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.
Here is a link to watch the video from their site or on YouTube.
The Vision and Art Project, with A’Dora Phillips and Brian Schumacher, this past weekend released the video documentary of Lennart Anderson where he talks at length about his work, what has inspired him over the years, and his recent struggles with vision loss due to Macular Degeneration. A’Dora Phillips is the same person who contributed the wonderful interview, Seeing Along the Periphery, Getting at the Essence, with Lennart here on Painting Perceptions awhile back. This terrific new short video, with many memorable quotes and insightful discussions is part of a larger project called the Vision and the Art Project which has been writing about, interviewing and filming artists with macular degenerations.
One quote in the video really stood out for me,
“In a saner art world than ours, museums would be vying for the honor of mounting a major retrospective of Mr. Anderson’s work… Hilton Kramer, New York Observer.”
The video doesn’t just focus on how a great artist transcends the difficulties of a handicap but instead celebrates the amazing accomplishments of one of our greatest living painters.
Thier website has an a fascinating article on their site is about the acclaimed artist and illustrator Robert Andrew Parker that is a great read with excellent photography of their studio visit.
“The Vision and Art Project presents the adaptations that artists fold into their working progress, the challenges they face, the resilience and durability of their vision, and the extraordinary work they continue to produce in the face of adversity…”
“Eventually one in four adults, including artists, may live with diminished sight due to Age-related Macular Degeneration. It is our hope in underwriting the efforts of The Vision and Art Project that you, the reader, will find a source, month after month, for informative and stimulating writing about art and vision, and exceptional curatorial efforts bringing together some of today’s top visual artists who are themselves affected by macular degeneration and who produce work that is constantly, and in new ways, inspiring.”
— from the from The Vision and Art Project website.
The Vision and Art Project is supported by the American Macular Degeneration Foundation.
please consider supporting the American Macular Degeneration Foundation – for more information on their work see: https://www.macular.org/]]>
Thaddeus Radell wrote in his review of the 2013 Kyle Staver Tibor de Nagy Gallery show:
…“Staver is a brilliant inventor whose success lies in her commitment to her inner vision that is at once original and sophisticated and she is remarkably adept at rendering that vision into cohesive luminous constructs. From a broad, almost confused spectrum of diverse shapes and shielded color, she synthesizes clarity. And so she transforms the modest room allotted her into a theater of sorts, where the viewer can expand their own imagination by feeding into her ever-ebullient, seriously odd vision.”
I was fortunate to meet Kyle Staver recently and interview her at her home and studio in Brooklyn, NY. I’ve long been enchanted by her paintings and was excited to finally be able to see her work in person. I would like to again thank Kyle for taking the time to speak with me at length about her work and concerns as an artist.
I told her how much I marveled over her incredible compositions but it wasn’t just the formal beauty I responded to; it’s also the humanistic dimensions–I feel empathy with her characters and storytelling, that this was a refreshing reprieve from the grimmer examples of postmodernist nihilism and irony. She responded that it was critical that her paintings:
“communicate what it’s like to be a human being for Kyle Staver” and that “The humane part of painting for me, It’s just that I’m not a jerk.” She then went on to say that “It’s so much easier to say I hate you than it is to say I love you, there is nothing risked in saying fuck you, nothing; but everything is risked if you say I love you and mean it.” When I paint, I’m always trying to not pitch, if I have two figures close together and it’s romantic I want to hold it and give it teeth. I’m not against irony, I’m against a kind of ironic delivery system that only delivers the fuck you. If I made romantic paintings without the pull in the other direction, and I think that’s why a a painting needs irony, to keep the painting taut. I don’t want to be a sentimental painter or have the paintings be flabby. I think that the irony is the pull in the opposite direction.”
Kyle also discussed how important the community or tribe of artists has been for her growth as a painter. Kyle gives back to this tribe not just with her influential paintings, teaching and personal support to her many artist friends; but also with her Facebook postings, which for many painters around the world, has become an important new way to start their day, reflecting on the vast power and interconnectedness of art.
LG: What has been some of the most significant influences for you as an artist?
KS: Whether you’re writing, making music or going to a bar to talk to people, it’s all about connecting. I happen to find myself a visual thinker and maker. At a certain point in my life, a woman at a boarding school named Mrs. Moses told me she knew what was wrong with me and what was wrong with me was that I was an artist. She said that it was ok, that there was a whole tribe of artists and not only was there a whole tribe but there was a whole culture. Meaning I wasn’t the only person that did this.
If Mrs. Moses hadn’t told me that I was an artist I probably would’ve stayed in northern Minnesota making knit sweaters and macramé. I would have made things. Minnesota artists make marvelous things, I’m not dismissing that. It’s just that I had the good fortune of finding out that I needed to make things.
I had the great good fortune to have someone direct me to this great culture of visual making and communicating where I met my tribe. Natalie Charkow, who helped me apply to Yale – as she was going through my slides said “you know the one thing you need is you need more culture”, and that was exactly right. I knew nothing except I had to make.
LG: By culture she meant?
KS: That I didn’t know enough beyond a certain group of painters that I liked. I thought the sun rose and fell on Soutine. I still like him, but I don’t love him like I did, but that’s like thinking that when I moved to Brooklyn that Brooklyn was tiny but once I lived in Brooklyn it’s enormous. And so that’s all Natalie was saying to me, it’s wonderful to fall in love, to feel connection and feel like your nervous system is being understood by another artist.
LG: So you studied with Natalie Charkow Hollander? I’m curious how she may have influence your bas relief studies for your paintings.
KS: I studied with her at Yale. I took Natalie’s sculpture class and it was the best drawing class I ever had in my life. I started off as a non-figurative sculptor, came to painting late. I took Natalie’s class when I went to graduate school and she would have us do these little figure models. At the end of the day she would make us smash them telling us “no one would be making Christmas presents in her class“! You’d work on this piece and then she’d just make you trash it.
At one point we had to make a relief of a painting and of all the paintings in the world to choose from I chose a landscape by Van Gogh, a hay wagon in the middle of a yellow field. It has a massive space, a crazy thing to try and make a relief out of, I don’t know what I was thinking. This relief was extremely thick. Natalie said the best thing that could happen to you was to just drop your relief face down, flat on the ground. But after Natalie’s class I always built my paintings into very thick reliefs, I don’t know what Natalie would say about that but it helps me with some things in my paintings.
LG: When you say you build the painting you mean your clay moquettes, you make these bas relief as studies for paintings?
KS: No, I make them concurrently. I do a lot of different things when I’m working on a painting. Sometimes when I’m painting I get into a corner and I have a painting that’s like a mule that just sits down and no matter what I launch at it, it won’t move. So, if I back out of the stall, back out of the studio, make a print or work on a relief—I can usually find another way in—that the mule isn’t expecting. So everything that I do is alleys to plow back into the painting. I do build paintings, I do watercolors of them, I do a million drawings of them and it is all concurrent—it’s like the debris that the painting generates. But Natalie was the first person that I made a relief with.
LG: I’m curious to hear about Gretna Campbell who you studied with at Yale. What was it like to study with her there?
KS: Yale was an extraordinary place, a very exciting time—William Bailey was there, Lester Johnson, Mel Bochner, Andrew Forge, and Bernard Chaet. However, this was a boy’s club. Natalie was there some but Gretna Campbell was the only full full-time woman. Every time Gretna came into the studio it was to bring you a miracle, I’ll never forget this, she walked into my studio with a Bruegal book and flipped to a page and you probably know the painting there’s a figure and looks like his falling out of the painting and he is pointing at the back of him and there is a guy in a tree, do you know this Bruegel?
It was like a key in a lock that turned, and Gretna always told me that if I ever got my handle on space, I’d go to the moon. She said that where it’s happening, but I couldn’t get a handle on it. I knew I wanted it but I didn’t know how to see it, I couldn’t do it. And Bruegel was the key for me and that particular painting. I’ve never forgotten that painting. That’s how marvelous she was, she’d come into your studio and you’d be struggling, trying to keep your paint clean or something and she would give these little helpful hints like put your medium in one of those plastic squeeze soap bottles. and your like, “really?” “I’m at Yale at you’re telling me about soap bottles?” She said 20 years from now you’re not going to remember what Mr. FuddyDuddy said but you’ll have clean medium! It’s true, all of her tips about making paintings was enormously generous, humane and to the point. Like I say, she brought me miracles.
A professor, once came into my studio, I was making landscapes then-I’ve always been a representational painter— I had a big Birch tree in the painting, my paintings are always big, and he said “this object event over here…” I said you mean the Birch tree? No! this object event. I asked “are we talking about this Birch tree”? I didn’t know what an object event was and so blah,blah, blah…
So then next crit, in walks Gretna and says “what a beautiful Birch tree”…(laughs) and it’s not that this teacher didn’t have a point, it was important to see it as not a birch tree but Gretna believed in the importance of naming things. Gretna would recognize and take care of the personal connection, the actual love you had for the objects you were choosing, for the things you were trying to make. She never forgot that this was me trying to communicate to you and always recognized that as a kind of generous act.
LG: You stated that your paintings are always big, why is that?
KS: Because it’s a one-to-one ratio with me. I’ve gotten a lot of crap about the size of them but I make small prints, small reliefs, and lots of small stuff. I’ve tried but I have no interest in making small paintings.
LG: Do you see the large size as monumental?
KS: It’s a one-to-one relationship, like sitting here talking to you. I don’t have to have a ladder. These are my rules—so I can move the canvas myself, I can get it around the stairs, and that it’s on a one-to-one.
LG: Your paintings are big but the space is limited, constricted—you don’t have enormous vistas, the space is clearly defined and thoughtful space but it’s like you could only fit so many people into the painting, like in an elevator or something.
KS: I haven’t really thought much about that but I think of them more as holographs. They have to behave as shape… and to take something off the canvas I actually have to take out a permit. To have an arm be cropped, I have to apply for a permit. It’s such a serious thing to me to break my horror of elements going outside the boundaries of the canvas. I do it but only very cautiously because I think the minute you break that thing it’s like you bleed energy. I think that the more you crank down on it, the more taut it gets, the more it pounds the energy, to feel the force of those connections and shaping.
LG: You mentioned before about how important the composition is in your work where the subject in the painting as much about the composition as it is about anything like the story or myth. I know that’s probably true with most paintings but I’m curious to hear more of your thoughts on this. Your compositions are so intriguing and thought provoking.
KS: Well I like telling stories, they are important to me, the myths are a later in life development. The stories used to be personal but then I tried to turn them into something universal. At a certain point I took universal stories and tried to personalize them. So I now start with a story we all know. Some people don’t know myths, and I don’t know them very well either, believe me, I don’t know them very well. But I start with a story, boy meets girl, random stuff happens and you didn’t deserve it. Biblical stories are different are more like morality plays, myths are really trying to explain the cruel randomness of just trudging through your life. I think Bible stories are always like “you are bad so this happens” almost without exception, nobody’s bad in myths.
So the stories are important, myths are a universal telling or explanation of something that’s random thing and that’s just the way life goes, the random thing, so I like that. And that’s developmental—I’m at a certain age of my life where things happens and it’s not because I’m crummy, it’s just what happens.
LG: So you’ve never done any Biblical stories?
KS: Yeah I’ve just finished Jonah and the Whale, the old testament are better because God in the Old Testament is awfully random. Do you know what I mean?
LG: They are probably more directly connected to the original myth, like what Joesph Campbell might say about the connection from the Bible to pagan or other ancient myths.
KS: Yes they are all connected, so the stories are stories and then I particularize them or personalize them. Instead of trying to take a personal story and turn it into a universal truism, I take a universal truism and try to personalize them. Again and again, artists of mid-career to late-career do that. Lennart Anderson, his Idyls, you know he didn’t do those until sort of later on.
Composition is the delivery system, there are lots of different aspects of how the painting delivers its message. You need to have the horse firmly in hand or else you can’t do it. Composition helps me contain it and release the message in the way I want it.
LG: When you’re saying contain it, these forces, do you mean like a sense of balance of forces or weight? When you look at Titian or Rubens, they use various formal compositional theories and mathematical structures like the golden section or similar. You have your own, more intuitive balancing structure but perhaps done in a similar spirit as the old masters? Can you say something about how you think about this?
KS: I think of the canvas as an arena… I set up my rules, something going to happen and the painting must resolve, I don’t leave them hanging. Everything has to be accounted for, every piece of the painting has to be introduced and informed and in working order with the rest of the painting. There is nothing casual about the components of my painting’s relationships to everything else. There is nothing that I’ll let go. It’s like cat’s cradle and I’m in charge. How do I know if it’s working or not? It’s not a plan as if I were dismembering a bomb or something. You can read all you want about composition but until you’re there and you have your hands on; you can’t know. So it’s only in knowing the painting, so I feel my way through and I trust that. That’s my job.
LG: You do your job incredibly well. I’d like to ask you about your morning Facebook albums. I’m really curious about it as it’s had such a big effect in how many people start their day. I love how it get’s us thinking about the interconnectedness of the painting language, how so many paintings talk to each other as well as getting the painters themselves to literally start talking to each other on Facebook.
KS: I think we painters are a tribe and I think that a lot of painters are terribly isolated. Some or a lot of the reasons they are doing this, not just that they are visual thinkers but that they don’t interface well in social endeavors. So here we all are in our studios, wishing we had the life they have on commercials, so Facebook comes along and gives us an opportunity to communicate in our jammies with our coffee, safe. You sort of feel like I can do this, it’s just sort of built from there.
What I want to talk about to other painters is what I’m looking at. I’m working on a painting, I’ve got maybe something’s not going right, I’m looking at Titian cause Titian did it right and then I’m thinking that reminds me of that Renoir, Renoir must have been looking at him and then you go to look at the Renoir and then you realize there’s a cave painting and then all of a sudden I’m all over the map, I’m talking with all these other troglodytes in their jammies and coffee, and there saying no that Renoir doesn’t remind me of that, look at this and then all of a sudden my little tiny world becomes enormous.
All of a sudden I’m sent paintings from China and the world gets bigger, and then you say well, it’s Facebook. But that’s not all it does, because when I actually go out and I meet Facebook people I know them. You know it’s not like a dating service when you meet them and you think, eeww, oh god. You know we’ve talked maybe if it was a dating service it wouldn’t work but because we’ve talked about paintings, we’ve made our position clear; we actually do know each other. So it translates into the real world. So by doing these albums, and by problem solving or thinking out loud to my tribe, they have responded because it’s a safe way to respond. In doing so it’s changed all our lives. I’m sure they feel the same way when they go to an opening, they feel a little less overwhelmed, a less like I don’t know anybody—cause now we do.
So I think it’s a really good thing and for me it’s changed how I am in the world. I’ve gotten teaching jobs, and until I did this and started to write about what I think—I didn’t know I could do that, I didn’t know I could talk about painting this way.
LG: Are there any situations where people’s comments/submissions piss you off in some way? That you’ll feel this is an inappropriate use of my album. How do you handle that?
KS: I delete them and back message them saying I deleted your post, you’re welcome to participate but not in this spirit. Then there was a big deal when I don’t want people to post their own paintings. There was a groundswell a couple of months ago that was awful. I don’t mind occasionally, that’s terrific but it’s just not the format for that. Put it on your wall, I will come, we will come— the tribe will find you. This works because we’re not invested in it on a personal level, it’s not a… I post on my paintings on my wall if I have a show up or something happens then I use my wall to post it but not in that morning album format.
LG: What about someone who might, for whatever reason, post many, many paintings on a particular album?
KS: That’s another thing I’ve had to back message people about. I post three painting qne the maximum you can post is three.
LG: That sounds like a good rule to have, I didn’t know about it.
KS: If it happens one day I don’t say anything but if it’s consistent then I will step in. I don’t want to curb the excitement that somebody feels when they’re on a roll. So if you have one day that’s fine but the couple of people I’ve back messaged about this if was a consistent thing.
KS: There are usually a million different points at which my albums match, there will be a compositional thing, there will be like a frontal, there will be three quarters, there will be a certain scale, they should try to match them on as many points as possible, its not just subject matter. I had one the other day where trees marked space.
LG: I remember that one, a very good one.
KS: It wasn’t just about trees, it was trees that were making space, in their placement they were making space. So when people were posting stuff, some of them got it and came up with incredible things and some just posted generic forests. But I don’t care about that.
LG: So tell me this, if you could get all the points of connection (between the three paintings) possible that you could win a Kyle Staver’s Morning Album t-shirt or something?
KS: (Laughs) there is one woman who always back messages me and asks if she’s getting it… I thought that was very sweet and said yes that was a good (observation? – audio not clear) I’m saying this to you about the points I don’t make that public, I haven’t said that. I don’t make rules except the only you can’t post 5 thousand images and you can’t post your own work. So it has a life of its own, I have rules but I’m not a very good enforcer and it’s fine. There are a couple of times I’ve deleted paintings but it had to be so in my face.
When I have a good album there is nothing better. I have a great one for tomorrow; I’m a day ahead. A cartoonist once suggested to me that, to always make them a day ahead. I used to make them every morning very early and it takes me up to 45 minutes or so. But now I make them the day before.
ArtPneuma Video Interview with Kyle Staver Filmed by:
Sunny Miller (http://sunnymillerphoto.com/)
Feb 22, 2012 Interview by: David Campbell,Jay Walkerand Alison Stigora
Filmed by: Sunny Miller]]>
Blue Mountain Gallery recently send me an email to remind me that they are still accepting submissions for their 2014 annual juried exhibition with John Dubrow as Juror. The exhibition dates are December 23, 2014 – January 24, 2015 I decided to help them out by posting their press release below:
APPLICATION DEADLINE: OCTOBER 28, 2014
Blue Mountain Gallery accepts online submission only.
For more information, and to apply, please visit www.bluemountaingallery.org
DOWNLOAD PROSPECTUS: http://www.bluemountaingallery.org/2014-juried-exhibition/
BLUE MOUNTAIN GALLERY, founded in 1980, is located in the heart of New York City’s Chelsea art district, and is sponsoring its second Annual Juried Exhibition in 2014-15. The gallery’s exhibitions are frequently reviewed in both the New York and national press. Our invitationals are part of the gallery’s outreach to the artist community. With this juried exhibition we are offering artists from across the United States, not only the opportunity to exhibit in an established New York gallery, but to have their work reviewed by John Dubrow, a renowned American painter.
JOHN DUBROW is a prominent contemporary American painter. As a member of the National Academy of Design, he has received numerous awards from the Academy. Dubrow has also been given a Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant and the American Academy of Arts and Letters award. His paintings have been seen in many exhibitions, including at the National Academy of Design, Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, Forum Gallery, and Lori Bookstein Fine Art, where he currently is represented. Recently he had a mid-career retrospective at the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. His work is included in several major collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Academy of Design, and Harvard University. Dubrow has been making ambitious figurative paintings of New York scenes since 1983, and lives and works in NYC.
I am planning a new section for Painting Perceptions that will include listings of juried shows and competitions. Anyone who knows of any upcoming good juried shows or places to go to find this information please send it to me and I will post. ( email@example.com )]]>
I’d like to share some information Michael Kareken’s gallery sent me about a show that starts in Minneapolis this week. I made a video interview with him awhile back, and wanted to post an update about his terrific new body of work of Parts – or his Auto Salvage Series.
Michael Kareken / Parts October 16 – November 29, 2014 runs in two galleries,
A show of his paintingsThe Burnet Gallery
as well as a concurrant showing of his drawings at the Groveland Gallery
From the gallery press release:
About two years ago, Michael Kareken began painting urban landscapes featuring automotive salvage yards. While some of the cars were damaged in accidents, most of them were deconstructed for their parts, leaving behind skeletons of cars, their inner-workings exposed. For Kareken the forms were strongly suggestive of the human body, and there was a disturbing sense of violation in the casual way that the vehicles have been dismantled. The pieces were bold, powerful statements, rich in context on the economy, the environment and an exploration of the subject matter.
In his new show, Parts, Kareken, a Minneapolis-based artist, looks inward and takes his study of automotive salvage to someplace more intimate and personal.
“Automobiles consume a huge portion of our culture,” explains Kareken. “They’re so ubiquitous. I find these discarded elements resonate with me on a number of levels – as a symbol for society, but also for the human condition. “My earlier urban landscapes were looking outward at society and were more observational, while the works in Parts are pushing inward and are more meditative. I want the work to embody the sense of vulnerability, fragility and disfigurement that I perceive in the subject.”
Kareken’s drawings are composed of individual parts and pieces: pulleys, fans and belts are sensitively rendered and their forms brought into crisp focus. These elements are anchored by shadows and expressionistic marks that suggest the chaos of the larger mechanics beyond the composition’s focal point. Kareken’s larger ink and acrylic paintings on paper present a complicated tangle of car engine tubes and wires. These dynamic compositions explore the figurative aspects of these inanimate objects, and the artist’s use of collage lends his paintings a tactility resembling the subject itself.
“In several new pieces I am using a collage technique to construct the forms of the vehicles themselves,” explains Kareken. “My newest work is created from dozens of old, abandoned drawings that I have ripped apart and recycled into a new image. This technique creates a rough, layered surface that viscerally conveys the feeling of fragmentation and disintegration inherent in the subject matter. At the same time — and paradoxically – the technique gives me a sense of physically building up the subject, as if the collage and painting process is a means of reconstructing or resurrecting the dismantled vehicles.”
I’m passing along this information, still have a few days left to submit if you haven’t already.
ROBERT BERLIND, a New York-based painter and writer on art, is a member of the American Academy & Institute of Arts and Letters and the National Academy. Numerous honors include grants from the NEA, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, and the Benjamin Altman Award in Painting.
Public collections include the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of the City of New York; Colby College Museum of Art; National Academy Museum, and the Neuberger Museum.
A Professor Emeritus of the School of Art+Design at Purchase College, Berlind writes on art for The Brooklyn Rail, Art in America, BorderCrossings, and other publications.
I am planning a new section for Painting Perceptions that will include listings of juried shows and competitions. Anyone who knows of any upcoming good juried shows or places to go to find this information please send it to me and I will post. ( firstname.lastname@example.org )]]>
Stanley Lewis’ current exhibition at the Betty Cunningham Gallery reaffirms his stature as a great landscape painter and goes beyond. I have been following Lewis’ work for a few years now with greater and greater attention, and I was poised for several hours of demanding visual engagement with his remarkably obsessive, robustly structured images. And indeed the work continues to stagger me with its almost overwhelming scope of intent and rigor of execution. This time, however, though my feelings relative to Lewis’ ever-impressive plastic virtuosity were, if anything, enhanced by his sheer honesty an biting devoutness to the motif, the exhibition was now breathing another, less pragmatic air, that of an inspired Faulknerian syntax of construction, and, most poignantly, a palpable sense of loss.
Lewis’ paintings dictate a precise sense of light and harmonize mesmerizing scales of urgent descriptive content. One sees a weathered wall, a weed-raged field, a gleaming white 18-wheeler, a few beached rowboats, a fence, a house, telephone lines. As one explores further and further into these pastoral kaleidoscopes, one can never exhaust the multiple layers of densely packed details nor the broad range of mark-making used to describe them. They are fiercely won painted trophies of intimate spaces ravaged by Lewis’ intrepid eye. The squared and multi-colored negative spaces that staccato a brick wall in Backyard Jeykll Island, GA (2014) or the white pointed red-stone pillars of Winslow Park, Westport (2010-2014) are truly delightful to discover and thrilling to visually digest. The deployment of details in the drawings is equally terrifying, be it the stacked crucifix of bricks that unites Family Group Based on Durer Woodprint (2012), the spanning rafters of Westport Train Station (2013) or the laced-to-infinity branches in the magnificent Hemlock Tress Seen from Upstairs Window in the Snow (2007-2014).
Of more interest, however, than Lewis’ prowess in amassing these seething layers of details is the dynamics that he employs to exceed both the details and the marks themselves. In this respect, a parallel drawn to Faulkner might be ventured. Faulkner wraps the broader scope of his narrative into a labyrinth of language that entangles time and space, creating profoundly evocative studies of the human psyche. Time, space, narrator, characters, plot and theme often leap ahead, double back or splinter off, only to find themselves part of a breathtaking orchestration, resulting in some of the most poignant tales in American literature. In a similar way, Lewis knots and weaves his painted or drawn passages into the formal context of his subject: in part, by literally cutting and pasting, and in part by recklessly juxtaposing areas of dissimilar spatial orientations. The assembly results in a densely tactile, rich phrasing while maintaining a certain buoyancy of light and atmosphere. Lewis reaches for his own heights of interpretation- almost in spite of his steadfast observation of the motif.
In both the paintings and drawings, the constant presence of cut and pieced bits of painted description is indeed stimulating to the eye, and subsequently keep the large quiet areas of the image as alive as the more visually pregnant passages of lush, brisk detail. The sky and snowy foreground of Hemlock do not lose vitality against the weight and density of the tree. The sky in Boat on the Beach is likewise as present as the scraggly field in the foreground. Moving beyond such astounding rigor, Lewis proceeds to heighten the intrigue of his pictures by punctuating them with passages of contradictory space—almost as coherently, if not as sublimely—as Faulkner does his novels with time/narrator vacillations. In his Snopes trilogy, for example, the plot weaves through shifts in the time frame and is told from the viewpoint of three different characters, all building into a thousand-page edifice of astounding insight. Likewise, Lewis does not limit himself automatically to the same spatial construct in adjoining areas although each part adds up to achieve a coherent and convincing whole. On the contrary, sections of the paintings are seamlessly juxtaposed (or sometimes not-so-seamlessly!) that allow alternative readings of the space. Lewis’ paintings/drawings are, in truth, syntheses of painted fragments, some of which are slightly out of tune with others and serve to syncopate the rhythm of the pictures and add to their rich meaning. Returning to those tightly observed pillars in Windsor Terrace, especially with the pillar on the right, the forms of the pillars become almost translucent and weightless as they blend into the road behind, becoming rippling stones in a blue-grey river of pavement. Other examples include the grey-violet boat on the left of Lake Chautauqua Boat Scene with Woman and Boy (2013) as it launches itself flatly against the picture plane, as opposed to the sculpted perspective of the other boats, or the windows of Backyard Jeykll Island, GA, that appear almost as small paintings hanging on the side of the house, or the erupting foreground of Matt Farnham’s Farm with Truck (2014) that plays so well off of that miracle of a white truck. Lewis, like Faulkner, is able to bind all of the elements of his pictures together into highly cohesive images, with his language and narrative tending to follow a sometimes jolting and circuitous, ambitious route.
Of all the revelations and delights that this exhibition offers, the most enduring are triggered by the majestic drawing that opens the exhibition, Hemlock Trees Seen from Upstairs Window in the Snow. Studying its impossibly fathomed and mapped depths of marks, lines of another sort came rippling unexpectedly into my mind.
O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.
What one is left with, in the end, upon truly contemplating and corresponding with Lewis’ work, is a poignant sense of loss. Lewis’ frantic quest for every detail and nuance, so desperate, so purposeful, unveils a broad sense of unease with capturing what he sees. The natural elements that he faces on the motif are so overwhelming that he must rip his work apart and reconstruct it after hours and hours of determined observation. Conversation with the artist is permeated with the difficulties faced by the painter in crossing the unbreachable threshold into true painting. This exhibition is often refreshed with such simply pronounced images as Late Eve Study of Boats (2013), Study for Big Painting (2013) and the joyful Woman and Boy by Lake (2013), but the weight of the major works—the drawings, again Hemlock and Trees and Family Group Based on Durer Woodprint (2012), and the paintings, Matt Farnham’s Farm with Truck (2014) and Boat on the Beach, Lake Chautauqua (2013)—drive the exhibition and point to a state of pathos, the defeat of the hero at the hands of the gods. Lewis is a hero. His work grapples towards a comprehensive vision of nature that is truly rare and beautiful. And the most beautiful part of all is that he is so desperate to achieve what he has missed.
Stanley Lewis at Betty Cunningham Gallery, until October 25, 2014]]>
Elizabeth Wilson is a painter living and working in Philadelphia and will be having a show of recent work at the Rosenfeld Gallery in Philadelphia from November 2nd through November 23rd.
First studying at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., she transferred to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where she received a four-year certificate in 1984. Prior to settling into her studio practice, she studied art history and anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. For nearly two decades she taught as adjunct professor and adjunct associate professor to fine art and architecture students, teaching design and drawing at Temple University, Philadelphia University, Community College of Philadelphia and The University of the Arts. She currently serves as acting vice president of the Alumni Council of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Elizabeth is best known for her luminous and intimate landscapes which have been appropriately described as having a “quiet energy”. Her work has been extensively exhibited throughout the United States and is included in numerous public and private collections here and abroad. Permanent collections include the Woodmere Art Museum, State Museum of Pennsylvania, U.S. State Department Art Bank Collection, Bryn Mawr College and McGraw Hill Publishing Company. Gallery representation over several decades includes Gallery Henoch, New York, Mulligan-Shanoski, San Francisco, The More Gallery, Philadelphia, Marian Locks Gallery, Philadelphia and Gross McCleaf Gallery, Philadelphia, among others. In 2009, Rosemont College’s Lawrence Gallery, Rosemont, PA, held a Retrospective that included work spanning 30 years.
Elana Hagler: Thank you so much for joining us here, Liz. I’ve taken a fair bit of time to sit with your paintings and think about the things I want to ask you. I read your very interesting interview with Taryn Day from 2012 and you discuss your early artistic formation and your working process there, so rather than go over that again, I would like to focus on gaining a deeper understanding of your aesthetic vision and goals.
What I find so remarkable about your work is that although physically your paintings are small gems, they seem to exude this incredible sense of expansiveness in them. There is a wonderful impression of moving air and deep distance that holds this delicious tension with certain asserted edges that bring us back to the surface of the picture-plane. These edges and your painterly patches rhythmically take us on a 2-D journey at the same time that atmospheric perspective works to suck us deeper in.
Can you say anything about your consideration of deep space versus the assertion of the picture-plane? Is that tension something that you have consciously worked with over time, is it something that just comes naturally to your particular touch, or is it somewhere in between?
Elizabeth Wilson: The tension you describe Elana, between the picture plane and recessive space, does come naturally. At the start of each painting I am aware instinctively of a structure or hierarchal order; I see in a hierarchal way, very quickly. Whether looking at a landscape, an interior, figures walking on the street, a painting on the wall, or even listening to a piece of music, I can quickly pick out the rhythm, the dominant aspects of the composition, shape, color, light, shadow, texture and so on.
In each painting, I work to maintain the two-dimensional structure of the picture plane. At the same time, I make a conscious effort to break through the picture plane, giving equal consideration to the recessional space as I do the composition or design of the surface. The ‘activity’ of painting is mostly a subconscious event or series of events. I don’t have a formula, nor am I consciously making specific on-the-spot decisions such as soft versus hard edge; it’s happening intuitively like gears working in tandem with the exception of color and value transitions, because color is a highly considered technical discipline unique and integral to that painting and to its success. Only when I stand back to analyze what works and what doesn’t, in whole or in part, am I looking at it with regard to edge, color via relationships, shape, light, texture, visual harmony, the overall design and its effectiveness. Then, after that, I will rework where necessary. This process can take days, weeks, months and sometimes years.
EH: Your color seems to me to be less concerned with a literal response to nature and more with establishing a mood or concretizing a sense-memory. What are the ways in which you approach color in your work?
EW: More and more I’m working with a limited palette and integrate higher-key (prismatic) colors if I think the painting needs it. And I do straddle both the literal fence and conceptual fence on color.
As I evolved as a painter, I didn’t need or necessarily want to make an exact replica of nature or life, but instead wanted to draw from its energy. It was freeing to be able to tweak the color field to make a new reality that is very much based in the real world.
The attributes of a particular subject and creating a sense of place or personality are extremely important to me, but act more as a springboard. Color and light play a significant role but that has more to do with warm and cool color and specific qualities of light than an absolute realistic, in a photographic sense, depiction. I want my paintings to breathe and I use color and a limited set of tools when painting to keep the work and the subject alive.
In the late 1990s, I started a series of paintings in the Lake District in northwest England that has a particular coolness and deep blue-green color field. I was once criticized for not making the paintings warmer because then the paintings would be “more approachable” to buyers, which in the end was incorrect. By happenstance, a visitor to Philadelphia from the Lake District came to my opening and immediately recognized the area because of the particular nuance of green and identified the locations before reading the labels. When that happened, I felt that I had captured the atmospheric qualities and the essence of the place very successfully. More importantly however, it is my intention that the paintings stand on their own regardless of where the initial seed came from.
EH: How have your paintings and the things you are after changed over the years since you have left art school? What do you focus on more recently that you might not have given as much attention to earlier on?
EW: The most profound change in my evolution as an artist is that I am seeing more than I ever have before. Having spent so many years looking, and looking deeply, I am now better able to see nuance and layer in the world, to see beyond its surface. It is like “seeing into” or “seeing through”.
Because of this I am a much more confident artist now then I was during the first years out of school. As I touched on previously and which is related to seeing more deeply, I can intuitively grasp a complicated set of visual stimuli and reduce it to its basic core that ultimately gives me a sense of freedom. I’m not struggling to look but delight in what I see. This entire process inspires me; intrigues me. I’m now experimenting a bit with texture, which is something I left behind years ago. Whether it will last for the next series of work to come, I don’t know. This is reflected in the fact that I am working more with oil, rather than with gouache which I have used somewhat (but not entirely) exclusively for the nearly two decades.
For the past several years, I’ve been studying and painting water and rocky beaches on the Long Island Sound at the far end of the island. The landscape in the North Fork is infused with large dark shapes at dusk, which is the most alluring time for me. The topography is often times reflected in the sky. Perhaps this focus replaces the negative of space under the bridge or hill in a landscape against a large sky. My preoccupation with this form only became noticeable to me when putting together a lecture on my creative process and how I work. So there is a strong continuum, regardless of the subject matter.
In addition, a new series of paintings has been developing which I call, “Character Studies”. These are self-portraits that have aspects of people I know/have known or are personality types from observation that emerge subconsciously when I’m painting. These are painted from life, in front of a mirror. They are generally small, 6″ x 6″ average, oil on wood or canvas mounted on wood. This series evolved from a large number of oil on wood self-portraits that I began years ago but have never shown.
Part of my maturation as artist has included a strong appreciation for and alliance with abstract painters who bend reality, in part because of my natural preoccupation with structure and a shared aesthetic that is based on pure design. I began to really focus on this appreciation and alliance in the 1990s and they remain a constant in my creative life. Since then, I have found a place to marry the worlds of literal and conceptual reality and so, in a sense, I’m reaching backwards, taking parts I liked in my earlier work and using the skills and interests that evolved over time and re-making what I have been always searching for in my work, to make each painting a unique, intimate environment that invites the viewer to experience and offer contemplation on a multi-faceted level.
I think students coming to art school now are exposed to a world of images and writing that was simply not available (or easily available) when I was a student. We had to search through libraries and bookstores for what can now be located in seconds or minutes on the Internet. Truthfully, I am envious of the wealth of knowledge, visual and otherwise that students entering art school have at their fingertips. It might have taken less time to get where I am now in my work if I too, had that good fortune, but then, there is no substitute for experience when it comes to truly seeing.
EH: Much of your work is done in a square or almost square format. Why do you keep coming back to that specific shape?
EW: I never really left the square. I worked in a square format on occasion when I was a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. On my walls hung in the museum during my third and fourth year, were two large 60” x 60” still life paintings, along with smaller paintings that were rectangular and a combination of the two shapes. Without speaking the words, “design” or “format”, we were encouraged to work asymmetrically within that then popular format of the rectangle, because, it was implied, the square was too tempting or at least too easy to work because of its symmetry. When teaching design and drawing some years later, I would not allow my students to work within a square at first or symmetrically for similar reasons.
I have come to think of the square or near square as an object by its shape alone. It is an unexpected shape in nature. It is a fixed and powerful shape.
In thinking more about the square, I have noticed that it has proliferated along with the evolution of the Internet. I think it owes itself in large part to graphic design, which has become the one visual art discipline that has become mainstream out of necessity (website design, for example). The importance for visual readability and flow of web designs is essential and the square and circle have become big players today, graphically. The interest in late 19th and early to mid 20th century design and in particular art movements like Modernism, Futurism, Russian Constructivism, Dadaism and De Stijl have made a significant impact on modern life. I have to wonder if the Internet has been an important force in this interest.
And for painters, you can now buy pre-made square painting panels and canvasses. It seems the square has become the new acceptable and standard format. But to break the square and make something organic work, or not, within it and with it is actually a real challenge.
When I started traveling on a regular basis to England and working with gouache, I would take a book of paper with me that had near square dimensions, which suited me and my aesthetic and so that format as ‘object’ has endured.
EH: You stated in the interview with Taryn Day that you are interested in in the “subtleties of the changes between the permanent and impermanent landscape.” That’s a really beautiful idea. Can you elaborate more on that particular dichotomy and what about it you find so compelling?
EW: I have been a sky-watcher for as long as I can remember. For me, watching the sky is the most interesting, thought-provoking part of the landscape. Living in a suburb of Philadelphia, it’s rare to see large open spaces. I’m usually capturing glimpses when I’m driving or walking, looking up or at the end of a street between buildings or trees. I rarely see horizontally.
As much as I have an aversion to shopping centers, they have become one of the few places near me where I’m able to view an uninterrupted expansive sky. The skies I see that tell a story in the round; they are a space of transition and impending weather, from left to right, from top to bottom. They are almost never predictable and almost always in flux.
In contrast, natural or built landscapes are essentially static in their foundation with the exception of weather events, the changing light and the passing seasons. The energy of the sky and fixed landscape work independently though collaboratively, quietly and often times quite dramatically.
The ‘wow’ moments of late afternoon light in autumn that create strong contrasts, long cast shadows and shapes of color is something dynamic and visually exciting in its abstract beauty and nuance; it is something I grab onto visually. Just as wonderful however, are the overcast days where structure is less obvious, values are closer together and color is muted—there is a quiet poetry in those moments, which I deeply covet.
EH: You work both from life and from photographic reference. What do you do to “translate” the photos and keep the paintings from becoming too literal?
EW: I use a lot of imagery for painting ideas. I have boxes filled with decades old torn-out black & white and color newspaper images and magazine images and am still adding to them, saved for future painting ideas or reference. On my computer are fifteen or more years of images pulled off the Internet saved for the same reason. All the images I collect are carefully selected and some eventually discarded if they don’t keep up with my current ideas/current aesthetics.
The photographs I take which are solely for painting purposes (I’ve also been doing street photography as serious study) are taken with specific information in mind. First, I strive to compose the photograph well from the start. From the actual image(s), the bits of information I grab are those that allow me to remember a particular subject, light, shadow, shape, color, texture, composition…..essentially the abstract qualities.
But I do separate myself from the photograph, taking only particular aspects and rely on memory or years of accumulated visual knowledge. When I am working with a photograph, at some point I turn the photograph face down so not to rely on or be it influenced by it. I may bring it out at some point to re-familiarize myself with what I found so inspiring in the first place. Sometimes I never see what it was I saw.
That’s why a thumbnail sketch or color study is more valuable than a photograph (the combination of the two is invaluable) because the eye and the brain are capable of registering limitless nuances that the camera cannot. When I look at a thumbnail sketch, it becomes animated to me; recalling that exact moment (ie: the warmth of the sun, the smell of honeysuckle, the mosquito’s biting, a chorus of baby birds chirping to be fed, the song on the radio, etc…..). It can recall your state of mind, how you were feeling, what you were thinking at the time, your ideas. The sketch becomes real and tangible. By comparison, photographs are sterile references, so I have to be conscious of what I’m experiencing when I’m out taking photographs. Sometimes I’m painting and drawing in my head even when I’m out there photographing or just afterwards when I’m digesting what I saw and experienced.
On a side note, three and a half years ago nearly all of my sketchbooks were stolen by workman who had access to my studio. These sketchbooks were more precious than my paintings or even my photographs. It is a terribly troubling and deeply serious loss for me. Among these were sketchbooks spanning of five consecutive weeks in Europe in 1990 full of notes and sketches that also included self-portraits and drawings of my former husband.
EH: That’s heartbreaking. I’ve had work stolen, too. Most notably, my portrait of my grandfather was stolen when I brought it in to a class I was TA’ing in grad school. I can’t imagine someone actually enjoying a piece of art that they stole. Maybe one day these pieces will find their way back to us.
What are you after, Liz? What keeps you making your work?
EW: My interest lies with making little environments, a whole world of them. Sometimes they are based heavily on real experienced realities and sometime they are entirely invented. These are representational souvenirs of observation and thought.
Philosophically, I’m not really certain what keeps me making my work; why I need to do this. I can say it derives in part from a supreme preoccupation with nature at its core; its beauty, the wonder of it, its power and how humans and nature collide. Being in the company of great art, interesting music, dance, smart design and smart architecture (if not great architecture) as well as the extreme opposite of beauty or when beauty is derived from something ordinary or unpleasant, all plays a role in inspiring an idea. It generates a kind of energy and stimulates a need, if not a demand, to make images to record, to document, to reinvent.
Most honest painters will tell you, that there is an intellectual and physical battle going on in the studio every time you step inside and close the door. It’s an intense struggle between balancing what you want, what you don’t want and what the painting wants. When the painting is going well, it feels like an adrenalin rush of satisfaction. Sometimes getting to that point and being ‘in the zone’, so to speak, I wonder if I’ve forgotten to breathe. Those moments of euphoria during and after a long, successful battle stimulate a need to keep doing it (I am guessing). Part of that struggle is to make the next one better than or at least as good as a previous one, but at the same time you want the work to evolve as you evolve. It is a delicate balance.
You develop an enormous appreciation of what artists have always had to go through to make their work. Not just physical or financial sacrifices in order to work, but the intellectual battlefield of seeking perfection through years of intense observation, study, experimentation, patience, enormous self-discipline and very hard work. It’s part of the reasons we’re willing to travel 3000 miles away to see their accomplishments]]>