Saturday, May 7, 2011

"... a Hobbs painting among its peers ..."

Brett Busang is a painter, writer, and critic who maintains a lively, informative, and cathartic blog called Painting is Dead and So Can I,  which I highly recommend to anyone for whom the word, "curmudgeon," has a certain appeal. We both lived for a time in Richmond, VA, haunting its alleys and byways with our easels while successfully eluding the glaring spotlight of both fame and fortune. Busang is not known for mincing words on matters artistic, so when I heard that he'd mentioned me in a recent post on his blog, I prepared myself as one might before stepping out into a hailstorm. Following is an excerpt of his post, which you may read in its entirety by clicking the link at the bottom.

"Frank Hobbs doesn't live in Richmond anymore, but professes to like it and may well return.  Choice of residence aside, Hobbs' contribution to the landscape is worth revisiting. 

His most visible work revolves around the poetry, if you will, of transportation.  It's formally exciting and has a terrific punch.  But his river paintings are, in my view, more compelling.  They are striking enough to attract art accumulators whose comfortable yearnings go only so far.  To see a Hobbs painting among its peers can be unsettling; if you don't watch yourself, it'll you wake up.

In his river paintings he gets at two very essential things: the vitality of fluid motion against the monumental forms of piers and bridges.  His delineation of
things is strong and subtle.  His bridges span the river, keep the traffic moving, and are not likely to cave in.  He understands that less is more, but is willing to show the effects of age - which can mean a lot on a bridge.  Because of his superior grasp of form, he never loses the big shapes that constitute an abstract design. 

Whether intentionally or not, Hobbs has made paintings that represent, not only a familiar subject, but something that does not cater to sentimental prejudices.   He's made good paintings and good paintings last." 

Painting the Cowpasture River

Long before I was ever a painter and looked at things with a painter's eye - before I even knew what a painter was - I knew and loved the Cowpasture River. Each July, on the first Friday after the 4th, from the time I was a boy, my father and I would leave Lynchburg and wind over the hairpins of Route 501, heading west for Bath County, Virginia, and the Cowpasture River. He and I, and a small army of other fathers and their sons, were reenacting a ritual that began in the early part of this century when the first group of Lynchburg men began journeying by train to Clifton Forge, and from there, by wagon and Model-T over the dirt and gravel path that is now Route 42, to camp and fish along the banks of the Cowpasture.

Over the years a small camp evolved. Army tents, pitched on the ground, gave way to wooden tent decks, then to small screen enclosures, and small cabins. The roads were improved. Families began to join the procession.

Conditions were basic and rustic. My father's generation loves to tell stories of the old days before running water or flush toilets. Even into the 1960's, my generation remembers the magical time before electricity came, when we read books or played games by the flickering orange light of kerosene and propane lamps, and drank mouth-numbing sodas from Depression-era ice-boxes filled with huge, slick blocks of crystal clear ice that an ice company in Clifton Forge, now long gone, used to truck in.  

Courtesy of Jim Thomson

Courtesy of Jim Thomson

John Owen, second from left. Courtesy of Jim Thomson

 I continue to this day to return to the river as to an earthly Valhalla. I would not be surprised if just beyond St. Peter's gate the Cowpasture River came into view. But now I am a veteran of fifty summers, and other motives mingle with the former ones to bring me there. I still go to the river to enjoy its benedictions, but I also go there to ply my trade - to prospect for paintings. Although it's pleasant working on the Cowpasture River, it presents me with a unique difficulty: I have trouble seeing it at all.

As anyone who seeks to do a particular job must learn to see and think in the specialized terms of that profession, a painter, in order to do the job of painting, must learn to see and to think as a painter. Claude Monet, the great Impressionist, defined the painter's challenge this way:

"When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have in front of you, a tree, a field... Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow; and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it givees your own naive impression of the scene."

Monet often said that he wished he'd been born blind and then had his sight restored so that he could see pure sensations of color, unencumbered by meaning.

Now I am painting along the river bank, looking toward the camp. This is my problem: how does that streak of yellow over there stop being the Big Dock, where my cousin Graham used to entertain us younger kids with his antics, imitating a man, perhaps Clyde Barrows, getting shot repeatedly before falling into the water? How does that dark greenish shape over there stop being the stretch of quiet water below camp where the white-trunked sycamore trees shade the surface, the place where John Owen, my first patron, loved to cast his fly line?

Courtesy of Jim Thomson

Wherever it is that one paints, it is a struggle to see things on their own simple, visual terms. Meaning is the conjugal partner of sensation. The two do not want to be teased apart, to be disentangled, the way that painters seek to do. At the Cowpasture River, every sensation sets up a ripple of memory and association. I struggle to keep my professional distance. My subjects hide from me behind a thick, shifting gauze of memory. When I paint the Cowpasture River I am never alone. I am surrounded by ghosts. I meet shades of myself and the people I have loved at every turn. The mirthful sound of laughter rings in my ears. The acrid smell of kerosene smoke is in my nose. The taste of ice-cold grape soda is keen on my tongue.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Two Ways of Seeing a River

A poignant essay by Mark Twain speaks to the ways that "knowing" affects, and often conflicts with, "seeing."

Two Ways of Seeing a River
An excerpt from Mark Twain’s 1883 book Life on the Mississippi.

Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of the majestic river! I still kept in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances, and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it every passing moment with new marvels of coloring. I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture and should have commented upon it inwardly after this fashion: “This sun means that we are going to have wind tomorrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling ‘boils’ show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the ‘break’ from a new snag and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark?” No, the romance and beauty were all gone from 
the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a “break” that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?