, nor from the powers it serves. We all have a stake in it, and our individual practices are implicated by it. We understand the social construction of the individual today much more than we did a generation or two ago. One of our obligations as individual painters, I believe, is to identify and question the standards and ideas of truth that our own work serves.]]>
Lois Dodd has been painting her everyday surroundings for sixty years. Her current exhibition, from February 26 through April 4, 2015 at the Alexandre Gallery in NYC shows twenty-four recent small-scaled paintings that depict familiar motifs such as gardens, houses, interiors and views from windows. Dodd, now eighty-seven, is an iconic figure of the early New York Tenth Street art scene, along with her contemporaries, such as Alex Katz and Philip Pearlstein. The Alexandre Gallery has the current exhibition online as well as many earlier works for view that you can view from this link.
The late painter Will Barnet talked about Lois Dodd in an interview with Barbara O’Brien. (From the Kemper Museum catalog, Lois Dodd Catching the Light)
…”What she has is something that belongs to the language of painting that actually only a very few artists really understand and know about. She has that feeling that the flatness of the canvas, and the verticality or the horizontality has to be met in a certain dynamic way. And she can arrange her forms so that the verticals become alive in relationship to the horizontal. So there is a certain wedding of the two. And so her work has a structure that you miss in most painters. In other words, you have a feeling of solidity and that the forms really belong to each other, where they’re in the distance or in the front. They combine in such a way that they come together and form a whole picture, and that’s what is exciting about—one of the exciting things—Lois.” –Will Barnet
With a career that spans six decades, Dodd is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Academy of Design, and a past member of the board of governors for the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Among many honors, she recently was awarded the Benjamin West Clinedinist Memorial Medal in 2007 from the Artists’ Fellowship, Inc. and Cooper Union’s Augustus Saint-Gaudens Award for professional achievement in art in 2005. Her works can be found in museums, including the Portland Museum of Art, Maine and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri, among others.
The excellent catalog, Lois Dodd Catching the Light can be purchased from the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art from this link. This catalog is from her Kemper Museum retrospective where more than fifty paintings were shown from 1955 to 2010.
I wish to thank both Lois Dodd for agreeing to the phone conversation and for her time and thoughtfulness with answering my questions and to share her experience and ideas with our readers.
I would also like to thank Elizabeth O’Reilly for the many ways she helped make this possible.
Larry Groff: Do you spend a lot of time looking and thinking about the subject before you start to paint?
Lois Dodd: It’s more about what I see when I’m walking around looking for something. Then after that it a matter of what size I want to work with and the proportion it will fit into. Then I try to isolate something that would make a good painting, a good subject. I look through my pile of gessoed panels that are different sizes and different proportions. They are all rectangles or squares and I always take a few of those when I go out so I have a variety of panels to choose from because that is the first decision. If you’re looking at something you want to paint and it looks exciting, the lighting is good and then you have to decide what size what shape of a panel will it fit onto; you ask yourself, is it a horizontal thing or vertical or square. Those are the first choices.
LG: How do you start a painting? Do you make studies or thumbnails first? Do you use a viewfinder of some sort?
LOIS DODD: I don’t really use a viewfinder but I can put my hands up to frame the view or something like that. I don’t make thumbnail sketches, I’m more interested in starting right on the panel. I start with thinned out yellow paint and draw with the brush. So it’s pretty minimal, general and not tight. You asked me if I scrape off, I don’t use a scraper but I don’t use heavy paint either I really paint rather thinly so we never get to the point where I can scrape. But if I don’t like what I’ve done I can rub it off with a rag with turpentine and rub it all around and then I have a nice colored ground to work into that I can use.
LG: When you find the motif that interests you; do you form the composition in your mind before you start? Or is it something that evolves from your prolonged looking at the thing?
LOIS DODD: I do see a geometric breakdown of space of the rectangle so it has an underlying geometric structure so that is pretty basic to what I’m looking at.
LG: but the rest of it: the color scheme, the mood, the positions of things; they sort of evolve?
LOIS DODD: No, the position of things, that configuration, is what attracts me and what I find exciting to begin with, so I don’t move things around. They’re either already where I want them or I might get up and move my chair and easel, it might be a little better a couple feet this way or that way. What I’m looking at more or less dictates the composition. I don’t really take any liberties with the subject, if it’s no good to begin with, that’s it.
LG: Do you measure things to get everything right in terms of the relationships between things?
LOIS DODD: No, Did you see that film about that painter in Madrid, Antonio Lopez Garcia? Speaking of measuring?
LG: Victor Erice’s Dream of Light http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dream_of_Light
LOIS DODD: Yes, do you remember where he’s standing in front of the tree and marking where his feet are going to be and where the leaves are and all of that? I’m certainly not doing that but I’ll move few inches this way or that before I start if I don’t like what I’m getting at. Standing or sitting down makes a big difference too. Once my position is set it’s usually fine.
LG: So it isn’t as important for you to pursue getting the underlying grid of horizontal and vertical geometric relationships? Is it more that you want to get the overall feeling or pictorial expression of the thing you first saw, your first impression of why you were attracted to the motif?
LOIS DODD: Yes. It’s the way the light is hitting the subject and is creating the composition. The big thing is my paintings are done in one sitting; partly because of the light and partly because of the weather. I can only be there a couple of hours because after that the light changes the whole composition. The sun will have moved and everything is different in two or three hours so my paintings needs to be done in that time.
LG: Do you use larger brushes and smooth surfaces so you can work quickly and broadly?
LOIS DODD: My panels are up to 15 by 20 inches or smaller panels that are 12 by 18 or 12 by 12. I have a whole pile of gessoed panels, they’re not huge, 20 inches is largest I would go, as larger Masonite panels tend to warp or be weird. They aren’t reliable when they get too big. Once the painting is bigger I paint on linen.
LG: You also work on aluminum panels?
LOIS DODD: The little tiny ones are aluminum step flashing that you can get in the hardware store.
LG: Step flashing? I’m not familiar with that.
LOIS DODD: Step flashing is for putting flashing down the bottom of a chimney where it goes under the roofing material to keep water out. That’s what they’re made for and they come in these really small sizes. You can buy big bundles of the stuff for very little money.
LG: What a great idea! Do you gesso these?
LOIS DODD: It’s a very good idea. I sand them like mad because I think they’re too smooth and then I gesso them.
LG: What kind of gesso do you use?
LOIS DODD: I use Liquitex usually. Step Flashings are very convenient when you see something and you’ve got 20 minutes. I do a lot of them at night when the moon is full.
LG: You must simplify things a great deal to get everything in one sitting.
LOIS DODD: Of course, I’m not looking for details or surface description that’s for sure. But I am looking for the light, how it hits volumes. I am looking for the light and the color.
LG: Is what you’re looking at the main concern or do you also think about how other art might relate to your scene? For instance, if you were painting a scene and thought ‘this reminds me of an Arthur Dove painting’ or someone like that would you ever push it in that direction a little? Or does all that great art history in your head come through more intuitively?
LOIS DODD: I think so, sometimes you see things that are like somebody else’s painting so you stay away from it. Have you ever had that experience where you think, ‘oh my god this looks like something so-and-so would paint’? So I’m not painting it. It’s somebody else’s subject matter.
LG: Interesting. So you wouldn’t want to do your take on that subject?
LOIS DODD: Well, if you don’t notice that it’s someone else’s subject, definitely, you’re always doing your own take. Sometimes I see things that looks like other people’s paintings but that’s not interesting to me to begin with. It’s not for me.
LG: What tends to grab you most as worthy subject for a painting? For instance you’ve painted windows for a long time.
LOIS DODD: That’s true; I’m still painting windows. This winter I’ve been doing a lot of painting out the window because of the weather and the window structure is so nice, you’ve got this perfect Mondrian construction there in front of you. Windows are a great device and are endlessly fascinating. I do go back to them from time to time.
LG: When you’re working on a painting is there a point that you arrive when you know this is exactly what you want and the painting is done or is it more like the time is up and this is what I’ve accomplished. Do you adjust it once back in your studio or do you not touch it? How do you determine when the painting is finished?
LOIS DODD: Usually when I put the last stroke down it’s done. There is nothing more to say; there is nothing more to put down. It’s pretty clear. It’s not a problem of when to stop; if I start dickering around with details I know that ok “you’ve gone over the top, now you got to stop”.
I was doing portraits for a couple of years of friends, they weren’t really portraits, I thought of them as heads. I wouldn’t want to promise anybody I could paint his or her portrait. In the process of doing that, I would work for a couple of hours and I would have my painting and I would think I could really perfect this now if I worked on it longer. But if I did that it would no longer be my painting, it would be fixing my painting. It would be repairing, trying to improve and that doesn’t really work. The minute I start doing that it starts taking apart or destroying what I already had to say. So it doesn’t work, for me. The work ethic is not a good ethic is what I’m trying to say.
LG: You qualify that by saying “for me”, another painter who might obsessively revise and repaint you might not have a problem with? You might still like their work?
LOIS DODD: Oh yes. Sure. I think it’s a mystery. Every artist works so differently out of something so different. It’s very hard to understand what even your best friends, what they’re doing and how they got their palette, and how they selected the color. The whole thing is always a big mystery. But you can certainly enjoy and appreciate what other people do. What I envy are people that ladle the paint on thickly and juicily. I see that and think that’s so gorgeous, just look at the paint quality. But here I am with my thin paint and the idea of putting on a second coat on my painting would ruin it. It would shut out the light. I get a certain amount of light that is coming back from the white gesso panel , it comes through the painting. If I go back and put more than one coat then you’re suddenly in the position of having to paint light into surfaces. It is a completely different process and that just doesn’t work for me.
LG: I’ve read you don’t like setting up still lifes and prefer to find things as they naturally occur. With this in mind I’m curious about your thoughts on Morandi. His carefully arranged still lifes have a pictorial genius that would seem to have many affinities with your work especially with regards to intimacy, simplicity and directness of organization. His landscapes could almost be considered found still lifes from nature.
Has his paintings ever been influential to you? What can you say about his work?
LOIS DODD: Morandi hasn’t been an influence on me but I love his painting; they’re wonderful, so amazing, they are surprises every time. I’ve looked at his landscapes and I think their influence is in keeping it flat, keeping it simple. That seems to be the message in his landscapes. All of his paintings are wonderful but he’s probably not the person who has been that influential to me.
LG: Who would be influential?
LOIS DODD: That’s a good question. I look at all the American landscape painters but I probably look even more at the abstract landscape people. Like Arthur Dove and John Marin. I look at a lot of stuff. I don’t feel like I’m besotted with anybody that I would try to imitate what they do. I don’t think that is a good idea to be totally in love with so-and-so’s painting. No matter what you do, you have to make your own stuff. Influences are great but they’re not too useful really.
LG: But perhaps you would be influenced by the issues other painters were exploring? For instance, Cezanne, you might not be interested in painting like him but you might be interested in what he was thinking about?
LOIS DODD: I don’t know what he was thinking about. I have no idea what he was thinking about! (laughs) He definitely was an influence, especially when I was first out of art school. I think we all looked at Cezanne, he was perhaps the biggest influence for landscape. Between him and Picasso. When I graduated from art school Picasso was the big person who influenced everything that was going on. Back then there was Cezanne and Matisse. There are so many good painters. It was French painting that people looked at most. I remember the galleries uptown when I was in art school; the few galleries there were basically showing French impressionist paintings. The big move to open galleries came sometime in the fifties.
LG: You were one of the founders of the influential Tanager Gallery, one of the first artist coop galleries around Tenth St. Alex Katz, Philip Pearlstein, Fred Mitchell, Lester Johnson were among the many artists who showed there. These galleries were influential as they gave opportunities for a wider variety of art to be seen than just what was seen in the more conservative 57th street area galleries.
It must have been exciting with Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Milton Resnick having studios nearby and where many younger artists sought them out at the nearby Cedar Tavern. Alice Neel, Paul Georges, Lester Johnson, Al Held and many others were showing in the various other coop galleries that started there soon after yours. The art critic Harold Rosenberg, wrote in 1959, said that the purpose of the “the art colony on Tenth Street’ was to “transmute the ranks established by social class into a hierarchy based on talent or daring.”
I’m curious to hear what that time was like for you. Can you share a memory of one of your more influential meetings or events with some of the luminaries of that era?
LOIS DODD: As you say it was a very exciting time, we were running our own show, so to speak and made a gallery out of it. We first started on Fourth Street and were there about a year. It was a tiny place. Then a friend told us about a space on Tenth St that was bigger so we moved. Around the same time other galleries began opening. The Hansa Gallery opened and gradually the block filled up with galleries, even around the corner. There was a lot of going back and forth to the galleries and the activity of people going in and out and talking about the art. It was a very social scene for about ten years there, from 1952 to 62.
The Tanager was there from ’52 to ’62, other galleries came a little later and lasted longer. There is nothing there now; it is very close to where I live so I walk through that block every so often. It’s unbelievable how it has completely become another place.
LG: How would you compare the co-op galleries that exist today in Chelsea with the original co-ops from back then?
LOIS DODD: We closed up after ten years because it looked like the galleries uptown were beginning to look at our generation of people. A number of the people that were a part of our group got themselves uptown galleries. We started asking why are we doing all this work, painting the floor, painting the walls, keeping the door open and tending to this place when it looked like the world was opening up and we could all get galleries for ourselves and not have to do all this work. So we closed up. But actually, newer co-ops opened within seven or eight years. I think the uptown gallery scene wasn’t all that great as it turned out and people did the co op galleries all over again.
The thing is there are never enough galleries and if you want to have a show and you know other people in the same situation you can try to do it yourself. That was an exciting time. People came there and talked about stuff. The artist’s club was nearby. We used to have openings on Friday nights and then people would tend to go to the club and hear the panels. So the whole thing was a real community effort.
The art world was smaller back then. In the end you knew every artist in New York City except maybe for the uptown-type people. That was a different world.
LG: The Cedar Tavern was nearby I’ve read, did you meet a lot of the personalities that went there, like de Kooning?
LOIS DODD: They had studios in the same block we had the gallery in. I never went to the Cedar Street Bar myself but we saw them in the galleries. All those people would visit.
LG: Were they open to talking to young painters?
LOIS DODD: Oh sure. Sure. Guston was around before he moved upstate. Franz Kline was there some. de Kooning moved out to the country at a certain point. At least before they became really famous. I think the trouble started when their paintings became worth real money and had uptown galleries and then the evils of jealousy and backbiting entered the picture. And you would see some people not being very happy about other people’s success and the like. But up to a point it was great.
It was always interesting but by ’62 we felt like we’ve done this long enough and we don’t need it anymore so we stopped then. But the next generation had the same problem, they again started a number of co-ops and their co-ops, interestingly enough, are still in existence over in Chelsea. The ones in Chelsea now started up probably in SoHo, The First Street Gallery was originally down at First Street on the Bowery. The Bowery gallery likewise, they were both down near Houston Street on the Bowery. They’ve been in existence a very long time. They started when the members were just out of art school and set up these places. Of course it’s been so long there are other people who are in these galleries now. There is still a real need for co-op galleries.
LG: I was recently in Chelsea and saw many of the galleries. I came away thinking that a large percentage of the work I saw then seemed to have a commercial appeal, seemingly chosen for its marketability or because of fashion. But the co-op galleries this seemed less so. Maybe the paintings there had a more uneven quality but it didn’t have the same commercial appeal.
LOIS DODD: Yes, you’re absolutely right.
LG: I’m curious if you might have anything to say about that? Seems to me that great painting comes more from a freedom to experiment and being about the art rather than just how well will it sell.
LOIS DODD: Many of the galleries in Chelsea are there to be a business. What sells is what they are going to show. That’s something else and has another motivation.
LG: It’s sad though because so many of these sellable paintings have a kind of slickness that is off-putting.
LOIS DODD: Probably a lot of students go to art school with the thought that they can make a living doing art and if they get into that, maybe they can make a living for awhile, but then the fashion in art can change and things aren’t so certain. If you’re in it for the long haul, and get something out of it for yourself. Which is why we do it, then you’ll keep doing it. There are all kinds of art in this world. There is art and then there is painting. I sometimes think it’s split now. There is the “Artworld” that has all this really hot stuff and it isn’t all painting, in fact most of it isn’t painting. There is a lot of other kinds of stuff now. Then there is the world of painters who as always are a kind of medieval group doing their medieval thing and getting something out of it.
LG: I’ve often thought it would be a good idea to start a secessionist movement for painters to get out of the artworld! But people tell me I’m crazy
LOIS DODD: (laughs) There is the art world and there’s painting world and it is two different worlds I agree with you. It’s totally another thing.
LG: Well, it’s what we have so I guess we have to work with it.
LOIS DODD: It’s what we have. Exactly.
LG: Many early Abstract Expressionists, such as de Kooning, Pollack, Kline and Rothko had strong traditional skills. How important is being able draw and paint representationally to the making of great art?
LOIS DODD: I don’t think it’s that important that you can draw and paint representationally to make great art. Think of all the great geometric art that exists in the world, the total abstract stuff that there is and it has nothing to do with representing the figure. I’m not so sure that that’s it. It still is a great thing to be studying. The fact of being able to do that is quite wonderful.
I think that sometimes people come out of art schools thinking that they are going to make a living maybe. Maybe that’s what the art schools are after now. They don’t even seem to teach the Bauhaus basic design stuff anymore. Which is what I was getting at Cooper Union when I attended there, they had a basic design course and it was based on the Bauhaus. You came out of school with a vocabulary about line, shape, form and color. All those thing have been separated out now so it is more difficult to study the vocabulary of art and put it together into a painting. The Bauhaus people invented this wonderfully useful thing to study, what, this visual vocabulary. Very good stuff, which I’m not sure is being taught as much anymore.
LG: From what I understand the emphasis is more on art theory.
LOIS DODD: Oh, we’re going to talk art now. Not do it, just talk about it. I’ve always wondered about that. I’m too much of a cave-woman type person to go for that. If you’re working with your hands, we’re hand-workers and you use your head too, of course, but you can’t just use your head; where’s the joy in that for a painter? I guess there is if you’re a theoretician and you’re going to write it down but then you’re a writer that’s not a painter. Maybe that’s an artist, maybe that’s what art is now, right? A discipline for theoreticians.
LG: Sometimes the explanatory text label is more important than the work itself.
LOIS DODD: Remember that period awhile ago, a short movement, where that kind of art was popular, what was that called? Where you just read the art that was on the wall.
LG: With like Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger and all those people?
LOIS DODD: Right.
LG: I forget what it was called. I was never very interested in that. One thing you said a minute ago that caught my attention was the word joy.
LOIS DODD: I said that?
LG: (laughs) You said it the context of saying what is the joy in that… I think that is an important thing, there doesn’t seem to be as much interest in joy so much. Or beauty. It’s more about irony or heavy, grim, psycho-sexual, socio-political kinds of issues and there isn’t much room for beauty and joy. I suppose that would be consider passé or sentimental. The whole visual joy one gets from looking at good painting is lost. Is there any fix to that?
LOIS DODD: I don’t know either. Maybe it’s just how much of it you need as a person. Maybe it’s all very individual. Some people seem to get painting and some people don’t see it anyway, they could be surrounded by paintings and don’t really get it. Other people do. It’s an odd trait and it’s not universal. The trait of the visual thing of being able to relate the visual stuff in a way that seems to speak to you.
LG: Do you think that people get it naturally or do they have to study it first?
LOIS DODD: I think it is a natural thing, I remember once I had a painting and a woman who was passing by and saw the painting and really seemed to get it, a sudden reaction. Other people wouldn’t react at all. I think it’s almost physical.
LG: Sometimes I think people just don’t get enough exposure to learning about art in schools anymore, less exposure to art history in a meaningful way.
LOIS DODD: That’s probably true.
LG: But on the other hand people do naturally respond to great things. They see a great painting, like one of your paintings next to something like text art or video and it’s a totally different feeling. It might be intellectually engaging but it doesn’t give you that astonishment, that visual joy or magic.
Do you feel optimistic about painting?
LOIS DODD: Yes, I do. Look at cave art. Human beings can’t stop doing it. There is always somebody making something. It could go through a low period maybe. No, I don’t think it dies. I don’t think it can. There are always a certain number of people who are just going to have to paint. They have to. I don’t see how it could die.
It’s funny, one time I was over at the Studio School and ran into a woman in the hallway who had just enrolled there and she said that she already had a degree but whatever school she went to they were up to the minute and it was all computers and she hadn’t had a chance to paint and she was dying to try to paint. So she came to the New York Studio School. There are people who just have to try it, have to get into it. I think it must be pretty basic stuff.
LG: It’s a good remedy for many of the world’s ills. It gives you a reason to live.
LOIS DODD: That’s true!
LG: Everything else takes on a secondary importance if you have a great painting you’re working on. Who cares if you have or don’t have all this stuff if you have a good painting?
LOIS DODD: It puts it all in proportion doesn’t it? It makes you able to face whatever it is better after you’ve had a painting session.
LG: Right! Absolutely. You can get all bent out of shape over the headlines in the newspaper but then think “there isn’t much I can do about that” but I do have my painting, I can do something about that. That makes for a great quality of life that can maybe make up for the fact nobody buys your paintings and you live like a homeless person…
LOIS DODD: Yes! Oh god… (laughs) hold on to that thought.
LG: You taught painting at Brooklyn College from 1971 to 1992. How much has what you taught to students affected your own painting and conversely to what extent do you try to teach your own approach to painting to the students?
LOIS DODD: I taught at Brooklyn College for 25 years. I didn’t try to teach my own approach to painting. It wasn’t convenient when your teaching in a college, for the most part we were in a room and I paint outside. There weren’t many opportunities to ask the students to go and buy setups like folding French easels and take them outside. I didn’t do that so it was a completely different experience in the classroom. However it was good, I enjoyed teaching. It was more to try and figure out what they needed not that they should learn to paint like me, which they weren’t going to anyway. They all had their own selves to work on. I wasn’t trying to push my approach. A few people really wanted to do that, a couple of the graduate students that are friends, who I paint with now.
LG: Like Elizabeth O’Reilly?
LOIS DODD: Yes, like Elizabeth. That’s where I met Elizabeth in the MFA program. There are people like that, who keeps in touch. But otherwise I didn’t want them all to be painting like me, that doesn’t seem like a good plan at all. In a way maybe you have more to teach when you teach somebody to paint exactly what you’re doing. Then they can reject it. I don’t know, it’s always been a question in my mind but it’s not my inclination to do that.
LG: What advice would you give a younger painter today?
LOIS DODD: Today there are artists and there are painters. They are two different things and you ought to understand that before you get into it. Artists are not limited to paint, the way painters are. They can do anything they want just about and call it art. It’s a big wide field. But painters are involved in this ancient craft that keeps going on. But I don’t know what advice I’d give anybody. It’s a hard thing to do. If you have to do it, you have to do it. That’s your problem you know? If you have to be a painter you’re going to get the satisfaction out of it that we all get out of it. And you’re going to get the frustration that we all get. And you’re going to have to figure out some other way to make a living. I guess my advice is to figure out some way to make a living.
LG: There are so many people who assume they’ll get a job teaching or something but it’s hard to do
LOIS DODD: There aren’t that many jobs. That’s hard to find.
LG: They don’t always want to hire painters in the art programs either; they often prefer to hire ‘artists’.
LOIS DODD: Yes, Nowadays that is true. Right.
LG: I understand that for many schools the Studio time the students get is much less. They want to have more lectures and fit in more with the academic environment.
LOIS DODD: Right, they want to build up their brains.
LG: I imagine it’s more expensive, it’s likely cheaper to have an adjunct teacher lecturing than it is to fund a whole studio. I don’t know but what that’s going to mean. Before it was almost mandatory you had to go to art school on some level but now it seems such a dicey proposition to shell out 80 or 100 grand for art school and when you come out with such debt, and perhaps not even learning how to really paint on top of that!
LOIS DODD: I don’t know, it really is a strange time.
LG: Have you given workshops?
LOIS DODD: I was doing some up in Maine at Rock Garden Inns. There were people that would come there that wanted to paint outside. So I got invited. Every week they would have another artist come and paint with the people there. So I was doing that for a week in September. That was very enjoyable.
LG: Do you think people can really learn painting through that?
LOIS DODD: Usually they are older ladies who are doing it on their vacation or whatever. They are serious but they also have another life. They can’t dump that life to become a painter. There is no way for the people to give it all up to become painters. It’s a good question but I don’t know what’s going to happen. Whether people will just go study with other painters or maybe the schools will turn around and start going back.
People are still painting at places like the Studio School that is full of painters and drawers. Painting and Drawing that’s basically what they do. And there are some good ones there too. There are a few places but you’d have to know where they are and find yourself getting there.
Lois Dodd talking about her paintings in a 2007 video by Bill Maynes
courtesy Alexandre Gallery, New York
courtesy Alexandre Gallery, New York]]>
Corot’s view of Civita from Terrano
I recently decided return to Civita Castellana Italy for my third time, this summer (2015) I’m planning to go for the artist residency for six weeks with the JSS in Civita. At first I was unsure I would could afford it but the rewards were so great from my previous visits that I made it a priority and it is starting to come together. Making this a priority lead to brainstorming ways I might get the funds for the airfare, residency and other expenses. I have a crowdsourcing idea that I will be announcing very soon.
The Deadline for the Avigdor Arikha Memorial Scholarship is almost here The Application deadline is February 28th, 2015 This scholarship is merit-based and is for four weeks of Master Class studies at the JSS in Civita Summer Art School & Residency in Italy the Scholarship recipient to be announced March 2nd, 2015
Full information and registration for the 2015 summer session in Civita Castellana is available on the JSS in Civita website. The JSS in Civita website has a wealth of information and images about every conceivable issue with regard to the program and traveling to Civita.
This summer should prove to be an incredible experience with the amazing painter Ann Gale who is the guest of honor this year. I recently interviewed Ann Gale which you can read at this link This incredible opportunity to take a workshop with Ann Gale should not be missed. The review of her latest show in Hyperallergic by John Yau is another insightful discussion of her painting which you can read here.
Replaying my memories of Civita’s unforgettable views isn’t enough to sustain me, I need the real experience again to recharge my creative batteries. For centuries painters have also felt this need to come to Civita, drawn to the visual magic of the Roman Campagna. Civita had been a central location for Grand Tour open air landscape painting for painters; Corot, Ingres, Turner, Granet, Michallon, Valenciennes, Dughet, Bertin all painted here. Many of Corot’s best Italian paintings were made in the nearby vicinity and Corot made Civita his home base (you can see the ruins of the hotel where Corot stayed here in Civita).
Of course you can find wonderful places to paint right outside your door and great painting doesn’t require achingly beautiful vistas for success. For me the great visuals of the town and countryside are just one part of the appeal. Of course the powerful art of the Romans, Giotto, Piero, Masaccio, Caravaggio, Morandi and the many other great artists in Italy’s fabulous museums and churches also never ceases to inspire and inform. What makes the JSS in Civita so special is the combination of not just the visuals and art history but the gathering of so many terrific painters in one place to learn and socialize together.
There is an uncountable number of masterpieces and great museums, enough for a lifetime of study. The JSS in Civita rents buses for weekly trips to various locations in Rome, Florence, Naples for the Archaeological Museum and the incomparable Pompeii frescoes, Bologna for the Morandi Museum and the Piero della Francesca tour which included Urbino, Arrezo and Sansepolcro.
The center of Civita Castellana, where the hotel and school are located, is a 3000 year old town, the capital of the pre-roman Faliscan people. A few steps from the hotel brings you to a the edge of a steep gorge that looks out over the incredible Monte Soratte. Civita seems to have been built for painters.
Unlike many other towns that are on the tourist circuit, Civita is inexpensive friendly and authentic. There are no ugly hordes of tourists madly photographing and pillaging souvenir shops before getting back on the cruise ship. The town is peaceful, where you can walk uninterrupted through narrow medieval cobblestone streets lined with building that have hardly changed since Corot’s time here.
The old town sits on a boat-shaped plateau that overlooks steep gorges where it’s distinctive orangish tufa that Corot painted so well pokes through the vegetation in fascinating configurations. You can easily reach the edges of the city on foot and nearly everywhere you look opens up to astonishing vistas. If the city itself isn’t enough, the JSS in Civita arranges transportation to nearby villages for additional painting vistas. Just when you think it can’t get any better; the school sets up short trips to paint views in place like: from on top of Monte Sorratte in Sant Oreste, the aqueducts at Nepi, or the incredible gorges at Castel Sant’elia. If you haven’t already seen them, you can see several images and video footage of these sites in my video that I put at the end of this article.
There are two train stations and it is very easy to get to Rome in back for the day. The fare is very cheap and only an hour and a half to Rome. There are several great restaurants in addition to the meals provided by the program ranging everything from the cheap and fast to elaborate gourmet affairs. I plan to buy my food in the local market and cook most of my meals to help reduce the cost. There are many farmer’s markets with fresh, local produce as well as a terrific bakery and cheese store.
The group suppers at the hotel are excellent and they also have weekly dinners for the whole program attendees at different restaurants – often with an excellent menu involving several courses which starts around 8pm and last well into the evening with lively conversation. In the center of town there are a couple of nightclub/coffeshop places in which you can relax and socialize in the evening by an ancient fountain with other students along with the townspeople over wine, coffee and gelato while making use of the free WiFi.
The art and people of Civita Castellana and Italy is more than reason enough to return but my main feeling in joining the JSS in Civita again is the hope that being around so many other terrific painters will continue to push my work further. I’ve been painting for over 30 years, although many times work and life interrupted my painting life. I’ve now gotten to a point where I can focus on my painting more or less full-time. My study at the program in Civata, especially with getting feedback from Israel Hershberg in his Master Class has been invaluable in getting greater clarity and fresh insight into my work from the point of view of one of the world’s greatest living landscape painters. I’ve said before and I will repeat here that studying with Israel Hershberg is the closest a painter today could come to studying with Corot.
Painting is best started in early morning when there were cooler temperatures and the light was best, mid-day was often too hot to be painting and that’s when we met for the daily critique. Most of the town’s stores closed mid-day and everyone took it easy. Around 4pm life started back up and people resumed their paintings until dark.
JSS in Civita offers the option for a private studio space at least two studio areas fairly close to the hotel and in the center of the town. I’ve heard these spaces offer terrific light and is a great way to escape the hot sun and to work in privacy.
Affiliate workshops by many leading painters with a wide variety of approaches and styles for a full listing see this page on the JSS in Civita’s site, below are links to the affiliate workshops with links to thier individual webpages and individual course descriptions on the JSS in Civita site.
Video overview of the Jerusalem Studio School Summer Program in Civita Castellana, Italy in 2013.
Video produced by Larry Groff, interviews with Israel Hershberg, Yael Scalia, Tina Engels.
HD video – best seen in full screen!
I am very pleased to have had the opportunity to interview Elizabeth O’Reilly by video skype and email and would like to thank Elizabeth for her generosity with her time and energies with this interview. Elizabeth O’Reilly shows at the George Billis Gallery in NYC, NY and her tenth solo show there is planned for October 2015.
Larry Groff: You studied to be a teacher in Ireland before you went to art school and moved to the United States. What led you to become a painter?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: Drawing and Painting were a constant in my life since I was a little girl. My mother died when I was three years old, and my father had already left for work in the US, so 8 of the 9 children were placed in State Schools in Dublin. The State Schools were basically orphanages, and we were placed there even though my father was alive. He stayed in the US until he retired. In the school there was a seamstress who made uniforms and all the clothing we needed. She said I would sit beside her while she was sewing and I would draw with pins on her pincushion. It drove her crazy. But that’s how far back my urge to draw was commented upon. Painting and drawing were the things I got attention for all the way through school. Praise was thin on the ground, so it meant a lot to be singled out for my artwork.
The State Schools were closed down when I was ten and one of my sisters and I were sent to a regular boarding school at that point. There was an art room and an art teacher, and that’s where I spent my free time. My dream was to go to art school. My portfolio was accepted and I got a place. There were only two art schools in Dublin, and maybe three in the entire country at that time, so it was a big deal to be accepted. Reality hit though and I knew I couldn’t attend as I had no money. Teacher Training college was completely subsidized, and I had the grades, so I had to settle for that. I was heart-broken. I graduated and taught at the elementary level in Dublin. I always took art classes at night and on the weekends. I studied watercolor, and drew onsite at various locations in Dublin, and made color and value notes, and painted the cityscapes in class from my notes and sketches.
I continued teaching and my boyfriend moved to the US in the mid 80’s in the last recession. I had the option of taking a career break, so that I could leave my job for up to five years and still have it back at the end of that time. I followed him to Brooklyn, and taught on the lower East Side for 3 years. That job got us our green cards, and eventually citizenship. I took a teaching job in a private school in Park Slope where I was living.
I took art classes at the Art Students League on Saturdays while teaching school Monday to Friday. I took a painting class at night at Brooklyn College in the Continuing Ed program, and decided to apply to the MFA Program, even though my undergraduate degree was in Education. My teacher there, Sam Gelber, was very supportive and said he would back me up. He knew I was serious about my painting. One professor dashed my hopes as I didn’t have the undergrad credits I needed, but I don’t know what inspired me to go to the art office to plead my case. I spoke with Joe Groell. For some reason, he chose to give me a chance. Last year I ran into him at an opening in the city, and I walked over to him and said, “I don’t know if you remember me but you helped me when I tried to get into the MFA Program at Brooklyn College. I didn’t have the credentials, but you supported me. You changed my life, and I wanted to say thank you.” He said, “I remember you. My wife and I had just been to Ireland. There was something about you….” And his voice trailed off.
While I was talking to Joe Groell back in the art office Lois Dodd walked in, so I met her also. We chatted briefly, and she was also willing to give me a chance, and now I had three people backing me, and I was accepted into the program. That was my big break. It’s amazing what can happen when you show your face. That’s a big life lesson for me. If I had just mailed in my application I’m positive I wouldn’t have made the cut. That was 1990, twenty-five years after losing my first chance to go to art school.
A year into the program I gave up my teaching job and studied full-time,though I continued to teach art at the elementary school where I had been working. The US was a huge culture shock, but I got the opportunity that had slipped out of my hands in Ireland.
LG: You got your MFA from Brooklyn College in 1992. What was your experience in Graduate school and/or what were some important or memorable experiences you learned early on that helped make you the painter you are today?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: Brooklyn College changed my life. I had never had an art history class and was missing the background that the other students had, but I worked hard, and I did well. Everything was new, but I was eager. John Walker was teaching in the MFA program at the time. He was incredibly supportive of all the students. For the most part I painted from observation and I know I felt like a second-class citizen because of that, but John Walker supported all of us, regardless of whether we painted abstractly or figuratively. I won a prize at my final review that was an opportunity to co-teach a class with one of the professors. Lois is a very non-hierarchical person, and she didn’t intimidate the students in any way, so I asked her if I could co-teach with her. She agreed and thus began our long friendship that has endured for two decades. I co-taught a 2D design class with her. When I’m relaxed I learn more and so it was a good fit.
Lois would invite any grad students who wanted to paint the landscape to her place in Blairstown, NJ on the weekends. Several of us would go out there with her, and it was never a student/teacher set up. She has always enjoyed painting buddies. That continued after I graduated. As I’ve said, Lois is very non-hierarchical which is an impressive trait in a very hierarchical field. During grad school I started to paint large still-lifes. John Walker had ideas about how I could develop these and that really helped me to move forward. I then went through an abstract period. Bill Williams encouraged me to look into my own culture for subject matter, and I got very involved in painting abstractly from the burial mounds at Newgrange, a megalithic tomb in County Meath, in Ireland. That was a great experience. I did a lot of monoprints and large oil paintings based on those.
I graduated in ’92, and got a studio that summer in the Gowanus Canal area of Brooklyn which was a 20 minute walk from where I lived. It was a dark and unsafe neighborhood back then. I painted still lives in the studio but I continued to go to Blairstown with Lois, and before I knew it I was back painting the landscape again. I would say the time spent painting abstractly enriched my subsequent landscape paintings. At first I only painted the landscape with Lois in New Jersey, and on other painting trips to Vermont, Maine and Ireland, but one day I painted out the window of my studio, and another day I painted the alleyway behind my studio. Suddenly a whole new world of cityscapes opened up to me.
Prior to going to Brooklyn College I painted landscape and cityscapes in Ireland. My classes at the League were figure drawing and watercolor painting. I took color notes and drew out in the landscape. I drew all the time, and then used that information to paint indoors. That was great practice for honing my observational skills.
LG: Lois Dodd has been your mentor and good friend and in 2002 had a 2-person show with her at Swarthmore College. Can you tell us something about how her teaching and work has influenced you?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: Lois has indeed been a mentor and friend and important influence in many ways. She is an amazing painter. I am impressed by her painting practice. She is excellent at getting started. The world is full of excellent landscape painters, but Lois distinguishes particularly by her way of looking at the world. Her choice of subject matter is really very original and personal. She has great integrity, is smart, kind and generous. I learned more from her after grad school by seeing how she lives her life and how she fits painting into her day. She doesn’t get side-tracked the way I can. We have a lot in common, similar interests and similar politics and taste in food. That makes it easy for us to be around each other for long periods of time. There is trust, friendship and support. Lois likes to have a painting buddy. It’s always easier to start painting if there’s another painter around, though she is more disciplined than I am. I was fortunate to have Lois as a close friend for more than twenty years. We’ve had many painting trips together, from Vermont to Wyoming, Maryland to North Carolina. I think we had three painting trips to Ireland and I’ve been to her place in Cushing, Maine every summer since I graduated from Brooklyn College. She’s a very loyal friend. I don’t get out to Blairstown as often as I used to, but even if the weather is really cold we paint looking out her windows.
It’s been really helpful seeing how she chooses what she paints. On a day that I might consider not a painting day, she will paint patterns of raindrops or frost on her windowpane.
Lois and I were invited to have a two-person show at the List Gallery in Swarthmore College. Andrea Packard, the director, thought a student/mentor show would be a great idea. It was fun. We showed paintings from various painting trips we’d had together including Ireland. We talked about how we would look at the same subject and how different the paintings would look. Lois can find subject matter everywhere. That’s interesting. A friend says she makes a painting, takes one step in another direction and finds the next subject. We paint at the same pace so that makes things easy for us.
LG: In addition to Lois Dodd, I would think that the simplifications and abstractions from nature that Milton Avery, Fairfield Porter and Edward Hopper were involved with would interest you. What can you say about these painters in relation to your work?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: Milton Avery is someone I looked at a lot in Grad school. I’m very interested in simplification and abstraction from nature. It’s all abstraction really, an arrangement of shapes and colors on the rectangle. And the illusion of a 3D space on a 2D surface. But I need and want to look at something outside of myself. I need that visual stimulus. I’ve been painting cityscapes a lot and I often point out to students how Hopper paints windows, everyone is different. It helps students to really observe what they are seeing, not to just repeat the same window shape in each building. Fairfield Porter is a terrific painter too. I wish I had the confidence to paint large paintings the way he does. His figures and interiors are really inspiring.
LG: You said you need outside visual stimulation to get out of yourself … I find that a very interesting thing to say. I’m very curious about whole notion of looking at nature closely as a means of getting out of your head, can you talk more about this?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: I think that it stops me being self-conscious because it’s not something that I carefully set up and have this serious thought about which object goes where or even if it’s just shapes, I can get paralyzed pretty easily with that. If I’m outside, there is all this world of things that I’m stimulated by so when that self-conscious element is gone I’m freed up. I suppose it offers new solutions all the time because you’re looking with a fresh eye even if I go back to the same place over and over, which I do. It’s never the same. It’s a different day, the light is different, something has changed, something got moved; especially in the city. It changes daily and even along the canal it changes a lot. I go out one day and I notice a particular plant hanging over the canal, I go out another day and see a yellow truck sitting by a building, so I’m stimulated by something without a preordained idea of what I’m going to paint. I wander around and think that looks interesting, it presents itself.
LG: So each time when you come back the same painting spot, you’ll often focus on a different problem. Even if the scene hasn’t changed you may see a whole new set of relationships that you want to explore. I suppose if you were a real die-hard you could paint only at the same place and never run out of compositional possibilities.
I’m curious, do you make your landscapes usually in just one sitting or come back over multiple sessions?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: It depends, if it’s the city, they take multiple sittings. After picking my spot I will often spend the morning just figuring out my drawing. I draw with raw sienna on a gessoed board so I have everything placed. I may or may not start the painting that day. The cityscapes are complex so often I’ll just work on a particular area for awhile and then I can leave it and come back another day and work on another area. It could be three sessions for the cityscapes and I have my whole drawing laid out so I know what my composition and plan is but it tends to be too complicated for one sitting. Other situations, like when I’m in New Jersey, Ireland or Maine they are very often one-shot deals.
LG: What other painters have been most influential to you and why? Do you have a community of painters there you go painting with and talk about art?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: The painters I look at change from time to time, but it can depend on what exhibitions are on view at a particular time. Matisse is a staple. The Inventing Abstraction show at MOMA a few years ago was fabulous. The Picasso Guitar show was memorable too, to see how he worked for two years on a single object, breaking down the form and arranging and rearranging the shapes. He took the guitar apart and then put it together again. Recently I saw the Cezanne show of Hortense portraits at the Met. To see the range of paintings, the way of taking a familiar subject and painting it over and over again and how it allowed him to move beyond the familiar so that he could really take chances and try new things.
The Lauder Cubist show was also terrific, at the Met.
I have friends I go to see shows with, and also to openings though I don’t go to as many openings as I used to. I catch up with my painter friends by going to shows with them. It’s fun to talk about the work together and to compare notes. I have one friend I go to see shows with a lot, but also if friends come from out of town it’s fun to go see shows with them also.
My work was in a benefit show at The Painting Center recently, and I really responded to a painting by Gwen Strahle. She was a colleague of mine at the MassArt Program in Bennington College. It was a very dark painting of a ball of black rope. It was intriguing. I emailed her about how much I loved it and she wanted to trade paintings. So now I have her painting hanging in my apartment. She made 100 paintings of black rope. I love that idea. That painting reminded me of Victor Pesce’s work but with more texture. I love Victor’s still lifes also. I have one of them that I bought at a benefit show for Haiti. I love Louisa Mattiasdottir’s full length self-portraits. I love Vuillard’s interiors, and Bonnard. And I love looking at Mondrian’s entire body of work, as I find it so inspirational to see how his work evolved. I loved John Walker’s recent show at Alexandre gallery too.
LG: How much does your watercolors, collage and oil paintings inform each other? Do you make them concurrently or go through periods of each?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: I generally go through periods of oil, watercolor and collage. Oil is the most natural medium for me to pick up. I teach watercolor a lot and so I will often work more in that medium if that’s what I’m teaching. Watercolor is the hardest of the three as it takes more warm up time. Collage is more of a winter project, but when I get into it I get totally engrossed. Oil is what I take on my painting trips. The three mediums certainly inform one another. I think my oil paint is thin, and I use the transparency of the white board underneath, which is really a watercolor concept. Watercolor is a very unforgiving medium and it has taught me to be decisive and leave things alone. In graduate school John Walked used to say “Don’t approximate. Think about what you want to put down and leave it there” I’ve always found that very helpful. Working in collage has helped me to pare down my shapes even more. The black houses I painted in Maryland are a prime example of that. I’m really not putting in detail or much tonal work.
LG: Can you explain how you go about making your watercolor collages? Are they based from previous studies from life, photos and/or memory and invention – or do you mix it up?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: I wanted to make collages for a long time. It’s a really great studio project for a plein air painter in winter. I made two very simple small square collages first and I pinned them on the wall in my studio, and I looked at them for a long time. And a couple of years later I started again. I used my own oil paintings of the Gowanus as subject matter, printing out copies of paintings from slides, though the collages are much smaller.
The nature of collage forces a lot of changes because of cutting out the shapes instead of painting them. The person whose work I looked at a lot was Alex Katz. I’d seen a couple of his early collages and then a friend sent me the catalog of his collage show at Colby College. The reproductions are life-size…very tiny, and very simple. His collages are of landscape but often with figures in them. They were a way in to the process for me. I combine watercolor with my collage in two ways. Very often I will make a graded wash with transparent colors as my base, particularly if there is sky and water. I carefully make a tracing from the print out of the painting, and then I reproduce the shapes and colors, and paste them down on watercolor paper, which has the graded wash.
I really simplify and flatten the shapes. The graded wash creates the illusion of naturalistic space, but the shapes themselves are just flat colors. I love the quality of the color one can make with watercolor, as it really sparkles. By cutting out the shapes I need when the paint has already been applied I eliminate of one the most maddening characteristics of Watercolor: the edge problem. I use Jade adhesive which I buy at Talas, a store in Williamsburg. It’s archival. I add a little water and use an old oil bristle brush. It’s like a jig-saw. The process is slow and meditative, totally different from the immediacy of the plein air experience.
I generally start with the larger shapes and move to the smaller ones, and often move from the distant shapes to the foreground. Watercolor has a jewel-like quality and I use a utility knife to cut rather than a scissors, as I like the quality of the cut from the knife better, the straight edges it makes and also the lack of control the blade gives. It’s really fun to re-create reflections in water with cut out pieces of paper. The collages take a long time to make but I really enjoy making them. Sometimes they become really complex and other times they are really simple.
LG: The cut-out shapes are very hard edged and flat however your collages often drawn with a naturalistic space, the perspective looks observed as if you were painting directly in response to an observed scene. You don’t seem to distort or flatten the picture plane like you might expect to see in some other types of landscape collage. Why is that?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: The cut out shapes are hard edged because I focus on shapes and flatten and simplify the color. The graded wash, the gradual diminution of the size of the shapes, and atmospheric perspective create the illusion of deep space. The perspective looks observed because my own paintings that were made on site are the source material. I think I am still involved in creating naturalistic space so they still feel like observed space. It’s the objects that I flatten.
LG: Have you seen the big MOMA Matisse Cutouts show? What are your thoughts? Who are some great contemporary painters making collages that you admire?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: I’ve seen the Matisse Cutouts show three times. I loved it. It’s great to see them in person to see the scale of some of them that I expect to be smaller, like “The Snail”, “The Swimming Pool” is also wonderful. When I went early in the morning, my trick was to start at the end of the show and work my way back and that way I very often had rooms to myself. I ran a collage workshop out of my studio recently, and on the Friday night I met the students at Matisse’s cutouts. It’s good for the students to see how Matisse drew with a scissors, and how he approached the shape of the figure in such a minimal way. On the Saturday morning I had a model for the students to draw gesture poses, figure in motion and the clothed model. In the afternoon they chose a drawing from the morning session and used it to make a collage. On the Sunday the students worked on a project of their own. Some students brought in a landscape they wanted to translate into collage, and another wanted to work on a series of self-portraits in collage using foil. We looked at various artists’ work for ideas on how to proceed.
I love Sharon Etgar’s collages. She shows at Davis and Langdale.
Mark Strand has beautiful collages too. He’ just passed away recently. And of course Alex Katz’ collages from the 50’s. They are landscape and still life, and gave me a way in to the process. I really responded to John Heartfield when I was in graduate school. He was a pioneer of modern photomontage. And of course Romaire Beardon.
2011 Video about Swarthmore College’s List Gallery exhibition of five collage artists including Elizabeth O’Reilly and Ken Kewley, Chie Fueki, Njideka Akunyili, and Arden Bendler Browning. Andrea Packard, Artist and List Gallery’s Curator, narrates this film and discusses insights into how these artists use collage in very different ways to explore space, color, and representation. (discussion of Elizabeth O’Reilly starts at 7:28)
LG: You are so lucky to be able to paint the Gowanus Canal area of Brooklyn, NY. It appears to be a visual treasure trove of painting motifs and an important part of your subject matter over the years. The great variety of shapes, patterns and colors in the industrial waterfront are perfect for the raw material in which to explore compositional possibilities. What has keep you painting here for so many years?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: My studio is right on the Union Street Bridge, and my windows overlook The Carroll Street Bridge. The other bridges that cross the canal are within walking distance of my studio. I’ve been in that building for 23 years now. At first I didn’t think of the city as a motif, but I painted the alleyway behind the building which has a bridge connecting one building to another. It has some broken windows which initially caught my eye. Lois and Arthur Kvarnstrom came to paint with me a couple of times and we painted in the vicinity of the studio, but then Diana Horowitz and I got together and we painted a lot over the years over the entire area. For several years, Arthur, Diana and I would paint together most days. Diana would often choose the spot and we would each show up when we could. It was terrific. It’s very motivating to know there’s another artist there already painting. Arthur would show up at 5 or 6AM, and Diana and I would show up later. It was a most productive time period for me. I’m not far from Red Hook which was a place I used to paint a lot also. It has the same kind of abandoned buildings, but like the Gowanus a lot of what was intriguing to an artist is now gentrified and changed. Even the Gowanus canal itself has lost a lot of what I loved to paint, as Whole Foods came in, and the beautiful red rock crusher is gone. The Hamilton Avenue bridge used to be a stunning blue, but now it’s a nondescript beige.
LG: How much does the place make a good subject for painting as opposed to the painter bringing the subject herself? Is there something intrinsic in a place, perhaps its history or mood that goes beyond just a visual attraction to create emotional connections that might give the attentive artist a greater connection? Or would you say the best painting spots are picked less from the specifics of the place and much more from painter’s personality and interest in some particular aspect of visual investigation?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: That’s an interesting question. Painting the landscape requires an urgency that painting in the studio does not. I find it easier to get started when I’m outside and I know the light is changing and the weather and so forth. Those practical things are good motivators for me. When I started out I looked for a new spot each time, but the longer I paint the more I go back to the same places over and over. And I find even if I go to another country, and even places like Ireland which are so scenic I find myself drawn to the discarded place. There is beauty in the rundown, and there is a poignancy to it that I am attracted to. My childhood had a lot of abandonment and so possibly without even being aware of the impact of that was that I found myself choosing abandoned houses and canals and bridges. There possibly was some identification on my part. That said I also paint in Ireland and enjoy the beaches and coastline. I used to go to the Ballinglen foundation for years. I was born in a very remote area in the most South Westerly part of Ireland by Mizen Head, and my family still goes there. That’s a recurring theme. I also like to paint the snow, though I’m not as hardy as I used to be. I used to go out to the Delaware Water Gap with Lois no matter how cold it was, and quite honestly the physical limitations forced us to work fast and to be very decisive.
LG: What does getting a sense of place in a painting mean to you?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: I think getting a sense of place just happens when you paint in the same spots over and over. Like the Hortense portraits with familiarity there is room for mood to come into the work. I painted in St Mary’s City in Maryland about two years ago, and it was very productive. The houses were rebuilt just as they were originally, and I believe it’s the second oldest colony in the US. I painted those houses from every angle and in every light. Often by the end of the day I knew exactly what I wanted to paint the next day, so I would quickly lay it out on my board so that the composition was all figured out. It really gives a sense of place if one can make many paintings in the same locale. They feed and inform each other.
LG: You’ve talked about your need to work fast and decisive and how Lois Dodd also worked in that way, very decisive. You also mentioned John Walker saying putting something down and just leaving it. I was hoping you might expand on this a little on why being decisive like that is important in your work as well as what about so many other painters who work with an opposite approach, who constantly revise and fuss over everything, do you find their work less interesting?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: That’s how I keep it fresh, and I also feel that the decision I make one day is different to a decision I’ll make another day, where that would become another painting. It’s a whole other thing. I don’t think my work gets better by laboring over it but of course I don’t think this means that this is the only way to work. I find this works better for me. It’s not that I don’t sometimes make a correction on a painting.
I remember doing a long narrow painting by this place in Brooklyn where the subway’s elevated, I had the painting for ages and then I realized I actually don’t like blue skies. They have a way of pinning this down as a landscape, somehow there’s not a way in. After ages, I thought to myself, I know I just don’t want all that blue sky. So, being that it was painted on a board I sanded out the sky and I totally repainted it in a color that wasn’t what I saw that day but it was a much better painting. So, once in awhile I can improve on something if I redo but for the most part I feel that’s where I was that day, I trust my responses on that day 99% of the time.
LG: Your freshness is admirable and fantastic as well as the many other painters painting decisively and who don’t tend to revise much later, like Lois Dodd. However, do you feel this approach could also lead to having a greater percentage of the paintings not working out?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: I think that’s normal, I remember a teacher at the Art Students League years ago, she said “Out of the 10 paintings that you make maybe three of them will be like ‘Wow! Did I make those?’ and then another four will be like ‘Ok, they’re passable’ and then that three will be dogs…That’s interesting but I think that’s fine. You get lucky and sometimes it’s like you get ahead of yourself and something new happens and it’s ‘Wow, I made that’ but you can’t rely on that all the time. I also feel like whatever works for each person is ok and this is important for teaching. We are all different and there is no one way to do it. There is room for however, whatever, fits us as individuals. If it takes ages and you rework it that’s just who you are. That’s not how I work but there is no right or wrong.
LG: I remember hearing some art students admiring the freshness and bravura brushstrokes of John Singer Sargent in many his oil paintings. I once had a teacher who said what you see in Sargent’s painting is last brushstroke not the first. That his freshness didn’t always come right off his brush on the first shot, he arrived at the freshness by scraping off all that didn’t work beforehand.
Elizabeth O’Reilly: Have you seen his watercolors? There was a recent show of his watercolors at the Brooklyn Museum. Oh my God they were stunning. You know they were on the spot, there’s no room there to redo.
LG: He has incredible sensitivity and facility with watercolor that is on a genius level. His oil painting, drawing and watercolors must all have influenced each other a great deal. That makes me think how your practise of mixing it up between the watercolor, collage and the oils must feed off each other and help them find the perfect one-shot notes more readily.
Elizabeth O’Reilly: Exactly, They really do, I am concerned with simplification and I do think it’s all abstraction because it’s just a rectangle and you’re trying to make this an interesting arrangement. To make people think this is space.
LG: In the paintings you did more recently in Maryland, the Saint Mary’s City paintings. These painting to me have a stronger, darker emotional presence than a lot of your other work. I’m curious is there some other level of meaning other than just the formal, visual response. Why did you chose this place and can you speak a little more about them?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: I painted there with Lois Dodd at St Mary’s College and next to it was this colony. I felt like oh my god, I really hit the jackpot with this one. I just know it was a really lucky find; when you see a place and you think there is so much material for me here. I imagine your mood comes into play but it’s all unconscious, it’s not like I went out looking for a colony with a lot of black houses, it just happened and I got excited. I got so much work done there, it was just a really lucky, good fit for me.
LG: I understand you are leading painting workshops there this winter. You and your students must be very serious and dedicated to be painting outside in the cold. Anything more you can tell us about your upcoming workshop?
Elizabeth O’Reilly: I have been running workshops out of my studio on the Gowanus for about five years now. The plein air workshops are in the spring and summer, and fall, but in the cold weather I run workshops indoors. I also run workshops out in East Marion in Long Island. Many of the students come back year after year. This winter I was able to take over a room in my studio space and I’ve been teaching watercolor classes once a week. I keep the numbers low so that students get a lot of attention. And I also run weekend workshops in Collage and Oil Painting for people who work Monday through Friday. The workshops are all listed on my website
I also teach at Rock Gardens Inn in Maine every summer, and at Bennington College through the MassArt program. My next goal is to run a workshop in Ireland. Students ask me all that time about doing that.
LG: You also teach painting the figure in watercolor. I enjoyed reading the October 2007 article in Artist Daily by Lynne Moss Perricelli about your watercolors and teaching. One thing you said in this article I found interesting was:
…“Being fixated on technique is a trap,” she emphasizes. “Other things are more important, such as color, value, and movement. Understanding those is what makes a painting work.” To that end O’Reilly is cautious about demonstrating, seeking to ensure that her students find their own way as artists. “I like to put up the paintings at the end of a class and see that each one is different. Each student is approaching the work in his or her own way and finding unique solutions. It’s no help to them to paint as I paint. Painting is really about problem solving.”
Elizabeth O’Reilly: Watercolor is the medium I find I have to warm up in so I used to go to Spring Studio in Manhattan with my watercolors to paint the figure. I love the clothed figure the most because I enjoy the color. I don’t sketch first, and that’s the fun part, just working from shape to shape, and often the poses are only a few minutes each. It’s a great way not to intellectualize, and to just make a ton of sketches. Students are confounded by the medium, but painting quick studies from the figure forces one to just work and work. There’s nothing better than brush mileage. The work just gets better from doing a lot of sketches. It’s helpful to know about what makes a composition work, positive/negative shapes, unity, variety, repetition, as well as color knowledge. In watercolor I rely a lot on transparent colors. If you really know the qualities of certain pigments it’s so easy to make exquisite grays instead of mud.
I prefer to demonstrate after the students have made their paintings rather than before. I find it limits and often paralyzes students as they somehow think that I have all the answers, and instead of finding their own path, they follow the same composition and choices that the teacher makes. I think it’s a disservice to students to turn them into clones. I always say that they get to take themselves home, and what they need is to find a way in, without me directing every step. Independence is what’s needed. I feel gratified if, at the end of a painting day, every painting looks different. People are all different and we bring our own experiences and knowledge to everything we do. It makes sense that the paintings should be different and not pale versions of what the teacher does. You can tell I feel very strongly about this. Final group critiques are very important also as the students learn as much from each other as they do from me, and when it’s not their own painting that’s being critiqued they can listen more intently. In the final group critiques I draw attention to the strengths of each student’s work. I try to be respectful and nurturing as a teacher as that’s the kind of teaching that helped me most.]]>
St John’s College
The Mitchell Gallery
Exhibition lecture by curator Matt Klos will be given on February 17th at 5:30pm and there will be a panel discussion with some of the artists on February 22nd at 3pm. All are welcome
Opening Reception on January 25th from 3:30-5pm
This exhibition is curated by Matt Klos, Associate Professor, Anne Arundel Community College, with assistance from Lucinda Edinberg.
Matt Klos is a member of the Perceptual Painters group and has been interviewed on Painting Perceptions.
Edwin Dickinson (1891–1978) once said, “The more I’m influenced, the more original I get.” Painters often learn first by looking at other painters; however, a perceptual approach to painting is not based purely on rote observation but rather the subjectivity and interpretation of sight. Painters also learn through the passing down of knowledge from one artist to another. Many perceptual painters of the early 20th century and later worked closely together, either as student-and-teacher or as colleagues, influencing each other’s work and artistic process. The Mitchell Gallery exhibition “A Lineage of American Perceptual Painters” focuses on the relationship between artists; in particular, Charles Hawthorne (1872–1930) and his student Edwin Dickinson, and the line of painters that were influenced by Dickinson.
This exhibition includes works that reveal concise connections between the artists involved as well as works that may not directly relate. For example, Dickinson’s and Welsh painter Gwen John’s work both hold a special regard for touch. In John’s paintings, fragmented touches were scumbled or dabbed, building to a gauzy wholeness, whereas in Dickinson’s paintings, vigorous globular daubs, slashes, and slabs were often scraped away and fused at the edges to create a misty wholeness. And each artist’s influence is filtered down into works such as Neil Riley’s Late Winter Aspens. The painting is divided between a deep warm gray mixture and a light blue swath of snow. Many areas of the surface reveal the tone of the underlying painting board or are covered with only a thin veneer of paint. Other areas of the surface are covered thickly with fat pads of paint which lay, unmodulated, on the surface accentuating a flicker of light on a snow mound or a patch of sky unobscured by an aspen’s branches. Broken linear slashes are dragged into the wet paint suggesting both fallen limbs and snow covered ground between trunks. John’s and Dickinson’s disparate senses of touch converge here.
John and Dickinson share a direct engagement of working from life, then diverge; in particular, in terms of different practices, techniques, and responses to what they are observing. As each artist goes through their own way of “figuring it out,” the resultant artwork becomes more than a simple or mannered representation. Each of these artists contends with empirical representation, and through the process of careful looking they build a unique sensation that goes beyond the veneer of representation. These paintings are accumulated moments. Some were made in an afternoon and others were made over the course of many months or years. When engaging with these paintings one can sense both brevity and timelessness. Mark Karnes’s Dining Room into Living Room presents a totality
of the interior scene, and in our revelry we can imagine the undulation of light that occurs in such a room on overcast days.
The painting is complete and whole yet not static or crystalized. Dickinson’s complex studio constructions combine his love of the Venetian Renaissance with modern modes of painting. An Anniversary, a swirling cacophony of still life objects, figures, and furrowed spaces, reveals both a fidelity to painting naturalistically and a romantic dreamlike quality. Like Dickinson’s other epics, this visionary painting combines clearly definable objects and figures in mysterious environments that contain aspects of both interior and exterior. In spite of the naturalism in An Anniversary, and the space that is created in the work, there are elements of flatness, too. The King of Nails by Gideon Bok. In the painting, Bok uses multiple viewpoints and combines them by interlocking each beam of this sprawling frenetic interior. The effect is both rhythmic and closely observed; lending a sense of movement and transience that is amplified by thinly painted apparitions in the space.
In contrast to the expansiveness of Downes and Bok is the pensive inward pull of the portrait Rubin Eshkanian by Lennart Anderson. The geometry of the surface is revealed in punctuating darks and blooms of color: blues, orange, pink, and violet, hedged in by neutral grays. Susan Jane Walp’s Doublemint similarly turns in on itself. The small scale of her work does not diminish, but rather it accentuates the painting’s density. Upon first looks the pattern of the leaves on the bowl, the type on the gum package, and the image of fork tines exert themselves. A slower read, though, shows that these patterns are echoed in other subtle patterns: the deckled edge of the flattened bag and even the organic patterning of the surface these carefully arranged objects are sitting upon. The viewer is entranced and drawn in.
When looking at Edwin Dickinson’s work, it is striking that he painted with such range and that his creativity seems wholly nonjudgmental. He painted with the joy of large color spots and the severity of tightly observed achromatic passages. Sometimes he painted quickly and sometimes slowly over the course of years. Some work was significantly abstract and some highly realistic. Some paintings were dreamlike and poetic while others were mathematical and geometric. When taken on the whole, Dickinson was a painter that seemed more interested in the connections of things (objects, people, landscapes, history, and stories) than in the divisions between them. His art was that of wholeness. Dickinson left a broad creative legacy that has been proved a fertile resource to many painters throughout the 20th century as seen in “A Lineage of American Perceptual Painters.”
This exhibition will be held at Anne Arundel Community College in the Cade Gallery. The exhibition runs from January 26th through February 26th with a curator’s/artist’s talk in the gallery on January 28th at 11am, an artist’s talk by Matthew Ballou at 1pm in Cade 326, and an opening reception that evening from 6-8pm.
Perceptual painters do, in some sense, have a mannered approach to their work. The mannerism is related to their sensing and becoming increasingly aware of the visual character of sensing light, form, color, focus, and space; these are the core subject matter of the perceptual painter. An area of light may become as dense and impenetrable as stone. A solid form may be seen as diaphanous as atmospheric space. These are but two examples of the syncopated intersubjectivity of our senses.
The focus of this exhibition is object studies – perhaps singular, perhaps in tableau – that are aimed not at the slavish presentation of the appearance of objects but rather find their true subject in the scanning, flashing, point-to-point-yet-all-over arrangement of visual and material phenomena. These works move beyond the notational or the schematic to embrace an experiential subjectivity. -Matthew Ballou
This past August I was fortunate to meet with Margaret McCann in her studio in NYC for an interview. My good friend and fellow painter, Matthew Mattingly, joined the conversation with many brilliant observations and comments.
Larry Groff: Thank you, Margaret, for talking with us about your painting, background and the new Skira/Rizzoli book you edited that came out last fall, The Figure What does it entail?
Margaret McCann: The Figure responds to David Hockney’s “Secret Knowledge” to some degree – several artists, among them Judy Fox, F. Scott Hess, Jerry Kerns, Edgar Jerins, Alex Kanevsky, Steve Mumford, Richard Phillips, Rona Pondick, Judith Schaecter and Nicola Verlato openly describe how they use traditional as well as modern techniques like photography, Photoshop, or 3D computer programs. The book focuses on painting and sculpture with some discussion of drawing and printmaking, with amazing artwork by NYAA alumni like Leslie Adams, Ali Banisadr, Amy Bennett, Bryan Drury, Alyssa Monks and Jean-Pierre Roy alongside established artists sharing their views and methods. We were lucky to have the contributions of Steven Assael, Will Cotten, David Ebony, Natalie Frank, Mark Greenwold, Eric Fishchl, Bruce Gagnier, Hilary Harkness, Anne Harris, Trenton Doyle Hancock, F. Scott Hess, Jenny Saville, Irving Sandler, Ted Schmidt, Robert Taplin, Jerome Witkin, Eric White, and many others.
Larry: How did it come about?
Margaret: The New York Academy of Art asked me to project-manage a book Rizzoli was interested in doing about the school. Since it’s an academy that has been supported by both Andy Warhol and Prince Charles, and prides itself on both traditional methods, such as anatomy and indirect painting, and on contemporary discourse, I thought it would be compelling to take the long view and explore how and why the classical academic tradition has impacted the present state of figure-based art. I asked various knowledgeable people (who have in some way been involved in the school, teaching or visiting) to write on figurative topics. To mention a few, Lisa Bartolozzi’s essay on painting techniques shows how incessantly experimental painting has always been; Vincent Desiderio looks deeply into figurative painting’s ”technical narrative”; Alexi Worth’s hypothesizes “the invention of clumsiness” after photography hit the 19th c. painting world; Donald Kuspit describes some of the impact Freud had on the figure; Kurt Kauper explains kitsch and Jule Heffernan “the male gaze”; Laurie Hogin examines the politics of figurative painting; and John Jacobsmeyer and Nicola Verlato each discuss the meanings of spatial organization via perspective, the camera obscura, 3-D modeling, and cyberspace. With the supremacy of the internet today, the role photography and computers play can’t be denied.
The book doesn’t touch much on art springing from the modernist trajectory that reacted against that academic tradition -color-based, expressionist, or perceptual work. In my own paintings there is an emphasis on drawing but they are more modernist in their play between perceptual objectivity and surrealist whim.
Larry: Seeing your work and still life setup here in your studio greatly enhances the interview experience. I’ve long found your paintings fascinating but your work is much better in person, especially in color, surface and scale.
Margaret: It used to look better in slides, but over the years I’ve gotten much better with color and value and they look better “in person”. The images on-line look more cartoonish than they actually are, because texture doesn’t translate well on the web.
Larry: Also the scale; true of most images of paintings you see online. A tiny image becomes the same as a big one. You don’t see the net impact of that much paint in your face.
Margaret: People have said they thought my paintings were larger than they are; probably from how I toy with scale relationships, which is partly inspired by what I’m looking at, like architectural models, which were inspired by living in Rome for eight years among the monuments. Over the years I’ve collected various objects, stored by category. After I finish this still life of wooden objects I can get rid of some. The bizarre ones, or those most interesting to paint, are keepers. That wooden tree from Marshalls still has its price tag, so maybe I’ll return try to it.
Larry: Good plan! So, the store’s return date policy for the object influences how much time you get to work on the still life?
Margaret: I wish; that would be much more efficient than I am. In this composition I’ll probably wind up putting that odd wooden mirror on the bottom, so it will be both a still life and function as one of my “headworks” series, like Carmen Miranda Still Life (2009).
Larry: I see what you mean; I now see the self-portrait underneath.
Matthew Mattingly: Do you work the composition and drawing out on canvas, or from sketches?
Margaret: I rarely make more than idea sketches, but do draw it out in pencil on canvas first when working perceptually. At the NY Studio School I developed an appreciation for the process of painting, making a mark and then another in response, then questioning that – sort of “Giacometti meets Cezanne”. At its worst this way can lead you into a black hole. In grad school, as a perceptive critic Sidney Tillim pointed out, I was just making many paintings on one canvas, and Jake Berthot told me to read The Unknown Masterpiece by Balzac, which addresses obsession with process.
Larry: Can you explain more?
Margaret: Giacometti’s fetish of uncertainty can certainly lead to authentic depth. I remember the dark gloom over NYC when I visited the WTC site in fall of 2001. Right after that I saw a Giacometti show at MoMA, and was surprised it didn’t feel frivolous; his work probably in part reflected living in Europe during the world wars. But following purity can make you remove anything unnecessary and get carried away with “less-is-more” – or never finish, as Giacometti did not.
Ideally, it’s “two steps forward, one step back,” a forward progression. Textures build up richly this way, as in Cezanne, who never arrived cleverly or quickly at decisions, but almost sculpted, investigating decisions from different angles, so to speak. Sometimes he left non-objective marks that read like possibilities. I love the way his paintings are both solid and open. But I still can get locked into the present tense of process. Working from observation can bring you out of that loop because there is a perceptual “truth” you can always aim for.
An old school chum of mine, Julie Heffernan, called Shiny Still Life (2012) apotropaic – something that wards off evil. That’s basically the opposite of the inviting, rococo deep space Dave Hickey described in “The Invisible Dragon”. The compressed and congestive space in my paintings does push the viewer away, but also draws them in closer to investigate. I like the viewer’s eye to bounce around, which doesn’t gibe with Matisse’s directive for painting to feel like a “comfortable armchair for a tired businessman” – I wish it did because business people buy paintings!
Larry: One great thing about today’s art world is its diversity. Some like it simple, some complex. However, I think it’s tough if you’re a student trying to figure things out like what is good drawing or color, or if that’s even important. Are you teaching currently?
Margaret: I’ve been teaching at New York Academy of Art, Pratt, Montclair, and I’ll be teaching at U. of Virginia spring semester, and job-hunting.
Matthew: The organization of your painting is complex but it’s not chaotic at all. It’s actually highly organized. If you look at it for a while you can learn the pathways and algorithms for picking your way through complexity, which can then give you a way of seeing the complex world that’s right out there.
Margaret: Oh, I like that; makes me feel more normal. I’m very interested in politics, and our multi-faceted world.
Larry: I definitely see pathways and geometry that pull it all together. But you don’t seem bound by a particular compositional system. Each one of your paintings seems to explore structures unique to that painting. That’s very refreshing to see.
Margaret: My compositional spaces are shaped around my experience looking and painting, rather than from a believable deep space in which objects are placed. I’m only sadly just now reading Svetlana Alpers’ wonderful The Art of Describing (http://www.amazon.com/The-Art-Describing-Seventeenth-Century/dp/0226015130), about the more optical way space was composed in the North, vs. Italian Renaissance painting’s geometrical model. At Yale I took a class in Netherlandish painting (along with John Currin) but we were assigned Panofsky. At Washington U. in St. Louis, Amy Weiskopf and I took a lot of art history classes. Larry Lowick had us read Michael Baxandall’s great Painting and Experience in 15th Century Italy. http://www.amazon.com/Painting-Experience-Fifteenth-Century-Italy-Paperbacks/dp/019282144X I also read art history while living in Italy – I went there first on a Fulbright and then stayed eight years, teaching and painting.
Larry: I read that Piero della Francesca, when his eyesight was failing in the last ten years of his life, wrote a whole treatise on perspective and mathematics.
Margaret: Yes, which business students studied to better understand quantities, for trading purposes. Baxandall describes how, before “universal” systems of measurement were standardized, science and art were fairly equally advanced as ways of expressing knowledge of the world. So objects like Piero’s chalice had intellectual appeal in Renaissance paintings. Alpers also shows this in Northern painting, which didn’t use strictly-pointed perspective, but engaged the inquiring, human eye, rather than relating everything to the absolutes of math, or the all-seeing eye of God.
Larry: The tipping up of the picture plane in your work, which flattens the space, relates to Northern Renaissance painting
Margaret: Yes, and to Cubism. I like foreshortening because it suggests deep space, but also lets flat shapes assert the picture plane. I suspect, having grown up in the middle of ten children, that I grew accustomed to constant motion in my visual frame. I generally find visual situations that are complicated and dense appealing. After I saw Glengarry Glen Ross and The Player I loved the way complexity arrives at harmony in them so much I went back and saw them again the next day. I enjoy looking at paintings with deep space, but it’s never been something I’m consistently interested in. Scott Noel, who I also went to undergrad school with, suggested I put more space around things. I have gone through periods doing that, but wind up squishing things in tight spaces.
Larry: The main thing is, does it work for your paintings, and is it successful?
Matthew: I think there are believable spaces in Shiny Still Life, but they are small spaces. The way the little bathtub thing is in front of whatever the hell that thing is –
Margaret: – a duck cooker I bought in a flea market in Rome –
Matthew: – there’s definitely accessible and believable space. You probably couldn’t fit your finger in there, but you could fit a piece of cardboard in there. You know that between the whale’s tail and the bathtub, there’s a little bit more space. There’s no problem of space; there’s plenty of space. It’s just miniature space.
Margaret: That’s what I want for the viewer – at first you’re overwhelmed, then your eye experiences everything intimately; maybe that’s how I see the world. That echoes the way I prefer to be close to what I’m painting so stereoscopic vision is activated, and I fully see around things. I’m also very near-sighted, so there’s that.
Larry: I’m curious if you ever think about a hierarchy of highlights in a painting, or naturalistic light qualities and the degrees of the reflectiveness of things, and such?
Margaret: I’m very sensitive to light in the real world but in my paintings it’s secondary to the description of form and space. I follow it closely for certain color relationships or to create textural illusion, like metallic surfaces, but my sense of light is largely conceptual and circumstantial.
Larry: I really admire Mom’s Accordian (2013). Tell me how this came about. It seems more straightforwardly perceptual.
Margaret: I inherited this object from my mother after she died a few years ago, and wanted to do an homage. I set it up under a blue light but didn’t really have enough space in my studio to control the viewing light. I also had to finish it for a deadline for a Zeuxis show, so I painted it at all hours with daylight and artificial light, so the light is less naturalistic. The abalone was fun to paint.
Larry: Tell me what’s going on in terms of the narrative in this large boardwalk, Atlantic City painting. What led to it?
Margaret: Living in Atlantic City for four years was such a trip. It reminded me of an R. Crumb cartoon because so many of the visitors looked dressed for a bad outfit contest. You see all the clichés, people passed out outside casinos from a bender, drinking and gambling. It’s a very wacky, but very friendly, place. Once while waiting for an early bus to New York, a policeman told passengers about how his feet got really sore near the end of the night shift until he started getting pedicures. It’s hard to imagine that conversation happening in New York.
In Follow the Money (2010) Uncle Moneybags is getting away by implied helicopter (inspired by the Yogi Bear cartoon), but everybody else is having fun and doesn’t notice that the piggy-bank is about to surf over the edge, or the impending flood.
Matthew: That’s you in the prison uniform with 3D glasses painting the whole thing? Cool.
Larry: So, what does that mean? It caught my eye too. Wow, that’s different.
Margaret: Maybe that I’m the only one seeing things in 3D? That’s a space joke – kind of like the bit of extremely deep (looking from outer) space in Call Me Marge (2004), which is otherwise pretty flat. That’s mostly synthetically painted – I observed the head, but based the rest on where appropriation led; R. Crumb, Guston, Hopper, The Simpsons, Cezanne, and – what is that from?
Larry: The Little Engine That Could, right? Would there be a sequential way to read these, or does the viewer make up their own story while looking at the painting?
Margaret: I’m leading the way with the big blue shape and yellows moving throughout, but the viewer can make their own subjective way. Obviously all the “headstuff” has psychological implications. My compositions, beyond an initial design, form intuitively, part to part – like a surrealist. Sideshow (2013) has perceptual moments, but most parts, like the Monopoly board and the boat, are invented. I left some areas sketchy, which play off the thornier areas I reworked.
Larry: I’m curious how you respond to someone like Gregory Gillespie, another person who combined surrealism with perceptual work.
Margaret: I like his early Italianate self-portraits, but am otherwise not crazy about his color or the heavy reference to the photograph. Peter Blume or George Tooker interest me more. Better yet, Edwin Dickinson, who uses the Cezanne-Giacometti thing somewhat.
Matthew: Can you talk about the Ratfink? Haven’t thought about him since about 1966.
Margaret: I’ve put him in several paintings; fun to paint and a fond childhood memory, along with Basil Wolverton bubble gum cards. I like the mixture of serious technique and silly motif. He appears in What We Worry? (2009) too with Alfred E. Neuman on a soapbox, and others on the boardwalk. After a while you notice a tsunami entering the casino. This situation has an apocalyptic end, but it’s also fun so people will enjoy looking at it.
Larry: You often seem on the verge of a political statement but then thwart it with whimsical, cartoony elements. I’m always puzzled with the question of art as a realm for politics.
Margaret: Picasso said all art is political. In “The Figure” I wrote an essay about how history painting has morphed in response to socio-political and technical changes, including the Industrial Revolution, photography, and the Cold War. In the 20th c., after its profound corruption by Hitler and its adoption by authoritarian governments, heroic figuration was viewed suspiciously in “the free world” as reactionary. Eventually any figurative painting was suspect as potentially colonialist or oppressive in some way. After the western art capitol moved from Paris to New York because of the wars, critics like Greenberg posed American abstraction against Socialist Realism, and the standpoint of Social Realism became confused. But the Cold War notion that abstract art is a-political is too purist; any style of art can be exploited – or be academic. AbEx meant to its promoters (not to its creators) the freedoms promoted by capitalism. Who patronizes art and shapes cultural values has always mattered. It’s interesting to think about why extremely wealthy still buy art; it speaks to its spiritual value.
Matthew: There are some great technical realists like Jacob Collins who are in effect reactionary – back to the age of Bouguereau, as though the twentieth century didn’t happen, feminism or communism or anything, really. Nothing threatens assumed ownership of the land in landscapes; female nudes have a tasteful “come hither” look, and males show off their big muscles.
Larry: Some of the current crop of neoclassical painters coming out of the atelier seem to want to get back to a world where issues like racism and sexism weren’t discussed. The French Academy went far beyond technique. It defined beauty, what could be considered art.
Margaret: It’s ironic that those people would probably be very opposed to Greenberg’s advocacy of pure abstract painting, yet in a sense they’re heeding his conclusion, retreating from the world in an “art for art’s sake” way.
Larry: But isn’t making a political painting like waving a banner at a rally of like-minded people? Guernica isn’t going to convince anyone who didn’t already agree that war is evil, it’s just an affirmation that the world needs changing. Is that enough?
Margaret: The nice thing about museums is that everybody goes there, artists and “normal” people. Some who see Guernica might only think about Picasso, but others might actually google that event, an opportunity for the Nazis to show off their fire-power. Art can remind us of the depths to which people can go; it gives us the courage to act.
Matthew: The tapestry of “Guernica” was in the room that UN delegates passed through to remind them war is horrible, so the Bush administration had it covered up in 2003 before the invasion of Iraq was discussed. That’s how powerful that painting is.
Larry: In a lot of recent political painting the ideas may be interesting but often the way it’s painted or visually communicates is lacking.
Margaret: Lots of postmodern, political art is not nearly as exciting as that done by the Constructivists a hundred years ago.
Larry: Our lives are often distracted and can interfere with giving a full commitment to the art work. Painting should strive to equal the depth, intensity and craft of the masters.
Matthew: Regarding the idea of finding the path of complexity, and teaching people a kind of dance, as it were: Promoting a form of thinking that’s not just binary, not just oppositional, and not just “going for the most obvious enemy to attack” could be a kind of effective political way of being.
Margaret: That’s really interesting – let’s write a manifesto! – that painting can teach people to think in more complicated ways, making them more effective agents in the world. Beyond dialectical.
Matthew: It’s trilectical, multi-lectical. What happens in the end is determined by all these things pushing at each other; that’s what the world has to deal with. People tend to lump everything into the good guys and the bad guys –
Margaret: – the Cold War mindset, black and white thinking. Lawrence Weschler gave an interesting talk last year suggesting that the knowledge of big events and of their iconic photographic images in “Life” magazine and newspapers may have generally or unconsciously influenced artists: Hiroshima on Pollack, the moon landing on Rothko. These possibilities don’t fit the formalist paradigm, but they were in the air.
Matthew: Pollock isn’t about destruction as much as energy, which in a sense relates to Hiroshima. Pollocks aren’t chaotic; they are organically organized. Pollack was saying, “This is my life force in the purest form I can give you.”
Larry: Pollack explored the ideas – thinking through paint – of Freud and Jung. A strong political painting may have also started with a now outdated idea or event, but the inspiration for the formal structure is still meaningful.
Margaret: Historians of the future, if they/we exist, will consider what was going on in the world when there was this big 20th c. divide between figuration and abstraction, and technology was becoming an uber-behemoth.
Matthew: It all comes from somewhere… Crumb was about popular culture, but he got his stuff from Renaissance drawings; cross-hatching. The zeitgeist is eventually created by a few influential artists who start the ball rolling. That’s your job as an artist, to aspire to become one of those people.
Margaret McCann’s book “The Figure can be purchased from this Amazon.com link – (if you buy this book from this link a tiny percentage will go to help Painting Perceptions)]]>
This essay explores the subconscious impulses behind aesthetic choice and offers a framework for a deeper understanding of contemporary representational painting. It is written by a painter with a readership of painters in mind, but is appropriate for anyone who wants this specific peek into the creative psyche.
“Apollo and Dionysus in the Representational Painting Family Feud” was published on December 24, 2014 in Kitsch & Beauty: The Proceedings of The Representational Art Conference 2014, edited by Michael J. Pearce, PhD, MFA.
|Apollo Belvedere after Leochares circa 120-140 marble (copy of bronze original of ca. 350-325 BC)||Bacchus – Michelangelo 1496-7 marble.|
Why do specific stylistic approaches in representational art occasion so much vitriol between different artistic camps? Friedrich Nietzsche’s Apollonian/Dionysian dialectic, described in The Birth of Tragedy, offers insight into the subconscious sources of our aesthetic biases. Broadly speaking, Apollonian traits are civilizing, analytical, and constructive, while Dionysian traits are chaotic, ecstatic, and destructive. By organizing contemporary representational painting into the three fluid categories of classical, observational, and constructed, and then analyzing each category in relation to Nietzsche’s dialectic, we come to see the deeply rooted psychological and philosophical underpinnings of aesthetic choice. We see further that the strong reactions that many viewers hold in relation to specific painting styles are tied to their own positions relative to those styles on the Apollonian/Dionysian continuum. Polarities such as chaos and order, closed-form and open-form, muted tones and saturated color, and flatness and the illusion of depth are all understood within the Apollonian/Dionysian context to help us explore the ranges within each of the three representational painting categories, and to demonstrate how the categories relate to one another. We come to see that these types of stylistic choices should not, in and of themselves, call into question a painting’s quality and/or validity, but are rather an expression of the artist’s position along the Apollonian/Dionysian continuum.
Why is it that so many respected and established artists are at each other’s throats over matters as seemingly insignificant as whether a painting had hard edges or softer, more broken up edges? Some painters seem to take the work of others as some kind of a personal affront, as opposed to simply an expression of that specific artist’s painterly preferences. The word “Nazi” is tossed about fast and loose, and sometimes art school critiques turn into high-pitched shriek fests where grown professionals try to prove that a student’s work (and sometimes implicitly the work of that student’s main mentor) is not merely bad; it is invalid.
Every year we hear more and more stories of outrageously unprofessional behavior arising out of aesthetic disagreements. One of my personal favorites happened at a well-known art school. At this school, the main gallery would rotate shows so that each member of the faculty would eventually get a chance to display his or her work. When it came time for one painter, a full professor, to have her show, there was a fuss made at the department meeting. Her work was hard-edged, tonal, and highly detailed. “Is there any way,” a fellow painting professor proposed, “that we could just have a sign displayed in the window letting people know that this kind of work does not represent the institution?”
For decades now, it has been widely asserted that any type of realism (which is in itself a loaded word) is passé, and therefore it has been actively marginalized by many mainstream critics and contemporary art institutions. Established artists and college professors have still been so busy fighting the man and shocking the bourgeoisie that they have not noticed that the anti-academics now were the man. So, when representational painting seems already to have been largely marginalized, why are people working within that tradition also at each other’s throats?
The deeper reasons for this antagonism, and, in fact, the subconscious impulses behind aesthetic choice, become apparent when we look at Nietzsche’s description of the Apollonian/Dionysian dialectic in The Birth of Tragedy. In his book, Nietzsche explains that the form art takes (he specifically deals with Greek tragedies) is in direct relation to Man’s response to reality. He believes that aesthetics address the question of what our response should be to the nature of life. This, of course, begs the question of how Nietzsche views reality. As he is examining the Greek view in this case, it is a specifically pagan as opposed to a Judeo-Christian point of view. Instead of a single God on high, creating order out of primordial chaos, there are competing gods, with competing moral positions, constantly engaged in various conflicts and endeavors. Nietzsche does not separate aesthetics, ethics, or metaphysics; they remain deeply entangled, for he believes that to separate any from the others is to diminish each. So here we have this pagan worldview: rather than an imposed moral order, we have a moral order that is arising out of competition and interaction. What is reality? Reality is creatures coming into existence, eating, sleeping, fornicating, competing and cooperating, breeding, and expiring, and this chaotic cycle of life continues on and on. Man has developed various means of coping with the ways of nature. While there are more responses than just the Apollonian and the Dionysian, these are the two with which Nietzsche explains the dynamics at play in works of art.
Apollo is the Greek god of dreams, prophecy, medicine, archery, intellectual inquiry, light, and the arts such as music, poetry, and dance. Apollonian qualities in painting include the use of lines, closed form, multiplicity, tonalism, and the impression of stillness. The Apollonian impulse is governed by the rational mind which makes divisions in order to grasp meaning. In contemporary thought, we tend to think of these qualities as more left-brained, although recent research shows that the halves of the brain are much more interrelated than previously supposed. Nietzsche equates the Apollonian to the world of dreams, which no matter how compelling or seemingly immersive, is ultimately illusionary. “The beautiful illusion of the dream worlds,” Nietzsche asserts, “in the creation of which every man is a consummate artist, is the precondition of all visual art….We take pleasure in the immediate apprehension of form, all shapes speak to us, and nothing is indifferent or unnecessary.” Thus, Nietzsche’s Apollonian Man copes with the reality of the chaos of being by restructuring it into an illusory vessel of meaning. The artworks resulting from this coping mechanism permit an interpretation of life as well as a training ground in which the conflicts of life can play out.
Dionysus, another son of Zeus, is also a Greek god of art, but more associated with theatre. He is the god of wine and intoxication, agriculture, the fertility of nature, and of the ecstatic worship and secret rites of mystery religions. Dionysian qualities in painting include emphasis on the materiality of the paint (painterliness), open form, a sense of wholeness, colorist painting, and the impression of movement. We can think of these traits as the right-brained counterparts of the Apollonian qualities. The Dionysian is impulse governed by the emotional mind which responds to the chaotic flux of being not by resisting it but by mimicking that reality—in a sense, by becoming a part of it. Rather than to fight nature, the goal becomes to harness its creative power.
To help us understand these competing dynamics, Nietzsche turns to a parable from Schopenhauer of Man enveloped in the veil of Maya.
“Just as the boatman sits in his little boat, trusting to his fragile craft in a stormy sea which, boundless in every direction, rises and falls in howling, mountainous waves, so in the midst of a world full of suffering the individual man calmly sits, supported by and trusting the principium individuationis.”
The principium individuationis, or the principle of individuation, describes the way in which any specific thing is distinguished from other things. For instance, I see the laptop on which I am writing as distinct from the table on which is it sitting. In the same way, the principle of individuation can allow me to see myself as a person who is separate from you, and thus I can relate to you on that basis. I am I, you are you, the chair upon which I sit remains a chair, and thus I can relax that all is right with the world. Nietzsche proposes that “we might even describe Apollo as the glorious divine image of the principium individuationis, from whose gestures and looks all the delight, wisdom and beauty of ‘illusion’ speak to us.” Schopenhauer goes on to describe how this comforting world of appearances might be cracked at times (if not ultimately shattered) when Man, with tremendous dread, is confronted with the underlying chaos of existence. This dread goes hand-in-hand with a state of blissful ecstasy, welling up from the reunification of Man with Nature. This state is the Dionysian aspect, as Nietzsche puts it: the world of intoxication as opposed to the world of dreams. This is the dreadful bliss of the maenads in their orgiastic frenzies of the worship of Dionysus, of dancers hypnotically losing themselves in the rhythmic pounding in the depths of the nightclub, of the intoxicating drumbeat of the rituals of aboriginal peoples, and of the feelings of oneness and bliss that can be attained through either meditation or riding a chemical high. The line between catastrophe and deepest bliss is one that is often blurred.
Perhaps the most immediately visible difference between Apollonian and Dionysian painting is that the former tends to be linear while the latter tends to be painterly. The first sees in terms of lines while the second sees in masses. In his Principles of Art History, Heinrich Wölfflin defined this contrast as follows:
“Linear vision, therefore, means that the sense and beauty of things is first sought in the outline—interior forms have their outline too—that the eye is led along the boundaries and induced to feel along the edges, where seeing in masses takes place where the attention withdraws from the edges, where the outline has become more or less indifferent to the eye as the path of vision, and the primary element of the impression is things seen as patches.”
Usually, more linear painting also tends to be closed form as opposed to open form. The edge around forms is kept whole, and the principium individuationis holds sway, so that each object remains clearly defined as itself, and there is a clarity to its relationship to its neighbor as well as to the entirety of the elements in the composition. Open form paintings fit more into the realm of the Dionysian, where edges start to blur, rupture, and disintegrate, and the emphasis shifts from the specific to the general. Individual identity becomes less important than the entirety of the picture plane, the sense of the gestalt. With fewer edges on which our eye can catch, we zip around the painting at greater speed, creating a sense of motion and dynamism in the experience of viewing the work of art.
Motion and emotion are visually tied. More linear and closed-form paintings tend to have a quieter sort of reverie about them. The experience of vision can feel more detached, as if we observe the scene from a critical distance. As viewers, we enter the realm of analysis and objectivity. More painterly and open-form work, on the other hand, hints at exuberance. The experience of viewing becomes more immersive. The line between the viewer and the painting, just like the boundaries between depicted objects, starts to disintegrate. Wölfflin sees this shift to the painterly from the linear as “the distinguishing feature of the 17th century in comparison with the 16th.” During this era, Renaissance art transitioned to the new dominant style of the Baroque. The Renaissance, of course, was deeply rooted in the rediscovery of classical Greek art and heavily influenced by the aesthetic ideas of Plato. Thus, in the depiction of each object or human figure, artists strove for a representation of an ideal form. Whereas art during the Renaissance strove for perfect proportion, with each form developed fully within itself while still interacting with the whole, Wölfflin describes a different set of goals in Italian Baroque art. “The relationships of the individual to the world has changed, a new domain of feeling has opened, the soul aspires to dissolution in the sublimity of the huge, the infinite.”
|Jacob Collins Anna 2004||John Dubrow Tine 2009||Alan Feltus What Thoughts Do They Hide 2010-11|
So how does contemporary representational painting relate to these dichotomies? I propose that representational painting today can be divided into three broadly-conceived categories: Classical, Observational, and Constructed. While fluid, these categories are useful to describe significant differences in both the appearance of paintings and the ways in which painters tend to think of their own work and that of others. Naturally, the work of many painters is a combination of two or even all three of these categories. Sometimes the same painter will have distinct bodies of work that may each fit into different categories. Oftentimes, the work of gifted painters is overlooked when it is not able to be neatly categorized by curators or critics who may not properly appreciate the complex ways in which these categories overlap in the given work. Looking more deeply into these categories can also help us to appreciate that work which straddles the lines. The analysis of where the work within these categories lies upon the Apollonian/Dionysian continuum can shed tremendous light on both the nature of the work and on the sometimes puzzling reactions that members of one camp can display toward the work of another.
Contemporary classical painting, also sometimes referred to as academic painting, embraces and attempts to build upon painting traditions of the past. Much of classical painting in America today is found in the growing atelier system, which traces its roots back to the height of the French Academy in the 19th-century, looking back at painters such as Jean-Léon Gérôme, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, and Carolus-Duran. Classical painters often see themselves as working to revive lost knowledge, rooted in traditional materials and tools, with an emphasis on technical skill as it relates to crafting a compelling illusion of realistic form and space and the pursuit of an ideal of beauty. Classical paintings are more likely to be painted indirectly, utilizing techniques such as monochromatic underpainting, glazing, and scumbling. Unlike much of the contemporary art world, classical painting often eagerly engages with issues of narrative. Thus, classical painting presents a more Apollonian vision of the world, with a time-honored way of structuring a painting that makes the illusion both believable and seductive. Such paintings frequently deal with allegory or the more outright depiction of a situation, lending themselves to the act of interpretation, and telling a story that has a point. Classical painting takes our fragmented reality and brings it into aesthetic harmony.
|Jacob Collins Candace Profile 2004||Daniel Sprick Sherry 2012||Odd Nerdrum Self portrait at L’Hippodrome|
While classical painting as a whole tends to sit closer to the Apollonian side of the spectrum, there is a range within it that can be further explored. On the more Apollonian end of classical painting we can identify a painter such as Jacob Collins. Populating Collin’s figure paintings, nude models either lounge in bed, visually supported by artfully draped sheets, or contrast against a simple, airy wall. Most demurely look away from the viewer, offering themselves up for our viewing pleasure, ripe fodder for the ubiquitous critiques of the male gaze. The figures tend to be lit at the traditional forty-five degree angle. This controlled lighting situation, with that specific angle, has been used historically in painting because it provides great clarity in the depiction of form and space. Values are more easily broken down into highlight, light mass, midtone, coreshadow, and reflected light. Thus a systematic understanding of light is applied and a believable space is created that simultaneously describes the scene in front of the painter and harkens back to centuries of tradition. The colors tend to be lower in saturation while organized into a clear value hierarchy (tonalist painting) and the figures are highly rendered with exquisite detail. While the edges are not by any means harsh, these are clearly examples of closed form paintings. The angle of the lighting, the highly rendered details, and the closed edges all contribute to the individuation of the motif’s constituent parts.
Further along the spectrum towards the Dionysian, we find the work of Daniel Sprick. We are immediately more aware of the materiality of the paint, breaking the form here and there with splashes and drips. The paint becomes a more active, sensuous player in our visual experience, as we delight in its multiplicity of forms. While still classically lit, the figure is now enveloped in a glowing, numinous space that cannot be concretely tied to any specific physical location. We are somehow left with the impression that the sense of motion in the external environment is connected to the emotional state of mind of the model. There is no longer such a clear division between positive and negative space. Color from the flesh of the model intrudes into the space and the space likewise pushes into the model. With the more open form, our attention shifts from the particular to the overall composition, before coming back to indulge in the delicate rendering of the human form.
On the Dionysian end of classical painting, we encounter the work of Odd Nerdrum. Nerdrum’s subject matter tends to be more abrasive, often even shocking to more traditional viewers. Many of his paintings seem to tell a story or allegorically depict some of the less comforting aspects of the human condition. Nerdrum has embraced the term kitsch, used by his critics to deride the high level of drama and emotion in his subject matter. The paint is built up more thickly than in either Collins’ or Sprick’s work. Looking closely at the surface, one can see lower layers of paint peeking through, creating a rough, textured tapestry. The work remains tonalist, but glints of brighter colors surprise the eye. The lighting situation is no longer clear-cut; the glow feels more tied to mood and composition than to a closely observed, specific visual situation. The painting is more open form, with groupings of similar value and color taking our eyes off of the edges of depicted objects and sweeping us across the composition in broad movements. Air begins to take precedence over object.
With all of these Dionysian features, how do we know that Nerdrum’s work still fits under the classical painting grouping? There is first that narrative aspect, more present in his work than in that of Collins or Sprick. Then there is the matter of painting style that is inherited from tradition; Nerdrum’s paint application is very clearly akin to that of Rembrandt. With the rise of modernism, art criticism has put the onus on the artist to embody the meaning of the painting in the manipulation of the medium, calling for an invented rather than an inherited language of paint. Critics of classical painting view those painters as living in a kind of time capsule—rejecting the whole of modernism and post-modernism and indulging in a visual form of nostalgia.
The second category that we are exploring is observational painting. The term observational is often interchanged with the word perceptual. The idea is that these works are all rooted in the act of looking and responding to the motif. Of course, in classical painting, the artists are also often closely observing a scene in front of them, but with observational painting, the act of looking is given primacy. Values in this camp tend to stress a freshness of vision: a vision that is not wholly rooted in previously established artistic conventions. Like in other contemporary art practices, the words conventional and academic are tossed about as insults. This is, of course, not to say that observational painters have completely done away with convention. After all, painting as an activity is a cultural construct, and it cannot really be seen and understood without some sense of its relation to art history. Also, observational painters tend to look at historical painters from a wider time range than do classical painters. Walk into your prototypical observational painter’s studio and you are likely to find monographs from modern painters such as Edwin Dickinson and Giorgio Morandi side by side with books on early Renaissance masters Masaccio and Piero della Francesca, as well as a tome filled with the prehistoric cave paintings from Lascaux. While classical painting tends to be more associated with the atelier movement, observational painting has a strong foothold in various “studio schools” as well larger and older art institutions such as the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Maryland Institute College of Art.
|Israel Hershberg The Chameleon 1997||Gillian Pederson-Krag Still Life 2007||Jordan WolfsonStill Life with Rosehips and Turquoise Bowl II2011|
On the more Apollonian end of observational painting we have the work of Israel Hershberg. Painters such as Hershberg, with extremely detailed and very much closed-form paintings, are sometimes derided by painters further on the Dionysian side of observational painting as being classical and even reactionary. Hershberg’s use of color in many of his still-lifes tends to be on the less saturated side, his vision of the world held together by a dusty sepia-tinged air. His subject matter tends to be enigmatic and unadorned, eschewing conventions of prettiness. The forms and textured surfaces are depicted in stark detail, revealing the inevitable erosion brought on by the passage of time. The mood is one of felt emotion that is always restrained, always pulsing underneath those scratched and worn and obsessively tended-to surfaces. Unlike many classical paintings, the surface of the painting does not glimmer under a thick layer of varnish. Observational painters are more likely to prefer a matte or semi-matte finish to their work. In part this is because of the nature of the way in which the image is built up. Hershberg, like many other observational painters, employs a mostly direct method of applying paint. He goes for the large color relationships that he sees right from the start of the painting process, rather than building up from a monochromatic underpainting with a series of glazes. I imagine that many of these painters shun a slicker surface because they like the way that a more matte surface looks, but why do so many observational painters seem to lean towards matte while classical painters are more likely to lean towards glossy? I believe that the first reason for this is that contemporary classical painters tend to look more at nineteenth-century French Academy paintings, which were often painted indirectly and finished off with a protective layer of varnish. In contrast, Hershberg looks back at the surfaces of the frescos of the early Renaissance, and even further back to the enigmatic Roman frescos gracing the crumbling walls of Pompeii.
But the division between classical and observational is of course more than just what era of history the painter tends to fetishize. There is also the matter of the painter’s relationship to certain basic tenets of modernism. With the fall of the French Academy and the rise of Impressionism and all of the subsequent “isms” of modern art, illusion (an Apollonian trait) became a feature that was derided. Whereas previously a painting had been conceived of as a window through which a convincingly real scene could be glimpsed, in the twentieth century the idea of flatness, of the importance of the surface of the painting, became a very conscious concern. In his highly influential 1960 essay “Modernist Painting,” critic Clement Greenberg asserted that flatness was the most essential and unique aspect of Modern painting. Painters started deliberately calling attention to the flat nature of the surface of the canvas. Rather than an attempt to build a convincing illusion, the materials and the act of painting itself took center stage. “I’m not trying to sell you a bill of goods,” the painting proclaims. “I am pigment, suspended in a medium, arranged on a flat surface. What you see is what you get.” So, in a subtle nod to Modernism, Hershberg’s dry, fresco-like surfaces delicately draw attention to the flatness of the canvas, creating a tiny spark of conflict between a masterly depiction of deep space and the assertion of flatness.
The further we get towards the side of the Dionysian, the more emphasized the surface qualities tend to be in relation to the illusion of depth. We can see this tendency playing out beautifully when we look at the figure painting by classical painter Jacob Collins side-by-side with that of the observational painter John Dubrow. While the Collins figure is delicately rendered, smoothly guiding our eyes over rounded forms, the Dubrow figure and the surrounding space seem to be composed of starker patches and blocks of paint. The paint never fully gives over its own identity in the service of depiction. While there is certainly depth and space created in Dubrow’s painting, it sits in a delicious tension with the painterly, flat patches that cry out their own materiality. “You see,” the patches exclaim, “this scene we are showing you…it is just an illusion. We are all made of the same stuff as the rest of nature, and it and we are filled with eruptions and negations.” And the illusion of Maya ruptures a bit more.
Further toward the Dionysian pole under observational painting, we have the jewel-toned arrangements of Gillian Pederson-Krag. There are three main ways in which Pederson-Krag’s still-life is more Dionysian than that of Israel Hershberg: use of color, composition, and level of detail. Unlike the strongly tonal, low saturation colors in Hershberg’s painting, Pederson-Krag’s painting glows with vibrant, saturated color. The colors are still held together in a clear value structure, and of course certain areas of the painting have less saturated colors for compositional purposes, but the difference in saturation between the two paintings is clear. The psychology of color has been extensively studied and written about, and higher saturation in color is generally linked to more intense expression of emotion. While both still-lifes have a strong centrally focused composition, with the most intricate and attention catching objects placed right in the middle of the canvas, Pederson-Krag’s painting makes use of layers and rhythmic elements that move the viewer’s eyes more actively throughout the entire composition. If Hershberg’s painting has a lead actor (the dried chameleon) carrying most of the dialogue with a Greek chorus (the delicately textured surrounding surfaces) murmuring their support from afar, then Pederson-Krag’s painting has a main player that is constantly interacting with a more fleshed-out supporting cast. Our eye gets drawn from the bright colors of the flowers down into the highly value-contrasting rhythms of the folded and layered paper. The eye is caught for a moment on the playful glints of the seashells before rising up to the background progression of silent dancers, which carry the movement across the painting to the right, at which point we drop back down to the delicate swirl of the shell on the bottom right. Thus we have the contrast between focusing in on a central object (Apollonian) and the dispersion of a greater amount of attention to the entirety of the composition (Dionysian). Even though all observational painters are incredibly engaged with the act of looking at and responding to the motif, there is always a tremendous amount of editing and ordering that is taking place while painting. Each painter decides the level of detail to include or omit from the painting. Hershberg’s greater intricacy of detail puts the emphasis on the parts and their individuation, while Pederson-Krag’s stronger simplification of spots of color once again shifts the focus from the individual parts to their relationships, their interactions, within the whole.
These aforementioned shifts toward the Dionysian in Pederson-Krag’s work become even more extreme in the painting of Jordan Wolfson. The three primary colors—yellow, red, and blue—are more forcefully stated within the arrangement. There is no single, centrally placed object that is the main player on the stage: rather, we are clearly dealing with an ensemble cast. Closed form gives way to open form, with edges that are crumbling and in some places almost entirely disappear. All this contributes to a great sense of motion, with Wolfson leading our eyes in a mad, Bacchanalian dance across the richly pulsating surface. Negative space and positive space start to run together and the individual depicted objects vibrate to the tune of the chaotic flux of being.
|William Bailey Still Life Hotel Raphael 1985 (Credit: Courtesy of the artist and Betty Cuningham Gallery New York)||Randall Exon Beach House 2008||Kyle Staver Europa and the Flying Fish 2011|
In the final category, constructed painting, artists rely more on pictorial invention or working from memory rather than a close observation of a scene in front of them. William Bailey’s tranquil still-life lies on the Apollonian end of the spectrum. At first glance, the vessels that he uses have such compelling presences that it is difficult to believe that he is not looking at them as he paints them. In fact, each of the objects does exist in real life, but Bailey knows them so well that he is able to call them up from memory to act as players on his wholly invented stage. In addition to the crisp edges and desaturated colors that connect Bailey to other painters with more Apollonian features, Bailey has a very interesting way that he deals with perspective. Like the figures in Balthus’ Figure in Front of a Mantel and Euan Uglow’s Nude, 12 Vertical Positions from the Eye, each part of Bailey’s vessels is seen at eyelevel. If the vessels were actually painting according to an observed perspective, then ellipses would be visible at any point above or below the line of sight. Instead, all of Bailey’s objects have straight lines in the place where we would see an ellipse. This sends a very specific message to our brains. The closer we are to a vessel in real life, the greater the effects of perspective would appear, with a correspondingly greater change in the pitch of the ellipses. Conversely, the further the object is from us, the more all of the ellipses would resemble a straight line. As the object approaches the horizon, ellipses are converted to lines. This makes it appear as though Bailey’s vessels are being seen from a great distance, and thus they take on an air of monumentality. We see them as intimate vessels and at the same time our brain reads them as possessing the immensity of the Egyptian Pyramids. The impression is to infuse the paintings with a grandeur that links them to the great architectural achievements of mankind—these pinnacles of the Apollonian drive.
Bailey’s work is not about finding precise color relationships or accurately recording a visual experience; it is much more focused on the internal art historical dialogue that takes place for him while he paints. The colors he employs are the earthy hues of Italy, influenced by the four months of the year that he spends at his home in Umbria. When asked about the serene sense about his work and about whether he is in a transcendent or mystical state while at work, Bailey replied:
I don’t think it’s mystical. When my work changed around 1960, I was thinking, “There’s so much noise in contemporary art. So much gesture.” I realized it wasn’t my natural bent to make a lot of noise and I’m not very good at rhetorical gesture. So this came on a little gradually. With the egg paintings, I started thinking about time and slowing the paintings down and allowing relationships to develop in time and somehow the time I spent in developing those relationships was reflected in the way the image was read. It wasn’t read quickly because it wasn’t painted quickly, and the relationships didn’t reveal themselves easily because they weren’t arrived at easily. And it’s that complication I think that got into the work. The paintings that I know, that I admire like Piero [della Francesca], have that quality, that silence. I’m sure that’s gotten into the work, but I don’t have a formula for it.
Like the observational painters, Bailey distances himself from the classicists by emphasizing the lack of formula in his painting process. The idea, again, is that the pictorial language is one that is invented rather than completely inherited.
Of course, as is the case with each contemporary painter whom I mention in this paper, personal style is an outgrowth of individual temperament as distilled through encounters with art history. The amount to which a language is inherited or invented is always on a sliding scale—it is never purely one or the other. But a dividing point between classical painters and the other two categories is the amount to which the language is inherited, and that is not always the clearest distinction to make. Sometimes painters see themselves as belonging to one camp while other observers may group them with a completely different one. Painters are often wary of labels, and rightly so (especially if said labels serve to limit rather than to deepen our understanding of their work), but when they perceive that their work is being misunderstood to the extent that it is being mislabeled, hackles get raised and we start to see some of the reasoning behind their impassioned responses to work being done in one of the other camps—the better to distance themselves from labels that they find unappealing.
In addition to grappling with art history, painters often are in dialogue with their own personal history. This is the case with Randall Exon’s painting, positioned at a midway point between the Apollonian and the Dionysian in the constructed painting category. His artist statement on his website lays out his goals very clearly:
In his paintings, Exon is interested in the ways in which memory and dreams inform us about the past. Evocation is his primary goal as a “realist,” rather than accuracy. Most of his paintings are fictions made up entirely from collected sources and/or personal experience and memory.
When he was a child living in Kansas, a tornado completely demolished his family home as he sheltered beneath it. He has since developed a large body of work, including the painting shown here, where he recreated an idealized house from his memory and imagination—a house that exists only within his creative work. Exon’s focus on dreams and on rebuilding that which was lost are clearly Apollonian ambitions. His work also tends to be tonalist in nature, with a clear value structure and with color being more tied to evocation and memory than to an experience of observed color in life. But his edges are not as clean and tight as those of William Bailey and the direction of the light is not always as clear, with shadows sometimes functioning more as emotional presences than as formal devices. Through the open windows we are confronted with ominous storm clouds, quietly threatening our Apollonian haven with the specter of external chaos.
Finally, on the Dionysian end of constructed painting we have the work of Kyle Staver. While the subject matter directly quotes from Greek mythology, the pictorial language she uses is very much her own. The figures are painted in a way that is almost cartoonish, yet they are bathed in a silvery, elusive moonlight, which conjures up images of barely glimpsed dances in the thick of forested night. This is not Apollo’s clear light of day, but rather the slipping light of the Dionysian mystery religions. In contrast to William Bailey’s rational grid of vertical and horizontals, Staver’s painting is filled with leaping diagonals that sweep the viewer’s eye on a rollercoaster ride from end to end of her massive painting. The very moments that she depicts are wrought with charged emotion, with the promise of either ecstasy or devastation just around the corner. In his Huffington Post article, Daniel Maidman compares Staver’s view of the myth-image to the more rational, structured, and glossy versions, such as the paintings of nineteenth century English painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema:
We discover that one form of knowledge precludes another, that to know all things born of brightness and identification is to forget things born of darkness and mystery….The myth-image cannot be resolved; we cannot touch the face of Zeus as we can those of our human brothers. Sunlight does not make his features clear. There is a light that lights him, but we do not have the eyes to see that light….One solution is to paint the gods as mortals see them. How do mortals see them? Indistinctly and murkily, by moonlight, with the aspect of a rustle among the leaves or a burst of feathers. A thing blurs past us, and by the time we turn to look at it, it is gone. This is how Kyle Staver paints the myths.
Kyle Staver also uses an indirect manner of painting (glazing, scumbling, and so forth) which is usually associated with classical painters, but her usage is less structured and more about activating the entire surface in an engaging and varied manner. She also uses storytelling in her paintings, which we associate with the Apollonian, but we are somehow convinced that her paintings are less about a story that seems to have a point, and more about the visceral, sensual experience of that specific moment.
What we see is that the division into the three categories of classical, observational, and constructed is very fluid. While there are clearly identifiable tendencies within each group, traits that are ascribed to one group also often show up in others, but to different extents…and they are often used to different ends. Flattening her space like a true modernist, Kyle Staver also glazes. Deeply committed to the act of observation, Israel Hershberg will also move the table stains about on his surfaces, better to serve the composition. Working within an inherited tradition and fully aware of his indebtedness to his painterly predecessors, Daniel Sprick’s paintings are nevertheless so very clearly his own.
Why is there much vitriol between painters in these different camps and between Apollonian and Dionysian painters within the same category? On some level, the divide is a religious one. Apollonian painting, and especially classical painting, tends to be associated with more conservative beliefs that emphasize the importance of traditions passed down over countless generations and a life that is involved with established religious institutions and norms.
Towards the Dionysian side of the spectrum, one finds the mistrust of institutions and received modes of worship, and an emphasis on individual exploration and experience. Similarly, people often jump to political assumptions based on viewing a particular style of painting. Since a more classical and prescribed approach was often utilized by totalitarian regimes (both on the right and the left ends of the political spectrum), painters who favor a more Apollonian style are often accused of simplemindedly, or even maliciously, toeing a party line. On the other hand, painters of a more Dionysian bent can be accused of being untaught, lazy, or even anarchists. And thus contemporary painting becomes a battlefield on which religious, social, and political forces are played out, with gross generalizations bandied about. People jump to oversimplifications, essentializations, and sometimes, discourse that amounts to nothing more than belligerent name-calling.
On a basic level, we are clannish creatures, and we naturally like to think that our way of doing something is the right way of doing something, because it justifies our own decisions. Recent research in neuroaesthetics establishes that the brain’s default mode network (DMN), the part of the brain which is highly associated with personal identity, becomes activated when the subject is viewing those particular artworks which that individual finds most meaningful. The DMN is usually activated during introspection, and is not typically active when an individual is engaged in the outside world…and this includes viewing paintings that do not produce a strong sense of resonance. Thus, current scientific findings confirm what painters have always known: that the language of paint which calls to us most insistently is inextricably linked to our deepest sense of self. In the case of painters, there is an immense amount of time, effort, and psychic energy that goes into the creation of a body of work. It is a truism that when one is not secure in one’s sense of self, a competing vision of the world seems like a personal challenge rather than a fellow traveler’s unique contribution to the rich tapestry that is contemporary painting.
The divide between the Apollonian and the Dionysian represents different urges, both within our society and within ourselves. Historically, these two opposing forces have worked in concert to create civilization and art as we know it. The clarity of the Renaissance, an Apollonian rediscovery and resurrection of the lost artistic knowledge of Classical Greece, was followed by the Dionysian passion of Baroque art. Out of the Baroque rose highly structured Neoclassicism, peaking at the height of the French Academy. And remember that the impressionists, those textbook Dionysian iconoclasts, first rebelled against that Apollonian French Academy—and the impressionists were known for nothing if not breaking down forms and edges (and replacing high-brow subject matter, such as religious themes and classical myths, with more contemporary and unglamorous depictions of urban life). But the Apollonian could not be eradicated, and we are seeing its resurgence now in the greatly renewed interest in both observational painting and in classicism. There are thus great historical cycles within the world of representational art. Apollonian knowledge is lost due to an upsurge of the Dionysian element, during which time the Apollonian becomes occult—it goes into hiding—only to be revived into a great flourishing under the sun once again. The Dionysian upsurge beneficially renews the stale qualities and dogmatic rigidity that, after a while, become sour. Apollo, left to his own devices, becomes stagnant, self-referential, and infatuated with his own perfected sense of order. That is the time for Dionysus and his followers to rage through Apollo’s tidy world, with all the destructive power of their intoxicated orgy, and set the deadwood ablaze to reduce the glorious and bloated construction of culture into unifying and obliterating ash—from which, in time, new seedlings might erupt. During these occulted periods of Apollonian activity under Dionysian sway, the knowledge is refined, misunderstood, and (as a result of that misunderstanding of prior dogmas) creatively reconstructed in a way that allows for the generation of new life. The continuum of the Apollonian and the Dionysian becomes the body of the ouroboros—cyclically eating itself and regenerating through the annals of time.
My hope in exploring these categories and the wide range of Apollonian and Dionysian traits contained in each one is to show that choices of painting style, that visual predilections and affinities, directly result from our deeply rooted response to the chaos inherent in life, and the civilizing forces which struggle to make sense of it. No art can exist without the interrelation of the conflicting tendencies of resisting or embracing the chaos. Nietzsche asserts that Greek tragedy at its artistic height actually fuses these forces together. He believes that the greatest works of art are those in which the conflicting forces are perfectly pitched in creative balance.
We shall have gained much for the science of aesthetics when we have succeeded in perceiving directly, and not only through logical reasoning, that art derives its continuous development from the duality of the Apolline and Dionysiac; just as the reproduction of species depend on the duality of the sexes, with its constant conflicts and only periodically intervening reconciliations.
Whether we are discussing a specific painting, or the entirety of the journey of art through history, progress and renewal are achieved through this battle of the gods. The Apollonian drive brings the possibility of wholeness and balance to our fragmented existence. But with time and institutionalization, Apollo can become self-satisfied—bloated with his own importance—and then only Dionysus can come through to destroy that which has become stagnant, and reunite Man with his essential nature, the source of both his deepest terror and his most profound bliss.
With representational painting having been marginalized for so long as too unhip for the contemporary scene, in its current energetic resurgence, may we spend less time arguing the validity of one approach over another, but rather revel in the tremendous accomplishments that can be found within the rich field of painterly choice that lies open to us. Successful work in each category can lie anywhere within the range of the Apollonian/Dionysian dialectic. We see that Apollonian and Dionysian traits can take a myriad of forms within a single painting, and that every individual painter is responsible for finding the unique way in which these forces are pitched in his or her art. It is the suspended tension of both Apollo and Dionysus within a single work of art that can elevate a painting from simply competent to startlingly and poetically alive.
 M. Rogers, “Researchers debunk myth of “right brain” and “left-brain” personality trait.” (Online: University of Utah, Office of Public Affairs. 2013). Retrieved Feb. 22, 2014, from http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0071275
 Friedrich Nietzsche (Shaun Whiteside, trans.), The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 15.
 Arthur Schopenhauer (E.F.J. Payne, trans.), The World as Will and Representation, Vol. I (New York: Dover Publications, 1968), 352.
 Heinrich Wölfflin (M.D. Hottinger, trans.), Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art” (New York: Dover Books, 1950), 18. This edition is an unabridged and unaltered reprint of Hottinger’s 1932 translation of Wölfflin’s Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe (Berlin: G. Bell and Sons, Ltd., 1932).
 Idem., 11.
 Idem., 10.
 Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” in Forum Lectures (Washington, D.C.: Voice of America, 1960).
 Dorie Baker, “The ‘made up’ world of artist William Bailey” (Online: Yale News, Dec. 10, 2010). Retrieved Feb. 24, 2014 from http://news.yale.edu/2010/12/10/made-world-artist-william-bailey.
 Randall Exon, “About the Artist” (Online: Randall Exon, 2010). Retrieved Feb. 24, 2014 from http://randallexon.com/Abouttheartist.html.
 Daniel Maidman, “Theophany: Kyle Staver’s Greek Myth Paintings at Tibor de Nagy Gallery” (Online: Huffington Post, Oct. 16, 2013). Retrieved Feb. 25, 2014 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-maidman/theophany-kyle-stavers-gr_b_4102690.html.
 Allison Meier, “Neuroaesthetic Research Probes Link Between Art, Perception, and the Self” (Online: Hyperallergic, Jan. 23, 2014). Retrieved Feb. 25, 2014 from http://hyperallergic.com/104767/neuroaesthetic-research-probes-link-between-art-perception-and-the-self/.
 Nietzsche, 14.]]>
I am honored that Ann Gale agreed to this telephone interview and thank her greatly for being so generous with her time and attention with sharing thoughts about her art and process.
Ann Gale is a leading American figurative painter living in Seattle. Her portraits were shown alongside other leading painters of the figure such as Lucian Freud, Nathan Oliveira and Alex Kanevsky in the 2011 exhibition “HEADS” curated by Peter Selz at her San Francisco Dolby Chadwick Gallery.
The JSS in Civita, (Civita Castellana, Italy) recently announced that Ann Gale will be the 2015 JSS in Civita Master Class Guest-of–Honor. Ms. Gale will be in residence July 13th to August 3th. Here is a link for more information on her workshop in Italy.
In a January 2013 review for Visual Art Source DeWitt Cheng wrote:
“…Gale’s paintings, which require months and even years to complete, are aggregations of thousands of brushstrokes (Cézanne’s colored oil-paint patches and Giacometti’s feathery, tremulous graphite contours come to mind) that alternate, depending on the viewer’s distance, angle of view and degree of focus, between heavily textured natural surfaces (bark, lichen) and sharply observed studies of atmosphere and anatomy. Look very closely, and a myriad of tiny abstractions spring into view, with every square inch graphically charged with energy.”
Another review in Art ltd. magazine by Richard Speer writes:
“…Gale paints the kind of visages and physiognomies you might expect to see beneath Seattle’s heavy gray skies: ashen, Zoloft-ready men and women hunched before muted, putty-colored backgrounds—and yet the artist enlivens her subjects via twinkly, impressionistic brushstrokes that pop and recede with Hofmann-like push/pull. This is Gale’s viewpoint and paradox: a scintillating technique deployed in the service of an enervating sense of desolation.”
…When the painting is finished, the images do not always resemble their subjects in the standard realist sense—which suits the artist just fine. “Likeness doesn’t drive the work at this point; accuracy does,” she explains. “But it’s not accuracy to the model; it’s accuracy to my perception, and that’s a very different thing.”
Her many prestigious accomplishments include a 2007 solo exhibition at the Portland Art Museum as well as the Falk Art Museum at the University of North Carolina in 2009. Gale received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2007 and a Washington Arts Council fellowship in 2006. Gale is currently Full Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Washington, Seattle and is represented by Dolby Chadwick Gallery in San Francisco where her solo exhibition in 2012 has a catalog which can be obtained from the gallery website. Ms. Gale is also represented by Prographica Gallery in Seattle and have a January exhibition at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects in NY.
Larry Groff: Can you tell us a little about your early years and what influenced you to become a painter? I understand your mother was an artist. What was art school like for you?
Ann Gale: My mother is still painting, in fact I’ll call her today to see if she’s painting. Obviously that was very much an influence and support for me. It still is, it’s nice to have somebody to call me and ask “did you paint today?”
LG: What kind of painting does your mother make?
AG: She does watercolor landscapes. She worked in oils when I was young and I was allowed to draw all the time. If I was drawing I didn’t have to do my chores, which was excellent! I think it still works like that for me a little.
In school, I was fortunate to have art teachers that gave me instruction and time to work in school. They challenged me with different ideas to improve and go beyond what I was doing, even in grade school and middle school. I went to undergraduate school at Rhode Island College and I had great professors Sam Ames, a figurative painter, and Don Smith, an abstract painter. They had a way of teaching me to pay attention to a painting. I found undergraduate school very humbling. I began school thinking that I knew how to draw and soon realized I had a great deal to learn. I was so happy to get into Yale/Norfolk summer program. There, I was exposed to a very diverse group of students and faculty that opened up my idea of what painting could be, what the language was like. I felt kind of untethered. I didn’t know what to do there.
LG: At Norfolk did you ever feel that there was a stigma or less support towards work done from observation or did that not seem to matter?
AG: No. Working from observation wasn’t stigmatized, but I also don’t think it had any authority. It was interesting to see the kinds of leveling of everything.
Graduate school was kind of similar, only bigger, more intense. William Bailey, Andrew Forge and Bernie Chaet were at Yale then. We talked more about painting than figuration. It really gave me a vocabulary for that discussion in my own studio practice – considering what I valued in the painting, not just in the picture. Andrew Forge once asked us to define our assumptions in painting. This is something I continue to think about.
LG: I’ve heard the critiques at Yale could often be very pointed, even brutal sometimes. Did you find that experience?
AG: Yes, I sometimes felt vulnerable and exposed. Often the critiques were difficult because they were saying something I was trying not to say to myself.
LG: What have been some of your most important influences that shaped how you paint today?
AG: I am very curious and sometimes obsessive about observation. It is very intense to just be close to somebody and to be looking at their face and down at their lap and being aware of their gravity and proximity. I have been influenced by painters who reveal the intense experience of observation in their work. One of the artists that I found and studied when I was an undergraduate, was Antonio Lopez Garcia. We went down to New York for his show.
LG: That was his earlier show in NYC in 1986 at his Marlborough Fine Art gallery.
AG: Right, I remember standing next to my teacher and him slapping me on the back, saying “breathe, you’re not breathing!” I had seen paintings that were accurate like photo-realism or work that was powerful, like Italian Baroque painting, but I hadn’t felt this before. I couldn’t forget it and it was intriguing that painting could do that. That it could pull me into it’s world. It had a very human sensation to it. I always wondered what is it that isn’t just information—he seems to have transcended that. I remember when that big catalog came out. I ordered it and sat on my doorstep every day waiting for the mailman, waiting for it to arrive.
LG: That’s an amazing book, The Rizzoli Catalog, it’s probably my favorite and most used artbook. Did you get to see his big show at the Boston MFA?
AG: No, I didn’t get to see the show in Boston. That was horrible to miss that show.
As an undergraduate my teachers showed me Edwin Dickinson’s work, which I found incredibly mysterious and intimate. I also found a little black and white catalog that included British figurative paintings. These painters weren’t as well known at the time, William Coldstream, Lucian Freud, Patrick George, Uglow, Kossoff… I was interested in how the process of perception was present in the work. It was almost like they were mapping their sensation. It reminded me of Giacometti. I became obsessed over that little group of paintings. And then when I was at Norfolk we went to visit the British Museum and I was taken by the back of the collar by one of the teachers and made to sit in front of Kossoff and the Auerbach – saying I should not leave until I sat there. I had seen these pieces in reproduction but it was important to see the touch and the way they seemingly transform, revealing the fleshiness of the paint. That doesn’t reproduce very well, that feeling that I really like about painting. To understand some things about a painting I needed to sit in front of it for some time. So those groups of representational paintings especially, really interested me in school and since.
LG: Is your painting dependent on the model being in front of you in the exact same position? How critical is working directly from life in your work in terms of trying to the sitter’s exact likeness, proportions, skin-tones and such?
AG: I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I think it has been changing in my work, how I think about it. I’m used to the tradition of working with the model, where I mark the model and the model tries to sit still in the same place. My studio used to look like a dance studio because I marked my feet where I was standing. It looked like these little shoe-prints everywhere. If I moved a couple of feet closer I would re-mark how everything would change relative to where I was standing. Recently I’ve had a couple of paintings and drawings where the model changed and I followed the change in my painting. I usually have the model in 3 hour sessions and about 2 hours into the session, the model looks different, they give up to gravity, they’re thinking about something else now. My attention seems clearer. There is something more honest in it. So I found myself following that adjustment a lot in my work. Even my own place, I would move in or out and that would change things in the painting. In a technical way, it can make a big muddy mess but it can keep it open. I had to reexamine these same proportions repeatedly. It wasn’t just measuring precision but the idea of re-measuring and re-finding something has become more interesting to me now. Also many of these paintings, the larger ones especially, have gone on for a very long time and sometimes people change. They have gotten ill or they’ve gotten well, their life circumstances have changed. It’s not something I want to ignore; it’s something I want to watch. It’s more truthful; things are constantly changing. When I’m willing to give up what I have, what I see in the painting feels more conscious, more alive.
LG: I remember once reading a quote from Edwin Dickinson, I think, that I something like “a painter should always be paying the model and not the other way around.”
AG: That is probably very good advice.
LG: I’m curious to hear more about your measuring and searching. Would you say measuring helps to free up the painting process; that searching for truth through measuring helps turn off the inclination to paint preconceived notions and helps to keep the painting open?
AG: Yes, The search becomes part of the subject of the painting. The figure is so familiar, it is challenging to see past prejudged ideals of the body and face. Measuring can provide an objective lens for perception.
LG: I find that so fascinating because it seems so counterintuitive that the more you search for accurate mark or tone could be more liberating than with loose, bravura-style brush work. That the actual observation and exactitude doesn’t have to be constraining, like with painters like Euan Uglow with his obsessive measuring, with all his little position marks on the wall.
AG: I was able to see a less finished piece by Uglow a long time ago. It was of back-to-back women, it wasn’t a large painting. It looked like a little study with a very limited palette. I like how he was using that limitation to really ask a precise question about relative measuring.
LG: Your work seems different though, as if the measurement is on a whole other level. It’s not just about measuring; it goes beyond that in a way. Would you say that is true?
AG: There are different kinds of measuring. I have a broad definition of measuring. You used the term that it could be liberating. I think it is, it’s incredibly liberating if I let it take me somewhere. I think I was really struggling with color within figure/ground relationships. I then changed the way I was observing and measuring color. Instead of trying to achieve some correctness about the background or the part of the body, I tried to be accurate the light and how the color could find the light. I had to keep standing back and asking, “is that the color relationship or not?”—so it’s half-measuring and half-feeling because light is very much a sensation, much harder to measure in an objective way.
LG: Is there a point where the painting takes on a life of it’s own? Do you respond as much to what you are seeing in the painting as much as seeing on the model?
AG: I try to spend more time with the painting than with the model. Though I’m not always responding, actually putting paint on. Recently I’ve been drawing a lot from my painting. Sometimes I have to turn them to wall and not look at them for a while because I have them memorized, I can’t see them objectively anymore. I have a huge six foot by six foot rolling mirror in my studio and I can look at things through that and that’s helpful but then I just know it too well. But after I’m away from it for a time, I’ll go back and draw from it before the model comes.
LG: While looking at the painting, or the memory of the painting?
AG: Though I occasionally draw from memory, usually I am looking at the painting. I try to draw what I really see. Trying to objectively understand what’s going on in the painting, treating the painting like it’s the subject of the drawing, just drawing it, what I see—not what I may want it to be.
Lately, I’ve also been doing this after the model leaves. I have maybe a 20-minute ride from home and back. I try to use that time to digest what I’m thinking about in my painting. So at the end of the painting day I’ve been writing a little notes, because it feels like things are clearer just as the model is leaving, of what to pay attention to when I come back.
LG: You never really work on the painting when the model isn’t there in front of you?
AG: I do but it is more often editing or refining relationships, than putting things in. I might wipe areas out or scrape things together so that I have to deal with them again.
LG: Do you scrape things down frequently and then build up or is your process more additive? Or is it half and half—additive and subtractive?
AG: It’s both. If I’m only adding paint everything gets very flat so I try to think about there being an inside where I can push a mark into the space of the painting. I admire the palpable sense of atmosphere in Edwin Dickenson’s paintings as he scraped and blurred spots of color with his little finger. Lately I feel like I want to pick marks up and slide other marks underneath but I haven’t figured out how yet. I often have to rebuild spatial intersections.
LG: I haven’t seen your paintings in real life only these higher resolution images give us a glimpse of what your surfaces must be like. I imagine there is a lot going into the building of those surfaces, with taking off and putting on and all kinds of fantastic maneuvers to make those surfaces.
AG: The surfaces are produced from the accumulation of measurements. Pushing areas together pulling apart, scraping and rebuilding. Some areas get dense but I don’t usually let them get too thick because that can hide some optical relationships.
LG: How do you approach measuring when painting? Is the underlying grid important or do you prefer to do it all more by sight or feel? Do your marks result from measurement or relating forms to an underlying structure or grid? Some of the marks seem to have little to do with a grid and are more turbulent while others seem meditative. Is this something you can talk to us about?
AG: Some of it is very much about the grid, so I was happy to hear that word in your question. It’s always there in the rectangle, very present in my observation. I think it helps to measure against it. To see a gesture compared to a vertical is much more sensitive.
So I’ll follow a lot of those, like plum-lines and horizontals, through the picture to try to see the gesture of the figure, from the knees up through the body to the top of the head. I can get a long measurement with some of the grid lines and I do that a lot in my drawings too. Actually, it’s easier in drawings because I can pull that skinny little line through anything. I’m trying to learn that in my paintings.
Other things are not so much a grid but a linear movement where I’ll follow something that is like a ribbon through space. I think it’s the direction my eye is taking. I might go from the floor, over someone’s lap and into the background. I think of it as kind of a path through the painting and through the figure. I’ll repeat that several times, sometimes I’ll cover an area of the painting so that I can travel through the painting and avoid filling in, or getting stuck on some nameable object, a chair or a head.
As I’m observing, I’m trying not to follow the things with names, I’m trying to follow my way between them and through them. So I’m thinking of either that grid that hangs through everything or these other paths that are available that move through the figure and space.
LG: Why do you fragment the form and not paint it in continuous tones or broader tones? Are you trying to paint the atmosphere around the head as much as the head itself?
AG: The fragmentation is the residue of repeatedly measuring with pieces of color. Sometimes when I look at a piece of color in space, near the figure on the wall, sometimes it almost feels like that color is almost pushing on the figure and sometimes it feels that it’s sliding behind it. I know where the wall is but I’m trying to look at what’s that little moment of color doing. I try to mark each piece of color relative to one or two other pieces of color. I’ll often find three pieces of color, forming a triangle in space that goes in and out of the figure. I’ll revisit and readjust them. This accumulates into the atmosphere of the painting.
LG: So with the shapes of your mark-making, you mentioned you might find a triangular shape of color that goes in and out of the figure. How do you determine those shapes? Is it more of an intuitive thing? What are your thoughts about your mark-making and what determines their shape or quality?
AG: What determines what I pay attention to?
LG: Some of your marks seem very slow, careful and meditative and others seem more turbulent, gestural and less on a grid. So I’m curious how you determine the shape of these marks.
AG: I think I know what you mean. Some things I observe, I have to slow down and be very calculated and the mark would then do the same thing. I’ll add little, short marks will that are trying to tighten up some little calculation or comparison. Things like the gesture, trying to get the weight or the movement through space or any kind of bigger gestural comparison is more accurate if I’m doing it faster. Like a 30 second gesture drawing can sometimes be more accurate in terms of gesture than spending an hour on it.
LG: Right, that’s a good way of saying it.
AG: It’s necessary in my painting to make those big gestural movements.
LG: I love how you control the form openness, closing and opening the edges in and out with the background, we really can breathe the air in your paintings. I’m curious to hear about your edges. Do you manipulate edges with the knife or mix color on the canvas or do you mainly just mix on the palette and leave the brush stroke alone once applied?
AG: I mix my paint on the palette. I’ll put the color down and try to see if it looks different on the palette than it looks in the context of the painting. (I might ask myself) Is that right or does it need to be a little more intense or a little darker compared to some other color? I’ll mix a new version of the color on my palette. I don’t blend in the painting. But some of the marks get bent or pushed in because I’m measuring space. I have to let go of one thing to do another, sometimes I have to say to hell with the color for a little while because I need to consider how measure and manipulate the space. To do that I might need to manipulate the thickness of the mark or the clarity of the mark or edge.
LG: Is there anything that tends to give you the most trouble in a painting?
AG: I think getting something significant overall when I stand back. I don’t know what I would call it. Sometimes all the little parts that I’m working on any painting will be there, but then there’s a bigger more elusive relationship…
LG: Like with a color relationship?
AG: Certainly, sometimes I can get the little neighborhoods of color to work however the big ones will be difficult. Especially on a large painting I have a lot of little marks and so I struggle with standing back a lot I wish I had an eight foot brush I could paint with because I can’t see the whole painting while I’m painting. But it’s also the representation, does it feel like something is in there, is there a consciousness, an intensity of moment inside the painting. That’s not just something I can put in. I have to keep paying attention to the whole and remember to question that. That’s why I’ll often do a lot of little drawings of the painting. Something has to work on a larger scale in the painting and that’s difficult.
LG: In an earlier interview you said: “I started to look at people in terms of their color environment and the presence had to do a lot with not just the local color of themselves but what color they seemed in a certain situation”. Does this play a role in getting unity in your paintings? What might you share with regard to unity and harmony in painting?
AG: I started to think about the phenomena of color when I had this wonderful model with a pale yellow skin. And it seemed like she had almost a purple shadow going down her torso but when I tried to paint it, it wasn’t purple at all even though it seemed purple. I had to get everything in the painting to have kind of golden hue. I could then see that the purple was really just a bit less gold color than the other colors. This was a great learning experience. I may easily name what an individual color is but the phenomena of the color, what the color feels like, requires a sensitivity to the larger context.
LG: So you build the whole painting around making the sensation of that color happen?
AG: Often that will be a key, a measurement that I will keep going back to and so it’s a way of unifying the painting. And a way of getting one presence that goes through the whole painting. In a sense, the gesture of color.
Cézanne is reported to have said:
“Art which does not have emotion as its principle is not an art…Emotion is the principle, the beginning and the end, the craft, the objective, the execution is in the middle.”
LG: Would you say that painting from life is as much about optics as the experience of being in a place and connecting with the thing you are painting?
AG: I admire work that is about optics and work that is more concerned with emotion. But with me, in terms of optics, there is kind of emotional or psychological connection that I am pursuing.
LG: Right, some painters may worry about risking sentimentality, that emotionalism might detract from the formal concerns and prefer a detachment in their work. Your paintings seem to have a good balance between the formal and the humanistic. Your work seems to go beyond the optical experience. Can you speak about that?
AG: I think being precise with the formal language brings specificity and weight to the subject, emotional or whatever the subject may be. Though we can speak about these concepts separately, in a painting I think of them together. During the adjustment of the figure, the space and the light itself becomes an emotional character. While there is a precision to the measuring, there is also an intimacy that is revealed and equally crucial to the process. Though the figures are abstracted through this process, they are not neutralized as subjects.
LG: Can you tell us something about the role your relationship with the sitter plays? Are these people you know? Would you say you are also trying to evoke an emotional presence in the paint? Do you start the painting with this thought in mind or does the painting have to evolve on it’s own terms?
AG: It starts in different ways. It can start with a memory. I’ve painted some models for many years and have spent a lot of time with them and so now have specific memories of them and I will do the painting to deal with that memory. Sometimes it refers more to another person that they remind me of, or an older memory of someone else. But often it transforms into something else because of the immediacy of what I’m actually looking at. And so it becomes this conversation between what I’ve started with and what I’m observing in the moment.
Often it has to do with the light. As the quality of light changes through the year, it transforms the emotional character of the painting. I struggle with how to continue. Lately I’ve been very interested in taking that leap and following the observation wherever it’s going. If I can be open to that, it might give me a fresh eye, like “I haven’t seen this before, or I haven’t noticed this feeling about this person before.” So the painting will show me something that I’m lucky to see and I’ll grab onto that. The emotional character of the people is a tangle of things they remind me of and how they’re changing in front of me.
LG: Would you say these things that remind you of something causes you to transcend the specifics of that sitter to something more universal or beyond that person?
AG: Usually it’s something more intimate, something may remind me of the way my father sat, one of those emotional characters in my life. That memory helps me pay attention to the sitter more acutely.
LG: What do you think about figurative painting today? Who are some people that excite you most and why?
AG: My studio is filled with a lot of catalogs and books and cards on the wall. It doesn’t seem to matter if it is new. I also don’t just look at figurative painters, I really admire Jake Berthot’s paintings and drawings, as well as Stuart Shils paintings, Alex Kanevsky – Alex has a space that feels like a strange dream or memory, Sangram Majumdar has such beautiful color, color as subject, he understands color. I think some sculptors are interesting, especially the way they draw, like Rachael Whiteread. Her drawings are really sensitive and beautiful and Marlene Dumas is making some very powerful paintings.
LG: You will be teaching this summer in Italy at the JSS summer program in Civita where many students will be painting outdoor landscapes – any thoughts on how teaching painting the figure will differ from the landscape? Or do you think that is even an issue?
AG: It’s mostly perceptual painting. So with just those two words there is plenty to talk about. What is it you think you are seeing and how are you building the painting. I love looking at landscape painting. I often look at landscape paintings for a sense of the whole. I feel there can be a sense of whole, like an epiphany, I feel like I can understand the whole thing in a landscape.
I’m looking forward to discussing landscape paintings because it’s something I look at a lot. We will have many common things such as light, space, mark and paint. I’m really looking forward to seeing the light in Italy again. I haven’t painted over there in awhile. The last time it shook up my palette, making me realize I had a lot of color habits that I didn’t even know I had. Painting in such a different climate, it really taught me a lot.
LG: I imagine painting indoors and outdoors would be a significant difference too in terms of your palette.
AG: That’s a hard thing to learn too, to be efficient and have studio or painting habits that will work. Actually right before we talked I was meeting with a graduate student who I just sent out in the rain to paint. You have to figure out a way to do it. I admire that about landscape painters, they figure out a way. Deciding what they really need to bring with them and how to get it done. There is something great about alla prima painting too. It makes you decide on your priorities, what do you really need to resolve before you walk away. It’s good to be faced with those questions.
LG: Do you plan on painting landscape yourself? Are you bringing your painting supplies?
AG: I hope so, I’m not sure what the set up is yet. All I know is that it can be hot.
LG: Sometimes it can be, but if you get up early and find shade it’s not bad.
AG: I will probably bring some supplies and I will be traveling after the program’s over with my family. I’m sure I will at least do some drawing and studies.
LG: The JSS has so many terrific excursions to see all the great museums, churches and places. My favorite is the Morandi Museum in Bologna, just fabulous.
AG: Just that would be worth the trip.
LG: What qualities do you think a great painting teacher should have?
AG: I’ve learned the hard way that I can’t really tell my students a lot or force them to understand. I’ve learned to take my time. I’m a better teacher when I’m asking them a pertinent question, one that gets them to look at the painting for the answer. Even in a beginning class I’m a better teacher when I’m getting them to be their own critic. I’m giving them the questions to ask of their work, so they can better critique their paintings. So they can make decisions that aren’t just for technical reasons, something bigger than that. Sometimes it’s hard to take that time, when I’m in a hurry I’m tempted to give them the easier answer and show them a way to fix something but I don’t think that’s being a good teacher. I have to take my time and ask questions that will make them really consider their paintings.
LG: When is your next show? Where can we see your work?
AG: My first show at the Steve Harvey this coming January. I’m very excited about my first show with Steve Harvey, I’m crossing my fingers. I admire the painters he shows. The following year I have a show at the Dolby Chadwick in San Francisco.
A couple of weeks ago I saw Ann Lofquist’s solo exhibition of recent landscapes at the Craig Krull Gallery in Los Angeles. A delightful show of California landscapes, roughly divided between views of distant urban views along the southern California coast and of pastoral areas between the Santa Ynez Valley and Paso Robles in the California interior. I am often attracted to paintings of things the way they are found in nature, respecting its subtle tones and mysterious,idiosyncratic forms. Lofquist shows remarkable depth in her visual investigations, especially with evoking the play of light during dusk and other fleeting moments. The larger sustained work pulled me closer to observe the mesmerizing qualities of the painterly touch of her brushwork and how the painting worked both close up and standing back, where the underlying structure with its pathways and rhythms of color, line and shape relationships unifies these engaging compositions.
I’m delighted to get the opportunity to learn about her work and thank Ms. Lofquist for taking the time out of her busy painting schedule to answer some questions I sent to her by email.
Larry Groff: Please tell us how you to decided to become a painter and who or what have been some of your greatest influences?
Ann Lofquist I attended public school in Bethesda, Maryland, and while in high school I was fortunate to have an exceptional art teacher named Walt Bartman. It’s fair to say that he significantly influenced the direction of my life. As students we were encouraged to paint perceptually, in acrylics. I remember sensing that my eyes were beginning to really see for the first time and that the world was beautiful. It was like first love.
LG: What was art school like for you?
AL: I attended Washington University in St. Louis, which is has an art school incorporated into a larger university. In college we were allotted individual studio spaces, and I was conditioned to believe that the studio is the setting where art should be made. Most of us were abstract painters at that time (early eighties.) I remember that we were preoccupied with trying to do something which was stylistically new — in fact, it was almost an obsession. The problem was that we were looking at other art for inspiration, and naturally our work ended up being very derivative.
However, art school was where I developed the discipline to sustain the development of a painting over a long period of time. I was also introduced to oil paints, which continue to dazzle and bedevil me to this day. In my studio work, I still retain something of the organic working process of my abstract paintings, where the final image is the result of trial and error, addition and reduction, etc.
When I left art school, I worked a couple of years before going back to grad school. When I was working in isolation, I realized that in order to sustain me, my paintings had to directly address my visible surroundings. I also realized that I had lost something of the joy and wonder I experienced as a high school painter. In grad school I came to the realization that landscape was going to be my subject, but I had forgotten what it felt like to work outdoors. I was trying to invent complicated landscapes in the studio without the visual store of information acquired from direct observation. Since then I have tried to find a balance between perceptual and studio painting.
LG: What sorts of things do you look for in nature and what determines your selection? How much does your initial selection determine your final composition?
AL: I think many of us have had the experience of a stab of joy and longing when looking at nature; I certainly have and I’m trying to recapture those moments in my paintings. I’ve found over the years that I unconsciously gravitate towards certain subjects: a certain scale of space (not too vast) which I think is accessible to the human scale. I am also attracted to a landscape which has been shaped by the human presence. Over and over again I’m moved to paint old trees, roads, streams, tracks in the fields or in the snow, and erosion. Many of these subjects are evocations of the passage of time, and I suspect that’s why they move me.
I also prefer the light of the late afternoon/early evening, probably for the same reason. Painting in the morning is problematic for me because I’m a night-owl and hate to get up before dawn. I’m also more attracted to the sense of emotional reflection suggested by the end of the day.
When I go out to paint, the selection of a site is often a long and difficult process — I am looking for a certain combination of subject, space, and atmosphere and have spent countless hours driving up and down country roads looking for the right spot. Once I find a site which pleases me, I tend to go back many times and paint it at different times of day, different seasons, etc. This kind of intimate association with a particular place often bears fruit when I begin studio canvases.
As an aside, the DeLorme Company prints wonderfully detailed atlases (including topography and vegetation) of each of the fifty states. I’ve found them to be an invaluable resource.
LG: Do you use the viewfinder and/or thumbnail drawings?
AL: I don’t use a viewfinder or do thumbnails; often I find myself with “composition regret” when I get a painting back into the studio. However, I usually go into the field with several panels of different dimensions so I can choose a rectangle which suits a particular view. Panels are also convenient in that they can be cut down and resized. Of course, If I’m going back to a familiar place I know in advance what kind of panels to bring.
LG: I’ve read that your larger studio paintings are based on smaller paintings done from observation. Do you make these plein air studies with the big studio painting in mind or do you just paint what captures your interest and then later select out one you think would work for a larger painting.
AL: When selecting a site for a plein air painting, I definitely consider whether or not it has the potential to “bear fruit” and become a studio canvas. Often times I pass on painting an appealing subject because I know I wouldn’t want to develop it into a larger painting. However, sometimes when I’m not able to travel with oils, I paint in watercolor and gouache in a hard-bound sketchbook. When working in this format I feel free to paint anything that catches my eye — interiors, people, pets.
LG: Can you tell us something about your process? Do you work from photos as well as your studies?
AL: All of my large paintings are based on perceptual experiences. I have a wall in my studio which is covered with plein air panels from which I derive my studio work. I do find photographs to be useful in supplying me with an extra level of detail (especially when dealing with architectural elements.) Perhaps my equipment is not the best, but I can’t rely on photographs for reliable color information. I have tried to do large paintings solely from photographs, but they were a failure. For me there’s no substitute for the rigorous observation of perceptual painting.
LG: How much do you work out the drawing before starting in with color?
AL: As a rule I don’t draw at all (if one defines drawing as working in black and white.) Even my sketchbook is filled with tiny little watercolors. When beginning an oil painting, I might sketch in a few reference lines but I start blocking in color almost immediately. I usually don’t have problems with proportion/placement if I keep to painting shapes. When painting plein air I work on plywood panels with a colored ground, usually gray or brown. The only time I work on a plein air more than one day is when I’m painting at dusk when the light effect only lasts a few minutes.
In the studio, when I’m reinventing my plein air experiences, I start by simply copying the small study I’ve chosen onto a larger canvas. Early on I’ll use large brushes so I can cover a lot of ground quickly. Once again, I do very little delineation and start blocking in color from the start. The studio paintings are really the result of a trial-and-error process and go through many revisions. Often I find myself moving away from the original perceptual source and begin to invent/alter the original subject. If the surface gets too built up, I’ll go in with a palm sander.
Since moving West, I’ve begun a body of work dealing with the urban sprawl of Southern California. I’ve found that painting subjects with lots of architecture really cramps my style… I have a very poor capacity for inventing buildings (I’m pretty good with trees and natural forms) and I have to rely on reference photos more than when I’m painting pastoral subjects. I’ve painted some Los Angeles vistas and I feel a responsibility to paint specific buildings accurately and that limits my ability to change or reinvent my subject as I might like.
LG: What colors do you put on your palette?
AL: My palette is pretty simple: titanium white, ivory black, burnt umber, burnt sienna, sap green, cad. lemon, yellow med, red and orange, yellow ochre, diozaline purple, ultramarine blue, cerulean blue, and some kind of rose/alizarin. (Pretty much your basic art school palette except that I’m too cheap to buy cobalt blue.) I won’t use any of the pthalo dye colors — their tinting strength is just too strong for me. My brushes are all the cheapo soft nylon types from the craft store. I leave them standing face down in the turp jar — I never clean them — and they get distorted into an interesting cauliflower-type shape which I love for getting soft edges. I also paint on an oil ground applied with a knife over a rabbit-skin glue sizing.
One last peculiarity of mine is a dislike of easels. In the studio I mount my canvases on the wall. When working outdoors, I prefer to sit on the ground where I often rest my painting arm on my knee. I find this gives me more control over the brush. In bad weather (or bad neighborhoods) I’ll paint in my car, with the panel balanced on the steering wheel and my palette on the passenger seat.
LG: Some outdoor painters say the visual excitement of changing light and the surprises of nature infuses life into their painting. How do you generate excitement in the studio and keep the painting fresh and alive?
AL: Of course, the ever-changing subject is the great challenge of landscape painting. When painting outdoors I feel a manic urgency to absorb as much information as I can as quickly as possible — a kind of hyper-concentration — and I suppose this results in a kind of vitality in the painting. In the studio, freshness is not a big priority for me. I think of plein air paintings as having the “freshness of youth” while studio paintings can have a more mature kind of beauty born from slow consideration.
LG: What excites you most about painting?
AL: When I was teaching, I used to tell my students that for artists the important thing is to know what you love. Then it should be clear what it is you want to paint and what you intend to say. This is all very glib — knowing what you truly love is not as simple as it sounds, regarding people as well as painting! However, in my own case I mentioned that stab of joyous longing which I sometimes experience when I see something wondrous in nature. Painting can make that sentiment durable. I think that is where my heart lies.
LG: Many California plein air landscape painters go for a quick, impressionistic painting with broad strokes and vibrant color. Both your studio and outdoor work seem slower, tonal, restrained and carefully studied, perhaps more in the tradition of George Inness, John Henry Twachtman, Frederic Church or Corot. I understand you moved from the East Coast to California just a few years ago.
Do you think your work has changed much from this move? Can you say something about what differences you’ve found in East vs West Coast painting?
AL: It’s important to me to paint the surroundings of my current life. (Friends have encouraged me to take a trip back East to do some plein airs and do some more New England studio paintings, but that just wouldn’t feel “honest” to me.) So of course my work has changed — I’m trying to come to terms with a whole new subject. I tell myself that it’s good to get out of one’s comfort zone, although I moved to California for family reasons, not artistic ones. I miss the New England landscape terribly and often dream of it.
Recently I’ve been working on two bodies of work. One is of pastoral scenes based on midcoast vistas which are a little reminiscent of my East Coast paintings. In New England I loved painting in the autumn and winter. Here in California when the trees are losing their leaves in December, the grass is just waking up and turning green! The other body of work is of more urban views. I’m attracted to the margins where the city meets the native chaparral and coyotes and mountain lions live within sight of ten million people. I’ve also become enamored of night vistas. The light in Southern California is very distinctive and beautiful, especially at dusk. When in New England I often painted pasture streams meandering through fields. Here in CA our streams never seem to have water in them… highways at night have replaced streams in my paintings as metaphors of time and life’s journey.
LG: Would you say there is greater or less appreciation for landscape painting in the West Coast art world?
AL: I really don’t have much to say about East vs. West Coast landscape painting. I think there’s good and bad painting to be found everywhere.
LG: Many landscape painters are concerned with getting at the truth, capturing essential qualities of a place in paint, getting exactly the right color and right drawing. The truth often differs depending on the artist. If Corot, Cézanne, Van Gogh all made paintings in exactly the same spot, obviously each painter would have made completely different but equally truthful paintings.
What does being truthful in painting mean to you?
AL: When I’m painting perceptually, my primary concern is to capture the combination of light, space, and form as faithfully as I can. If I end up with a little panel which I can put a frame on and exhibit and sell that’s a nice byproduct, but I think the real purpose is data collection. After choosing a subject and composition I’m not thinking about stylistic choices — the process is as unselfconscious as I can make it.
When I reinvent the images in the studio, this “data” is filtered through my personal sieve of experience and emotions and resembles more a depiction of a memory of place. When I get it right, I hope people seeing my work experience a “shock of recognition” of a real memory in their own lives, and that my paintings might enrich their future perceptions. I considered it the highest compliment when a friend told me, “the light last evening made me feel like I was inside one of your paintings.”
LG: Cézanne was known to have been critical of Impressionism at times and instead advocated “something more solid and durable, like the art of museums.”
Do you think there is a danger that the impressionistic plein air painting in going for sensation sometimes risks losing a formal structure?
AL: It’s hard to find fault with the best Impressionist painting; maybe its very accessibility prejudices people against it. However, like Cezanne, I am inclined more towards architecturally-inclined paintings. (I don’t mean “architectural” in the sense of painting buildings, but in the construction of space.) Bellini, Brueghel, and Poussin are my personal triumvirate. For me, working perceptually/responsively is essential to my process but not sustaining enough in itself. I also feel the need to construct. My challenge (unlike Cezanne’s) is to marry the architectural construction of a painting with a naturalistic evocation of light.
LG: Do you teach workshops or at a school? What advice would you give to young painters?
AL: I taught at Bowdoin College from 1990-96. Since then I’ve been “downwardly mobile” (another way of saying “painting full time.”) I’ve never thought to give workshops.
As I see it, young painters have to make a choice as to whether their work is going to be cynical and/or silly, or in earnest. I see this as the real divide in the art world today and unfortunately most of the financial success is in the first camp. I think art can be much more than a distorted mirror held up to reflect the shallowness of our popular culture, and I would encourage young painters to dare to take themselves and their ideas seriously.
At the risk of sounding like an old fart (I just turned fifty) I would also repeat to young painters two bits of advice which were given to me long ago. One teacher (David Lund) admonished us undergraduates to develop a work ethic combining intensity and sincerity. He told us that having a career in the arts is a great privilege, and that it was our duty to honor that privilege by never being half-assed about any aspect of our work. (Somehow I imagine David said it more eloquently than I just did!) My grad school advisor Bonnie Sklarski wisely told us that, “If you’re bored in your studio, it’s your own fault!”
Ms. Lofquist is represented by the Craig Krull Gallery in LA, Winfield Gallery in Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA and Gross/McLeaf Gallery in Philadelphia, PA she received her MFA from Indiana University in 1986 and her BFA at Washington University in St. Louis. She has had solo shows in numerous galleries including Skidmore Contemporary Art-Santa Monica, Spanierman Gallery- New York, Hackett-Freedman Gallery-San Francisco, Tatistchef & Co., New York]]>
Lisa Breslow will have a solo exhibition of new paintings and prints at Kathryn Markel Fine Arts November 20 – December 20, 2014 Opening Reception, Thursday, November 20th, 6:00-8:00pm (see the complete online version of the show from this link.
I saw my first Lisa Breslow cityscape painting this summer at the George Billis Gallery Cityscape group show. There were many sensational paintings, but her work held me there the longest. It wasn’t just another skillful rendering of details; she was finding something interesting to say pictorially that was unique to painting. Pushing the paint surface, color and design so that the painting itself was the true subject; not just recording the details of a picturesque view. Often the first thing a viewer might ask is “what’s this intersection or building?” as if once properly identifying the location they understood the painting and could move on. With Breslow’s work, the viewer slows down and is drawn closer to experience the artist’s transformation of the subject into a painting.
Regretfully, I won’t be able to see this current show until later in December but Ms. Breslow was kind to send me some higher resolution photos of the work which gave me an excellent preview of what to expect when I see the work later next month.
Ms. Breslow is a studio painter, working from a variety of sources including photos, drawing and memory. She seems less to be copying details in the photo and more like her brushes were responding to abstract currents buzzing through the grid of city streets. Perhaps like taking raw oscillographic waveforms and painterly transposing these urban sonic and visual sensations into pictorial vision. The cityscapes shimmer between a fuzzy representation and a hard-edged abstraction.
The emotional register of this body of work is dialed to a more serious channel for visual contemplation. Despite the loose touch everything here seems carefully considered and finds its place. There is nothing jarring, awkward or extraneous; it feels resolved. Formal issues such as the abstract structure, tonal unity and resonance of the colors, adherence to the grid and maintaining the flatness of the picture plane seem to be more important than describing and making inventory of the elements in a particular view.
First Snow and Yellow Light are my favorite urban views, not only for their exceptional design and subtle color sensations but also in the vigorous mark-making. I respond to the wider range of directionality and scale of her brushwork here as well as the delightful control and range of values- the blue black elevated line against the light snowy background is a knockout.
The color in her flower still-lifes is more vibrant and warm than the cityscapes. Despite their quiet and intimate nature, these still-lifes excite me by the gutsy way they are made. Her brushstrokes seem less guided by a need to conform to style or abstract master plan for the painting. Breslow seems less apt to reject suggestions from nature for the quality of the mark, which might help the work avoid the risks of predictability. Even though the light and space feels more naturalistic than the cityscapes, the painting retains its strong graphic, abstract directness.
from the Kathryn Markel Fine Arts press release:
Lisa Breslow has exhibited extensively in the United States, has been awarded two Pollock-Krasner Foundation awards, and received an award from the National Academy Museum in New York. She is a recipient of the J. Alden Weir residency in Connecticut and the Cawdor Residency in Scotland. Her work has been reviewed and featured in The New York Times, In New York Magazine, and Arts & Antiques among many others. Breslow has work in numerous collections in the US and abroad, including the Pfizer Corporation, Tiffany and Co., and General Electric.