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.

Nuovi Occhi / New Eyes

"The real journey of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes."  -Marcel Proust

Our poster for the 2016 show in Cortona with the above quote from Marcel Proust, from whom we took the title.  On the left, a detail of my painting, and on the right, one of Rosy's.

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.