Prince Street Gallery in New York City is having a show of my paintings July 29-August 16. The show features landscapes of my suburban neighborhood in the San Diego as well as a few paintings of the city’s industrial waterfront. Additionally there are fifteen landscape paintings from Civita Castellana, Italy where I painted for the past two summers
I’m grateful to the members of the Prince Street Gallery who invited me to show my work at this great artist cooperative with a rich 40 year history and many terrific artist members. I’d like to invite any readers to my show, the opening is on Thursday, July 31 from 5-8pm and I will be available to meet anyone while I’m in NYC from Aug 1 – Aug 12 during gallery hours, just email me…. email@example.com. This is my first solo show in NYC and I wanted to use this as an opportunity to post an auto-biographical sketch and commentary about my work. Please see my website for more a greater selection of images and information.
The exhibition titled In and Out of Sight underscores my combining on site observation, the “In Sight”, with studio work or the “Out of Sight”. Also, the in and outs of painting then repainting, putting on and then scraping off, keeping a painting open to an organic, painterly process that moves beyond literal rendering of the scene’s specifics. However, at the same time I’m drawn to specific characteristics of a place, especially things that evoke a quirky sense of rightness, mood or humanity.
Of course, many landscape painters take this approach, combining the excitement and specificity of painting from observation on one hand with the inventions and strategizing in the calm, protective comforts of the studio. Despite working mainly from life for many years and running this site about perceptual painting, I am not a purist with strict rules about only painting in front of nature.
Tuxedo is a painting I finished a few weeks ago. The title is from the name of the park where much of it was painted but also plays with its formal-wear meaning; formal painting issues being the reason to paint, not just for an otherwise ordinary view of my fortunately scenic neighborhood. By formal I mean such things as the musicality felt from the intervals and groupings of related and contrasting forms and how their positions in space, geometric configurations encourages the eye to move through gestural pathways in the painting. It is about the experience and discovery of the interactions and vibrations of light on color planes and shape relationships. This painting was primarily done on site but there were also many important decisions and changes made in the studio.
To me great landscape painting is abstract painting that also has a structure and is intrinsically bound to certain visual restrictions. These restrictions paradoxically can make the process more freeing. I increasingly find that by narrowing the range of choices you free up your mind to push ideas further and to look at design possibilities more fully.
Each painting has its own rules about how closely to follow observed facts. Sometimes the most interesting thing to me is the chance arrangement of forms found in the chaos of nature that is far more interesting visually than the order I might impose on it. The visual surprises from nature can be a catalyst for bigger abstract ideas that would have been difficult or impossible from invention alone. Other times nature is just a jumbled mess and you first need to wipe out everything in order to see where a painting might come out of all of it. On occasion, a more laborious (and often less successful) manner involves putting in everything that might be tried, then as the painting progresses, gradually removing the non-essential – which is somewhat like how I’ve lived my life for many years.
I didn’t start drawing until my mid 20’s. At first, the main art I knew about was more along the lines of hippie decorating and protest-sign art. As a teen in the late 60’s, I lead a feral lifestyle, dropping out of high school to have as many adventures as possible. I left the hippie counter-culture to be more with the straight-laced radical anti-war protest and Marxist-Leninist type groups, and became a full-time activist for a few years. Eventually, I became disenchanted with the craziness and doctrinaire party lines and began to understand that being a revolutionary leader wasn’t a particularly wise career move. Since then I’ve have a hard time buying into notions of the one true path, and have tried to avoid art-world variations of “correct-thinking”.
I went back to school and got my GED and then went on to become a nurse (LPN) which is how I supported myself for 25 years, working in various hospitals in Boston. One of my more memorable early experiences with art was when the head nurse on the unit where I worked brought in some large art books on Bonnard and Degas. I had never seen these before and I was enchanted, wanting to marvel over these books every chance I got. I started experimenting with watercolor and I soon decided I wanted to learn drawing and asked a good artist friend, Matthew Mattingly, to teach me. We would meet once a week to travel around Boston drawing homeless people sleeping in the library, people waiting for trains in the station, study perspective problems of airline terminals and buildings in the North End as well as hiring models. The search for more exciting views sometimes brought us to the wilder parts of the city; industrial waste sites, trespassing in waterfront oil tank farms—places where gangsters from Charlestown might dump bodies. This visual thrill-seeking went on to become a long standing interest. Sadly, after 9-11, security police take their job far more seriously and I am far more careful about ‘no trespassing’ signs.
My first drawing efforts were exciting but rather pedestrian as art, still I started to learn the basics. Drawing never came easy for me but it seemed important, and eventually became my obsession. I applied to Mass College of Art in the mid-80’s where I was lucky to study with George Nick. Immediately after seeing his slides, I knew he had what I wanted.
I made my first oil paintings with George Nick. He gave beginning students assignments to paint still lifes from life in black and white with a palette knife. His structured, highly engaged and inspirational teaching was critical in shaping the direction of my painting for years to come. He got me involved with my long held interest in painting from observation. He wasn’t an easy teacher and minced no words if the work fell short in some way. One of the biggest lessons I learned from him was that painting is something vital and not to be taken casually. That painting is more than just craft, it also about integrity, vision and poetics. His way of teaching the basics of painting still holds great value and relevance for me today and I often hear his voice in my head when faced with a painting problem. His focus on getting the right tone, color and good drawing was the mantra that I used to keep myself in check over the years. From his teaching I learned that working from observation could be a way of making art that ran parallel to life, not just trying to mimic it. That close attention not only helped you better see the motif but also that nature could offer far more interesting design and colors than what you were likely to come up with on your own. Working against something, to compare how tall to how wide, how dark to how light, where something is in relation to another, is a tone too cool next to another? These types of questions better allowed me to more objectively see my work, get out my own head and if all went well, tap into a more authentic voice, one less apt to fall into formulaic or stylized mannerisms.
I threw myself completely into the process of learning, trying to listen and act on his advice. I was making large paintings of the boiler-room in the huge, ancient basement of the school (a few of these are posted in the archive section of my website) trying to study the light in dark spaces and make solid, monumental forms. I wanted to combine study with an expression; accuracy alone seemed boring. However, painting realistically from life was sometimes a hard sell in a school where most were painting in a neo-expressionist or abstract manner. Hiding out in the basement for a couple of years seemed to give me the freedom to paint the way I wanted and keep me away from many distractions. I remember once I became friendly with an attractive painting student who I wanted to impress and invited her to come down into the basement to see this huge painting I was making of the boiler room. After looking at the painting for about 10 seconds she shook her head saying you can’t paint like this, you can’t be serious – this is regressive, academic 19th century painting. I was speechless and crushed that my plans to ask her out fizzled so miserably. Over time I developed an attitude you might call ‘realist victimhood’ and feeling oppressed by what I felt was the ‘New Post-Modern Academy’. However, this ultimately worked to my disadvantage, blinding me to many new pictorial possibilities that went beyond just learning the specifics of how to better draw and paint in a traditional realist manner and many good conversations went past me as I didn’t see the relevance to my work.
In my late thirties, I went to graduate school at Boston University (’93) where I studied with John Moore. The feedback and encouragement from John Moore and getting to listen to so many fantastic visiting artists such as Graham Nickson and John Walker was invaluable. However, the widely divergent views of so many different personalities that came through giving critiques, many times giving the exact opposite advice of a previous critique, could be maddening. If anything, for me, graduate school was sometimes more about learning how to politely listen and then promptly go back to doing whatever you were going to do anyway.
During graduate school I supported myself by working full-time as a nurse at a residential program for 36 formerly homeless mentally ill residents. This home became like a second family for me and a rather bizarre counterpart to my life in school. In addition to my many nurse responsibilities, I also ran an art group where I tried to get the residents drawing with oil crayons. Eventually the group got shut down after our artwork display of Max Beckmann-like nudes in provocative poses was a bit more than the flowers and vases the staff had been expecting to see.
Through my contacts with the Dept of Mental Health, I got permission to paint in an abandoned building at Boston State Hospital. (Boston State Hospital was a large mental hospital largely shut down and abandoned in the 70’s) The security guard would unlock the door in the morning and then let me out again at the end of the day. These paintings were somewhat a continuation of my basement interiors but also sparked exploration of my own family history. At 15, my mother was committed to a mental institution for ten months after a suicide attempt. I tried to see if I might make some narrative painting involving the highly personal, and emotionally charged subject matter. I started making large figurative works—using Max Beckmann, Stanley Spencer, Paula Rego, and some early renaissance painting as inspiration. Around the same time I was also making large, dark interiors as well as a 19 foot, 6 panel painting from out the window of a view of the Citgo sign, the Mass Pike and Fenway park—using binoculars and each panel represented a different time of day from morning until dusk. This allowed me to paint all day long. (these are available for viewing on my website)
After the frenetic pace of graduate school was behind me I started to obsess if I was really cut out to be a painter. I was depressed about my work and the possibilities of ever getting anywhere in an art world that seemed unreceptive to the kinds of painting that interested me most.
At 40 years old, it hit me that in order to move forward I needed to put my energies into figuring out who I was as a person first. I decided to put painting on hold. The most important lesson back then was how to live without alcohol. I had been a somewhat happy but introverted type of drinker who worked very hard all day and then hammered myself to oblivion, pretty much every night. Unknown to me at the time, alcohol abuse played a significant role in how I viewed myself as well as my paintings, however in ways too involved to explain here. I am extremely fortunate that I’ve been sober over 20 years and that I was able to confront this issue before it took a more serious toil. Also around this time, in the late 90’s, I decided I could no longer work as a nurse and I started looking for a new career. 3D computer animation captured my interest. I taught myself how to use a program called Maya, as well as a number of other programs. I also taught myself html and got temp jobs making websites. I eventually got a full-time gig making medical training and product marketing 3d animations and other CGI for a video production outfit. I enjoyed this work a great deal, and still do this part-time, but of course this wasn’t creatively and intellectually sustainable for me and I needed to find a way back to painting.
I started painting small still lifes—concentrating on naturalist light and color— getting the observed color to feel exactly right. I didn’t want to start with anything too complicated so that I could more easily fit it into my full-time work schedule. Procrastination and doubts quickly are pushed aside when the painting gets going—the process becomes addictive and lures you right back in, almost as if you never left.
I got married around this time and without the support and encouragement of my wife, Liz, I would be telling a very different story, among other reasons, she gave me the idea of starting this blog. In 2007 we moved from Jamaica Plain (Boston) to San Diego to take care of my aging father during his last several months, to take over for my brother who was deployed to Afghanistan as a physician for the Navy. I eventually got to a place where I was able to paint full-time.
Southern California’s sunny and dry Mediterranean climate and extremely varied and awe-inspiring scenery is paradise for an outdoor painter however I found the artistic climate here to be markedly different than the East Coast and I felt isolated at first and started the blog Painting Perceptions as a means to reach out to other painters.
I wanted to see what leading observational, modernistic as well as traditional, painters were were doing and thinking, to try to establish more connections between those who are lucky to be surrounded by great schools, museums and galleries and those of us who live in areas where that isn’t the case. The art world seems far less NYC-centric than before but living off the art-grid makes you seek communication with kindred spirits. Facebook and the many painter blogs has helped to bring this about and I am proud of whatever help Painting Perceptions has brought to the table.
I have been incredibly fortunate to go to Italy during the past three summers. I attended Israel Hershberg’s JSS summer school in Sienna and Civita. My studies with Hershberg’s Master Class and with Stuart Shils, Ken Kewley, Yael Scalia and getting to meet and listen to Lennart Anderson as well as the input from the many other terrific artists there was pivotal for me in getting new insights into my work and directions for moving forward. It was a jump start for my mind’s ability to look at my work with fresh eyes, to better structure and simplify, to look at color in new ways and to add some new voices in my head’s ongoing chatter while painting.
Having the time out from the responsibilities of regular life, completely focusing on my work, and being surrounded by such magnificent surroundings of landscape, art and culture brought my work more quickly to a higher level. Many of the works made in Italy are in this show, a few I reworked in the studio to the point that they are entirely new works based on the memory of my experience. Being in the heart of where Corot had painted many of his greatest outdoor Italian paintings in Civita Castellana—made a profound effect on me. Israel’s knowledge and enthusiasm for Corot made the experience all the more meaningful. My involvement with Stuart Shils helped me to shift my focus away from specifics of the observation, letting myself have a looser grip on the drawing so that I might better get at the bigger visual structure; to orchestrate instead of just recording inventory. My Italian experience is something I’m still digesting and I am looking forward to returning to be with my many new friends in Civita.
However much I’ve learned from my many great teachers, I always return to my contrarian roots. I don’t follow leaders but I clearly also have had trouble watching the parking meters – and have paid many fines for not minding my own business closely enough. I want to learn as much as possible about other people’s methods, rules and aesthetics but ultimately I need to make my own paintings, not someone else’s. Corot was reported to say something like “do not imitate, do not follow others, if you do you will always be behind”
I’m not sure it’s possible or important to bring something completely new to painting anymore. Avant-Garde painting seems as shopworn as any other form of painting that still involves using paint to make visual images in some manner. Of course, like many other neurotic painters, I go through many dark moments of wondering if I’m deluding myself to be a painter in this day and age. But most times I’m content to just add my name to the ridiculously long list of painters trying to have a great life doing what they love. To celebrate my luck of still being on the planet, painting what grabs me visually and have the process as much fun and engaging as possible. Having a great life, good friends and being able to give something back is what makes it all worth it.
If anyone is in the New York area and can stop by the gallery for the opening or if you would like to meet me at the gallery while I’m in New York, I would be happy to set up a time. I can do this between Aug 1 – 12 while the gallery is open, just email me (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Donate to Painting Perceptions
Donations to Painting Perceptions helps this site greatly, please consider your gift today.