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




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