Wednesday, March 6, 2019

An American Painter in Umbria: Twenty-five Years of Landscapes

I am honored to be participating in this year's Bonazzi Symposium in Perugia, Italy this March. The topic is American Artists in Umbria. The symposium will explore the enduring influence and impact of Italian art and culture on American painters who work in Umbria and Tuscany, what they bring to Italy from America and what they take away. The symposium will also seek answers to important issues in art today such as the role of place in an increasingly global culture. Below are my reflections on the experiences I have had as an American painter working in Italy.

Lago Trasimeno from Monte Gualandro, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in.

An American Painter in Umbria:
Twenty-Five Years of Landscapes

Formative Influences and Early Landscapes
Italian painting, particularly that of the 19th century, came onto my radar in a big way in the early 1980s when I was a graduate student at American University in Washington, DC.  It was there that I was introduced to the work of the Macchiaioli by three of my teachers, Robert D’Arista, Jack Boul, and Dr. Norma Broude, whose book on the Macchiaioli was published in 1988. Since that time, landscape painting has been the gravitational center of my work. As a painter today, I owe a great debt to the formal language of the Macchiaioli whose concept of the macchia as a structural foundation of image making continues to resonate in my practice and in my teaching. Giorgio Morandi is another Italian painter who has shaped my formal vision, my attitudes and my outlook as an artist.

In 1994 I began bringing groups of students to Perugia for a three-week workshop with my colleague, art historian Mary Echols of Mary Baldwin College, focusing on landscape painting and Italian art history. Dr. Echols and I continued to return to Perugia every May for the next ten years with groups of 10-15 students. After a day of painting in the city, or traveling by train or public buses to nearby destinations to view and discuss art and to paint, we would return "home" to the Hotel Iris and a fabulous meal prepared for us by Maria Massarelli, the wife of the hotel's proprietor. Having a home base and this senso di accoglienza gave us a small sense of belonging to this place in ways that simply being a tourist can never do. Against the daily challenges of painting the Umbrian landscape, which is changed only slightly from the backgrounds so lovingly realized by Perugino and Piero della Francesca, were the enduring relationships we formed with people in this city over those ten years.

Because of the connection to this place and its people made possible by painting, study, and friendship, I can never look at the paintings we did here in the same way that I might look at paintings in a museum, where the works are removed from their original context. Life as lived insinuates itself into art and gives it a deeper, more personal resonance. The landscapes that my students and I took back to America from that period, and to the present, can never be "pure" in the way that late Modernism sought - an art free from narrative and allusion to nature. As Philip Guston said, "...painting is 'impure'. It is the adjustment of 'impurities', which forces painting’s continuity. We are image-makers and image-ridden."  At least to those who made them, our paintings of Italy will be forever infused with these vibrations of friendship, relationship, and yearning for this beautiful, historically complicated and archetypal land.

Fig. 1. Norcia, oil on panel, 8 x 10 in.

The Pull of Italy
When I attempt to understand the attraction that Italy has exerted on American painters historically and into the present, there are three things that come to mind.  First, there is the palpable sense of a centuries-long continuity and lineage from artist to artist. That’s a strong magnet for those whose home culture is more like a dry-erase board where new ideas continually extinguish old. In any Italian city or village, by contrast, one sees the harmonious, often ingenious, cohabitation of the past and the present. New ideas and forms don’t erase older ones but are contextualized within them. Today, one can even see modern thermal windows inserted into the Etruscan walls that surround this city. The American way, sadly, would have been to tear the old walls down! I’m also struck by how interwoven into all aspects of Italian life is the concern for beauty, form, and design - from food, fashion, architecture and construction, to urban design and agriculture. That in itself is a compelling model of the harmony we seek in art.

Finally, many American artists find in Italy a sense of respect and veneration for their profession that surprises them because of our own society’s ambiguous, almost adversarial relationship to the arts and to artists. As a painter I’m not alone in my sense of being more at home in Italy than in my native country, and these factors contribute powerfully to that feeling.

The Relevance of Place in a Global Context
It is tempting to dismiss the relevance of "place" in today's global art culture. However, while globalization and technology greatly diminish and blur regional differences, the making of art, especially landscape painting, can never completely escape the places in which it is realized. People will always be curious to know where a landscape was painted. Despite the cross-pollination and hybridization of styles that global exchange and internet culture have wrought, the human agencies of temperament, history, cultural values, and conditioning remain for each artist a deep, unconscious reservoir that always reveals itself in the intuitive struggles of artistic creation. The Local continues to inform the art of different artists, countries and regions as a kind of DNA. Like the Slow Food movement, which began in Italy as a response to the cultural invasion of American fast food, perhaps Italian culture will prove itself to also be the birthplace of a new counter-culture, a kind of Slow Art movement taking hold of many artists who are resistant to the tides of homogenization, distraction, fashion, celebrity, and commodification that have plagued art in our time.
  Fig. 2 Silo, oil on canvas, 20 x 16 in.                              

In the last ten years I have spent summers in Cortona, where my wife is from, exploring and painting in Umbria and other sites in Italy. My work, both here and at home, continues to respond to the collisions and elisions of old and new; the liminal landscapes of contemporary environments situated within the enduring traces and topographies of the past. As a painter working between two worlds, it’s not just formal problems that occupy me. It is also the vital dialogue with those Italian painters who have taught me to see; who have provoked in me a deeper understanding of the enterprise in which we as painters are involved. In terms of an exchange, I’m not certain what my paintings of Umbria contribute to Italy but it’s clear to me that this is what Italy has given to me.

Fig. 3 Clouds on the Mountain, Pergo, oil on canvas mounted on panel, 8.5 x 6.5 in.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

What Painting Is and What Painting Is Not

...For me.

Painting is not (primarily):
• a couch decoration or matching accessory
• an interior design element
• fun (any more than giving birth is fun)
• relaxing (unless walking on a mental/emotional high-wire is relaxing)
• a set of stock techniques or skills that "make" trees, sky, mountains, etc. (regardless of what Bob Ross says)
• a sign (regardless of what Derrida, et al., say)
• a means to an end
• a way to get girls or guys (regardless of what Freud says)
• a commodity of exchange
• a conferrer of status
• whatever an artist, curator, or critic says painting is
• no different from anything else
• an idea or concept
• a linear process
• declamatory or programmatic
• a step-by-step execution of an a priori design
• a social activity
• a way of making a living (Henri)

Painting is (primarily):
• a hand-made, two-dimensional surface covered with colored pigments arranged in a certain way (Denis)
• a subdivided geometrical shape
• a reduction, distillation, translation
• a pigmented, humanly marked plane hung parallel to a wall (usually)
• a visual, formal response to new knowledge
• a document of the actions of the artist
• a system of contrasts and relationships
• a three-dimensional object that traditionally is very thin
• an abstraction that can fool one into seeing a recognizable image, or not
• the original Rorschach blot test
• a low-relief sculpture
• a layered civilization with many buried cities
• a repetition (if rectangular), or a rejection (if not) of its architectural context
• an object that opens and activates when you look at it, or does nothing at all when you don’t
• a threat (if you’re absolutely content with the way you see things)
• a difficult, often frustrating and elusive enterprise
• imaginative play
• inefficient in its making though utterly efficient at its end
• an end in itself
• a practice (like yoga, or meditation, or medicine)
• self-medication
• a self-portrait
• a mantra
• quiet to the ears, loud to the soul
• a portal to an altered state
• an experience
• a soliloquy
• a conversation between maker, motif, and partaker
• searching, finding, doubting in a continuous cycle
• self-centering
• a rebellion against inattention
• “not so much finished as abandoned” (Leonardo)
• “a battle” (Degas)
• a projection of consciousness into a material, spatial, rhythmic construction (Hobbs)
• a way of living a life (Henri)

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Reflections on a Vinyl Record

This winter, having finally replaced my old boombox with a proper music system (new amplifier/receiver and decent speakers, coupled with my 40 year old turntable on which I can play my ancient vinyl LPs,) some random thoughts. I find myself listening to music with renewed intention after years of passive digital indulgence. Over the past two decades I've joyfully embraced each new technological breakthrough, from CDs, to iPods, to streaming services like Spotify and Pandora. But it seems to me, considering the attention-deficit-disordered state of most of us these days, that our technologies have played some part in it.

 Once upon a time we used to amass vast physical collections of recorded music. The downtown record store was a place of discovery. My friends and I would buy records unheard, based only on the instrumentation, the cover art, or something in the liner notes that seemed to hold promise. The 12-inch format allowed for massive amounts of information to embellish our enjoyment of the music. We knew the names of all of a band's members, who wrote what songs and what qualities each individual contributed to the whole. We studied the instruments. We came to appreciate the sonic differences between an ARP synthesizer and a Moog, or a Mellotron with its mysterious tape loops. This all may seem a bit quaint today when a simple Google search accesses more information, including live videos, than thousands of album liner notes. 

The shufflings of the iPod and the streamings of the internet changed the way music was enjoyed for decades, and other things as well. Before the advent of these digital devices, the song orders were set by the artists as if to say, this is how you fully grasp what the music is about. (Of course, song orders were just as often set by the record label for not so lofty reasons.) Double lps, or box sets would often feature side four on the back of side one so that the records could be stacked and played in a particular flow. To play a record was to enter into a mood, which, to me, always seemed like a kind of landscape one journeyed through; a foreign country with its own weather patterns and geographical features. The songs would lead you first to one place, then to another, with the resonance of the first acting as a background to the ever unfolding vista. While painting I would listen to a particular artist and when one record was done, more often than not, I would reach for the next album by the same artist, so reluctant was I to leave that landscape. The downside, which at the time it seemed to be, was that at most you got about 25 minutes of music before you physically had to change the record; or if you had a stackable turntable, 45 minutes. When long-playing cassette tapes appeared we could revel in 45 or 60 minutes of unbroken music. The development of auto-reverse machines expanded that to  as much as 120 minutes, or more if you chose the infinite replay mode. But even then, unlike today's passive listening, we made those tapes ourselves, choosing and recording what went on them, and copying out the "track lists by hand. Reel-to-reel tapes remedied these interruptions, allowing us to compile enormous amounts of music to be played in an unbroken way. Entire days might be devoted to imbibing the complete discography of Frank Zappa, in chronological order, with only 3 or 4 interruptions to change the reels. Today we "binge-watch" television series on Netflix. The reel-to-reel tape allowed us to binge-listen.

 So, after many decades now of enjoying all of these newer ways of listening, I find myself returning to the old vinyl paradigm with a new appreciation, not only of the warm, analog richness of vinyl recordings - like suddenly discovering the nuances of flavor in well-prepared "slow" food - but also of how it returns me to intentional listening. It does this first by eliminating the third-party mediations of the ipod shuffle, or the impersonal algorithms of the streaming internet. Alone in my studio my record collection and I are a closed system in which I relocate my identity, my history, and my particular relationship with the music and the artistry of the musicians that I found through my own investigations. Choosing this closed system, I admittedly forego the serendipity of new discoveries and linkages with unknown artists that often come to us through the "salads" of Pandora or Spotify. I also sacrifice the possibility of those felicitous re-awakenings to the musical content of familiar recordings that the iPod shuffle makes possible through the random breaking of the set sequencing that we all become accustomed to when playing records, tapes, or CDs. I don't intend to forego these new wonders forever. Different moods demand different ways of listening. But, having lived through and experienced these alternatives, I return to an older order with refreshed appreciation for what it uniquely has to offer.

There is also this, the not insignificant pleasure in the beauty and craftsmanship of these old electronic devices that were crafted to serve the purposes of what used to be called "high fidelity" musical reproduction. My forty year-old Technics turntable remains an enduring work of art. Its precision shapes and lines, the sinuous curve of its metallic tone arm, the neat arrangement and organization of its controls, and the gliding revolutions of its sculpted platter, still hold their own against any modern standard of beauty in design.

For years we have assimilated the ever increasing miniaturization and de-materialization of musical devices. Case-in-point, the iPod or smartphone, which allows one to carry a collection of hundreds of albums on a player the size of a credit card. But some are beginning to understand the cost of this miracle. What makes this "advancement" possible is the sacrificing of the full audio spectrum. Thousands of details are lost through digital sampling which reduces the nearly infinite curves of analog sound waves to a series of steps. Returning to the landscape analogy, it's as if we are wandering through the countryside with our eyes out of focus. The large, general shapes are all there but the details are lost. We've acclimated to this new sonic landscape, valuing novelty and portability over the richness of sensation that we once took for granted in listening to recorded music.

Bringing this wandering thought stream back to what I've called intentional listening, it strikes me as having a curious parallel to how we look at art and images today. Digital technologies, the internet, and the ubiquity of LED screens have made access to images easy, both the making and the viewing of them. Virtually everyone now carries with them a miniature camera. We can collect vast personal catalogs of images on Pinterest or Tumblr to view with ease. With the snap of a smartphone, we are able to turn our lives into Instagram documents as if, in doing so, we impart some solidity to our transient passage on earth. But all of these glowing images, however seductive, can never substitute for the actual heft and material presence of an actual painting, or that of a silver halide photograph intentionally crafted by a sensitive photographer. To take the time to stand, physically, before a great painting, to track our eyes over its manually sculpted surfaces, and to absorb the vibrancy and nuanced ranges of its colors with the miracle that is the human eye, is, today, almost an act of defiance. Much is made today of the disruptiveness of technology. But going to a museum or a gallery is also disruptive. It disrupts the attention-deficit-disordered way we have come to live our lives. To look at real paintings, in real time, demands not just attention but intention. And the rewards for committing this modern day heresy are not unlike those of taking the time to go to a concert with actual musicians playing in real time. Or intentionally choosing a 12-inch vinyl record from a personal collection and listening carefully to it on a really nice sound system.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

An Absence and A Return

Frank Hobbs: "Summer in Scotts Addition, Richmond, VA," oil on panel, 32 x 48 in. 2004-2017.

The studio work that I did in the year and a half leading up to my solo exhibition at Page Bond Gallery in May of 2017 returned me with new eyes to a place from which I'd been absent for ten years - Richmond, VA. Searching for an appropriate title for this body of new work, a phrase kept haunting my mind: "notes from an absence and a return." I couldn't remember where I'd heard it. Google was no help. All it dragged up were various corporate policies on "absence," and "returning to work after an absence." I was pleased when my old brain, like a slow computer, finally chunked out the source: Wendell Berry, poet, teacher, and farmer.

Through the years, Berry's writings have more closely expressed my feelings about art, and my relationship to my own practice, than just about any other.  "Notes From an Absence and a Return" is the title of an essay in a dog-eared and heavily marked volume of mine called "A Continuous Harmony." Berry wrote it after a return to his Kentucky farm following a period of work somewhere else. The essay addresses the lives that we make for ourselves in those places we call home.

For me, Virginia is that home. It's my birthplace. It holds the graves of many generations of my ancestors; and it's where I spent the first 50 years of my life. With such a freighted history the Virginia landscape could never have been, for me, just another scenic view to paint. It was a familial presence from which I drew sustenance and identity. When in 2007 I moved to Ohio to begin teaching painting at Ohio Wesleyan University, the hardest adjustment I had to make was removing my Virginia license plates.

My work as a painter has always situated itself in the particular environments that I've inhabited. Painting has a way of connecting you to your experience, as Fairfield Porter noted. It's how I process my place in this world and living and painting here in central Ohio has been no different. Ten years have passed since I began my new life here, and that's ample time for one's forward trajectory to slow; enough time for memory to begin eddying back in. This new body of work on an older theme is, I think, more reflective and circumspect than my paintings usually are; more about memory than the breaking edge of new experience.

Adding to the new work are a few older pieces of Richmond that first saw the light of day more than ten year ago when I was a resident of that city, but I've reworked them extensively. The younger man who painted these things first stood before them possessed of a very different sense of himself and his place in the world than the older, wiser one who reworked them. A part of me knows they are better paintings now, and also that they are no less true. Like an older civilization, the earlier layers are just there, under the fresh skin of paint, quietly informing and shaping the present.

Images of work in the exhibition

Friday, March 10, 2017

Preparing an Exhibition in Italy

One checked bag full of Rosy's small, framed paintings, and a carry-on with my unframed work sandwiched between shirts and pants was all that was required to get Rosy's and my work to Italy for our show in the Chiostro Sant'Agostino of Cortona. Framing was another matter. I spent several weeks before the opening strategizing and acquiring old frames and tools to do the framing. In my best Italian I implored the next-door neighbor to please excuse the noise as I sawed and hammered away for another two weeks.

For the works on paper we managed to find a lot of beautiful old frames in thrift shops near Magione, and even some acceptable new ones that required only a bit of punishment to make them suitable. For the rest of the work I designed a floater frame using mouldings from Italy's version of Home Depot, "Obi." About the coolest thing I've ever seen was a small combination miter and table saw that cost only about 100 Euro.

Set up on the small patio of the medieval house that is our home during the summer, surrounded by the Italian families that are our neighbors, I imagined myself back in time - a medieval or renaissance craftsman in a small shop carefully making frames for an altarpiece or some such thing. Of course the whine of the electric saw made it difficult to maintain the illusion.