Sunday, July 31, 2016

In the Cloister of Saint Agostino

My wife Rosy and I just opened a show of our paintings in the majestic cloister of Sant'Agostino in Cortona, which was built in the 13th century. It is now the headquarters of Cortona Svillupo, a civic organization that hosts conventions, exhibitions, workshops, and other events. Every day I come in to man the show and greet any visitors who come. Most days it is very quiet and it isn't hard to imagine the monks who once walked these sacred corridors, or tended the gardens beneath the sky so many centuries ago.

During the day I pass the time working on paintings of the interior of the cloister. Because the light and shadow changes so much from hour to hour, I work on different paintings at different times of the day, spending no more than an hour on each one.

Most summers we spend our time going here and there across Tuscany and Umbria to visit and paint in the many small villages or in the surrounding countryside. This summer is very different from others but I'm not unhappy at being sequestered in this sacred space for two weeks. The cloister is a microcosm of the world beyond its walls. Small things take on grand importance - the movement of light along the walls, the passing of clouds in the sky above, the wind rustling the leaves of the few trees there, or the song of birds sheltering within the walls. Making art is, for me, a sacred calling, demanding attention to the humble things of the world and of the spirit, and so it seems fitting to be here for a time, working in a space that once was dedicated to pursuits not so different from mine.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Vestiges: Recent Paintings & Monotypes

 In September I'm opening a show at the Staunton Augusta Art Center, back in my old hometown of Staunton, VA.  For 20 years Staunton, and the Shenandoah Valley, was my home and the wellspring of my paintings before moving away to embark on an uncertain journey that ultimately landed me in Delaware, Ohio.

Here are some images from the show and my own narrative to accompany it.

"Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see." -Rene Magritte

"Most new discoveries are suddenly-seen things that were always there. A new idea is a light that illuminates presences which simply had no form for us before the light fell on them." -Susanne Langer

The contemporary landscape confronts us with an outer face that has been shaped over time, not just by natural forces, but also by the curious imprints of human desire. Even Staunton, VA, which managed to escape the worst of the wrecking ball trends of 1960s “urban renewal,” witnessed profound changes when, in the early 90’s, Wal-Mart came to town and was allowed to plunder Betsy Bell mountain, a much loved landmark since the 18th century. My new home, Ohio, has landscapes that are littered with the vestiges of earlier human priorities - addled hay barns awaiting a final weight of snow to bring them to their horizontal rest, surrounded by beige labrynths of new housing; remnants of factories that once sustained whole communities, now abandoned and hollowed out by weather; traces of once fertile prairie farmland lying passively between the ever-multiplying lanes of interstates.

These appearances, such as we find them today, disguise as much as they reveal. Everything retains vestiges of earlier states. Nowhere is this so obvious as in Italy, where layers of time easily coexist in the present. But even in America, where the shape of things is in constant flux, driven by the imperatives of profit and the relentless commodification of land, the persistence of the past remains in the forms and shapes of the landscapes we inhabit. In the early days of the country such things were regarded as signs of progress. Today I have a suspicion that this force of relentless change is itself a vestige of an earlier, and now obsolete presumption of the limitlessness of America's land and resources. Perhaps I am, as one colleague summed me up, a “capital R Romantic,” and that’s why, as a painter, I've been drawn to interpret this transience. I don’t do it with a political agenda, but out of a poetic feeling for elegy, and a compelling need to simply bear witness to my own time.

The foundation of my practice as a painter has always been a simple empiricism, a kind of natural philosophy based on observation and informed by the means of painting, which are color, gesture, shape, and texture. The process of painting for me begins as a kind of soliloquy through which I work out my fascinations with the visual world around me, and the felt connections that tie me to my own community. I usually discover painting sites without seeking them. Often my motifs are the serendipitous results of trips to the grocery store or other practical routines of daily life.

Most often I paint on location, executing small, quick studies in which I attempt to respond to the transience of light and weather, and the odd collisions between the natural and the man-made. The challenge is to distill the essential color, form, and space from the "blooming, buzzing confusion" of nature using only my eyes and the language of painting. Painting, situated in the essential flatness of the canvas, presents a fascinating contradiction between its terms and those of the three-dimensional world. Finding a translation that is fresh, alive, and particular to the moment, rather than some generic phrasing from a textbook, as it were, is the task I set for myself.

Balancing these outdoor studies are longer meditations worked out on a larger scale in the studio from drawings, photographs, and experimentation at the palette. The two practices complement each other but are essentially self-sufficient activities. When working outdoors I rarely think of my studies as preparations for studio paintings. If anything the reverse is true. A long season of studio work often drives me outdoors to escape the inevitable ditches I drive myself into when the direct reference to nature has grown thin.

Divesting myself of limiting preconceptions is a necessary condition of painting from observation, and so the act of painting for me is not so much about the resulting commodity as it is a game of consciousness. Receptivity and openness are my primary aims. The goal, ultimately, is to construct a living metaphor in color, shape, and mark for my experience of the concrete world. The thrill when the first crude likeness appears is still as fresh and exciting as it was when I first started painting, nearly four decades ago.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Danielle Muzina

Danielle Muzina: Clear Fog (Rijeka), oil on panel, 24 x 24 in., 2014

Robert D'Arista, my mentor at American University, used to say, "Teaching is a privilege." A day doesn't pass that I don't feel the truth of that statement. After many decades of focusing on my own development as a painter, nothing seems so important as playing some small part in passing the torch to a new generation.

Every so often a student comes along who just seems to "get it" - to understand what painting, and what living your life as an artist, is all about. It takes more than talent. It takes a rare hunger for the practice, a need that can only be satisfied by working with materials and the mysterious language of art. It takes a restless curiosity, not only about art and its vocation, but about all that contributes to making us fully human. Danielle Muzina is such a one. She is one of those students that I have truly felt privileged to work with.

Now in her first year in the graduate painting program at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, Danielle has already produced a focused, personal, and surprisingly mature body of work combining elements of collage, painting and drawing. I'm proud to share it here.

Danielle Muzina, post on Painting OWU

Friday, November 28, 2014

Enlarging the World

Winter Street, oil on canvas, 24" x 30"

Through my front window from where I am sitting I can see three young girls, about 10 years of age, playing on the sidewalks of our cul-de-sac street. Each girl rides her own small, low-slung scooter, standing astride the running board with one leg and kicking off with the other. One of them is the obvious leader. She calls out the rules of a game that she is improvising moment by moment. The others give chase wherever she leads them.

My own childhood was largely spent in such a way. I grew up on a city street not unlike this one, full of similar houses and families, yet in my memory every square foot of that world was enchanted, a blank canvas onto which I could project any fantasy. When I visit home I always take a turn down my old street, lured by memories and some faint hunger to experience again that magic, but I'm always surprised at how ordinary it all seems now. Yes, the trees are younger, the cars are newer, and the curbs are lower from all the repaving over the past 40 years. Curiously, it's the spaces between things that I most notice. They seem to have shrunken. The vastness of my childhood landscapes has vanished. Everything else, the houses and yards, are exactly as they were when my friends and I roamed this idyllic domain. The only difference I can account for is the fact that I'm no longer 10. I've lived myself into a new, and strangely smaller world.

 White House, Autumn (Waterville, Maine)
oil on panel, 15 x 12 inches

These musings on the variability of perceptions of space remind me of one of C.S. Lewis' stories, The Great Divorce, in which a group of inhabitants from Hell are granted a field trip to Heaven. Lewis describes Hell as a sprawling gray city, seemingly without limit. As they journey from the lower to the upper reaches, the Hellions realize that the place they have left is not vast at all. In fact, in comparison with Heaven, it is microscopic, a place of ultimate constriction and limitation. It seems to me that as we journey to adulthood a lot of us make that bus trip in reverse. We leave the expansiveness and limitless potential of imagination for the constrictions of responsibility and the abstract awareness of "reality." The coin of that realm is reduction - experience boiled down to manageable notions about things like time, duty, or love and death. Concepts are useful but they are tidy, compact things compared with actual, sensuous experience. When you look into any small piece of the world as we do in painting, everything unpacks like one of those portable plastic panchos that you can never get back into its package.

In the same way that a small patch of ground can become the whole universe to a child with an imagination, the slow, meditative practices of art have a way of enlarging the world. With brushes or knife in hand, painters don't just have an inner child, they are their inner child, a strange hybrid of adult knowledge and experience curiously stalled on the threshold of the magical doorways to childhood imagination. I may no longer see German soldiers or nefarious wizards lurking in the shadows as I did when I was 10. When I regard the physical world around me now I see paintings. More importantly, I see myself making those paintings, enjoying a foretaste of the pleasures of mixing paint and moving the brush through those colorful spaces even before I get out my easel. Ultimately the decision to act on this reverie and to actually start a painting comes down to a question that any child would understand: will it be fun? 

Like the discarded cardboard box that becomes a castle, or the perfectly shaped stick that imagination morphs into a WWII Thompson machine gun, ordinary things are best. One of the greatest pleasures of making art is feeling one's power to transform simple materials and subjects into something meaningful and beautiful. Cezanne said, "With an apple I will astonish Paris!" For me, I like to start with where I live. It all begins with a kind of bus trip of the mind, setting off from the constricted, compartmentalized spaces of the adult mind to rediscover vast landscapes of enchantment and delight.

 The Fan, Richmond, Virginia, 
oil on panel, 8 x 6 inches.

Back Alley, The Fan, Richmond, Virginia,
oil on canvas, 14 x 11 inches

Sunday, November 23, 2014


My little figure study of tourists in Italy has found its way onto a blog devoted exclusively to benches. Check it out: Benchsite

 Cortona Palcoscenico: Lunch, acrylic on panel, 7 x 9 in. 2010.