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.