Abstraction: Poetic Interpretations of Memory

 

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Here’s a slide show of recent paintings and a drawing. These were made this year and represent a huge departure from my narrative painting series. Abstraction allows me to make poetic interpretations of emotions and experiences, and the process is more absorbing and satisfying than working realistically.

Technique: I’ve been layering images associated with specific events. Memories of a weekend vacation, a quilt on a bed, bass fishing with my father, recovering from surgery, dealing with a friendship gone bad, and an adolescent dream are the sources. I let the colors and shapes develop into rhythmic patterns and create contrasts between flat shapes and volumetric forms.

I intentionally leave hints of the original subject matter. I’ve never been a purist, never wanted to edit compositions into pristine arrangements of a few precious forms. I’d prefer, if I had the cash, to own abstract work by Paul Klee, Stuart Davis, Georges Braque, Arshille Gorky, Patrick Henry Bruce, August Macke, and Marsden Hartley. (They  included autobiographical images, symbols and references to nature in their compositions.)  I’d pass up the pure abstraction, minimalist, and conceptual artwork of Brice Marden, Robert Mangold, Robert Ryman, and Ellsworth Kelly.  (They boiled things down to sterile nothingness.)

 

 

 

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Ohio Man and Vincent Van Gogh

The art department at the University of Delaware had a poster pinned on the office door: a reproduction of a Vincent Van Gogh self-portrait.  The painting showed the artist puffing a pipe while wearing a bandage over the torn stub of the ear he had recently severed.  Vincent looks haunted, like a man who has begun to realize that his life has just shifted permanently sideways.

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One day I saw Professor Bob standing in front of the poster.  He grabbed his scarf, wrapped it around his head, mimicked the act of smoking a pipe, and hunkered down.  He sucked in his cheeks and looked mournfully up at us.  Professors Larry and Steve shouted and laughed, and I asked, “What’s so funny?”

Larry told me that a grad candidate had brought along his wife on his interview.  She was a hair dresser who most likely had never attended college.  She had seen Bob standing near the door earlier in the day, pointed to the poster and asked Bob if the painting was a portrait of him.

I met the candidate later in the day and discovered that he was a small town boy from Ohio.  He spoke simply about his work, and I asked him what projects he had planned for grad school.  He told me that he painted portraits of anyone willing to model for him.  He didn’t have any rationale for his selection process and didn’t wish to explore an underlying theme while developing his work.

I liked the man, but knew that the professors would reject him if he didn’t come into his afternoon slide show with a plan of action.  I knew that the profs wanted to see a conceptual model.  He might explore issues surrounding homelessness by painting street people.  He might survey modes of masculinity by contrasting football players to poets, blue collar locals to high-toned academics.  He could investigate the shifting standards of feminine beauty by painting women who fit the definitions of attractiveness in different times and cultures.  Example:  a Rubenesque woman contrasted with an emaciated Twiggy-like model.

But the man from Ohio gave me a blank look when I tried to coax him into picking a more complex project.  He simply wanted to paint people and had never given much thought to issues inherent in the field of portraiture.  I’m sure that he’d never heard of “The Male Gaze’, and didn’t understand that a person’s clothing, posture and expression revealed clues about their social status and group history.

I changed the subject when I saw that my efforts were pointless.  I asked him how he liked Delaware.  I remembered the difficulty I had in adjusting to East Coast culture after moving to Wilmington from Dayton, Ohio.  I had been unprepared for the rudeness, the social preening, the thin-skinned hostility.  Ohio Man jumped on the topic and told me a story about a waitress in a Delaware diner who yelled at him when he asked for more coffee.  He said, “I was polite and nice as pie, but she’d like to have torn my head off over a refill.  I told my wife, ‘Things sure are different here.'”

His paintings looked good to me at the slide show.  The proportions were accurate and the draftsmanship sure, and the flesh tones shimmered clear and fine.  His brushwork was lively, and the paint thick and juicy.  The guy had talent.  But he blew it when he started to talk.  He pointed to a portrait of an old man and said, “This is my Grandpa.  I showed it to him when I finished it, and he said nothing.  I worried that he thought it was no good.  But he smiled to show me that he liked it and that he was proud, and that smile meant more to me than anything anyone has ever said about my work.”

Ohio Man waited for the profs to say something pleasant in response, but Larry stared at the floor, Bob smirked, and Steve glared at the candidate.  Ohio Man looked flustered but continued as before.  He delivered heartwarming stories about subjects in forthcoming slides.  Aunt Mattie suffered from diabetes, but that didn’t stop her from making decorations for the grade school Christmas tree.  Uncle Jim sold shoes in a shop downtown, and he always remembered a repeat customer’s name.  Cousin Jean planned to join the Navy after she graduated from high school because she loved her country and wanted to see the world.

I spoke with the professors after Ohio Man packed up his slides and joined his wife in the hall.  I expected more jokes, but the three men had grown solemn.  They couldn’t believe that an artist who had made that much progress had failed to develop one critical line of thinking.  The profs couldn’t find a hint of ironic detachment in the paintings, not a scrap of socio-political thrust in his attitude toward his subjects.  The man was simply a painting machine.  He’d offer nothing but greeting card homilies in critiques, and would do little to challenge his fellow students.

Bob, Steve and Larry rejected Ohio Man and sent him back home.  I  sometimes thought of him when I passed the office and saw the Van Gogh poster.  I hoped that he’d found a refuge among people who liked him and his work and valued his innocence.

Art Country

I recently watched a beer commercial during a break in a hockey game.  It showed a horse running down country roads, streets in small towns, children raising the Stars and Stripes, a firehouse, men shaking hands.  It ended with a father and son standing on a porch.  The sun had begun to set, and one handed a beer to the other.  They smiled reluctantly as if too shy to fully acknowledge the love they felt for each other.  They sipped their beer and looked out over their land.  The horse ran by…

I thought that it might be interesting to see if a sales formula leaning hard on nostalgia, patriotism, and old fashioned hokum could be applied to another American product.  I tried Painting, and failed of course.  But failure can be funny:

 

This is the story of paintings made in the heart of America, in a community where a gallery contract is a bond for the artist (but not so much for the dealer). 

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Thomas Hart Benton

These are the paintings made for those who took on the challenge of defeating ennui, who found an opportunity to defray the tax costs of inherited wealth, who forged a new hope for a cleverly invested future.

 

jack levine woman fan Jack Levine

 

These paintings were made for a generation willing to sip wine, speculate over risky masters (the ones who stubbornly outlive their most valuable periods), to remember a time when it was easier to choose a bankable artist from amongst the desperate, paint-spattered rabble.

 

Daumier

 

This is a story bigger than painting…This is the story of ART COUNTRY.

 

Roy De ForestRoy DeForest

What Painters Think About

Folks have asked me what I think about while I’m working on a painting.  If it’s a funny or sarcastic project, they assume that I’m cackling nonstop as I mix colors and apply brushstrokes.  Some seem unaware that canvases can take hundreds of hours to complete, and that no one maintains the same mental state longer than a few seconds.

A children’s counselor once told me that artists are insane while they make their art.  I failed to convince her that I’m lucid while working, and that no one (Van Gogh included) could make a painting work if he or she didn’t make thousands of clear-headed decisions.  I also told the counselor that she might be mistaking the nonverbal thought patterns that arise in painters’ minds for signs of insanity.  The inner monologue sometimes falls away as we work.  Instinct and feeling take over…Time seems to disappear, and painting becomes more like prayer or meditation.

Below is a recreation of my thoughts while painting.  It’s not a transcription, of course, but may give readers an inkling of what I think about before I hit the sweet spot of inner silence.

 

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Mexican Bull (oil/canvas)

Maybe I can finish this today.  No, can’t work too long.  Got to get groceries and pay some bills.  That color’s garish…No wait–It’s better than what I wanted…What the hell was that?  Sounded like a five hundred pound squirrel landed on the roof…maybe a magnolia pod.  Did I dream about that chewing sound in the attic last night, or have the rats returned?

 

DSC_0298 (2)Quilt (oil/canvas, 2018)

Oh crap.  This looks like Paul Klee.  Who am I ripping off besides him?  Hello Kandinsky.  Hello Max Beckman.  Steal from the best, leave the rest…Jesus, the left side looks like a greeting card.  Got to mess that up.  I’ll sour those colors and add a black line…Better, but still too pretty.  Might as well add bunnies and flowers.  Picasso said you have to destroy something if it looks too good too early in a painting…Asshole…I wonder if artists have to be assholes to become famous?  I’m an asshole…When will my ship come in?

A truck drives by with a dog hanging half way out the window.  It barks at regular intervals as it progresses down the street, and the noise fades and shifts key as it moves farther away.

Doppler Dog strikes again…I wonder if we should get a dog.  No time right now to take care of a dog…Hmm…that passage looks like a dog’s tail…Or is that a toe?  Meh.  It’s a blob of paint.  Ugly blob…Scrape it off…My shoulder hurts.  There goes the knee.  Is it hot in here?  Maybe I should get up and turn on the fan, stretch, but first…Well that looks better, but now I have to change five things to compensate…Patience, man, patience.

 

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Lake Louisa (oil on canvas)

Helen thinks that I’m a nut job, and that Friday student thinks I’m Donald Trump’s twin…”Who am I anyway?  Am I just my resume’?”   What was that song I heard yesterday…I’ve heard it before…Don’t have the cd, but the singer’s name is…Senility strikes again…I’ll think of it later, but her last name started with a P.  Penn…Penwright…Peyroux?  

I get up to look at what I’ve done, move that painting off the easel and stand it against a wall.

Did I just make everything worse?  Man, the middle needs a highlight, and those colors on the right look too mucky now.  When did I begin to lose all my talent…what little there is…Oh, come on now…it always looks bad half way through…maybe if I pop that red, palette knife a little white, glaze a purple over that mess and…

Judy knocks on the door to the studio and invites me to join her on a walk.  We head up Chilean Drive and talk about an upcoming visit from our daughter, the folks who used to live in the house at the corner, and the north wind that’s bringing another cold front.

When I get back my mind is clearer, and I look at the painting with fresh eyes.

It almost looks done!  When did that happen?  Time to spray for elves…Now I’ll just accent that scrabbly field of yellow, twist a red line along that edge…Might be done…Should I sign it?  I hate signing a painting…You get close and a signature screws everything up…An act of hubris and the gods of painting smite me…Can’t think of anything more to do on this one, and it’s good enough…for now…Ah, the familiar feeling of partial defeat…But that other painting in the corner is calling me…Maybe that one’ll turn out better…Wait a minute!  I can fix this one if I…maybe…That’s better…hmmm…

(Silence.)

 

Walk Through An Art Show

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I saw my show, “Happy Paintings for Well-Adjusted People”, for the first time last Thursday.  My wife and daughter came to the opening that night, and I mostly interacted with faculty, a man named Tony, and two high school art teachers who happened to be on campus at the time.  I gave a lecture about my work to the folks listed above and a class forced to attend.  But the somewhat listless students listened and didn’t lapse into smart phone drifts of attention too often.  I got a few questions at the end that helped me to explain things a bit further.

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Judy helped me to refine my speech, and we agreed that the underlying theme in a lot of my work is humor.  So I opened and closed my presentation with jokes.  One featured hump back whales, and the other told a story about swimming lessons involving trips to the middle of Lake Erie, a tough father, and being tied up in a bag.

My work was treated with respect, and the reception felt warm and friendly.  I recommend Daytona State College and the curator, Viktoryia McGrath, to any artist interested in exhibiting their work in a college setting.

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My daughter, Annie, spent the weekend with us and brought along Shakespeare and Sedgewick, her two dogs. She left early Easter Sunday afternoon, and Judy and I both felt a bit sad now that the flurry of activity had ended and the house was a lot quieter. We decided that we will be moving next door to a child once they settle down in a permanent location.

Now I’m looking forward to making new paintings under less stressful conditions, finishing out my semester, and starting summer projects.

A Tale of Two Projects

“It was the worst of weeks; it was the best of weeks.”

Max Ernst collage          He Didn’t See It Coming (acrylic, 2017)

The past few weeks I’ve been working feverishly on two contrasting projects: a power point presentation meant to summarize and explain my work and creative process; developing kids craft projects for an Easter egg hunt at Winter Park Presbyterian Church.

Paper Bag Puppets                                   Build-A-Bunny

On the one hand I referenced avant garde 20th century artists, outlined their influence on my work, and discussed three phases in my career. I matched images of my pictures to images by Max Ernst, Hannah Hoch, Balthus, Stanley Spencer and Philip Evergood and hoped that the comparisons weren’t too presumptuous. And then I wrote a text that to tie everything together in what I hope will be a digestible portion lasting no more than 20 minutes.

On the other hand, I designed paper bag puppets, crayon resist drawings, and a collage drawing of a bunny holding an egg. And once I decided that kids from 5 to ten might want to do these projects, my wife and I spent hours cutting up color shapes (bunny noses, ears, legs, etc.) from construction paper.

Both projects have been equally time consuming and wearying, and I’m not sure, in the end, which will provide the most enrichment. But the goal of both is to get folks, college students and kindergarteners alike, to imagine new possibilities.

I first saw this week’s efforts as an exercise in cognitive dissonance, of contrasting tasks that warred against each other.  But now it seems that one was the flip side of the other.

 

Happy Paintings for Well-Adjusted People

I’m due to give a power point presentation at an opening for a show at Daytona State College on March 29th.  I’m going to try to explain the history of some of my work, the influences, etc.  Here’s a cut down version of what I have so far.

My grandfather told stories about his boyhood in Dayton, Ohio, how he saw the Wright brothers flying their airplanes over the church steeples and department stores, how he got a job mucking out shops downtown after the 1913 flood inundated half the city. His baby sister, my great aunt Margaret told jokes, as did my great uncle Norby. They were at their best at funerals. If anyone looked a bit too glum, they’d make a quip and lighten the mood. So, I grew up on stories and jokes.

When I got to grad school, my professors expected serious artists to do three things: paint big; use thick paint; make it ugly. Bigness, thickness, and ugliness were signs of a desperate need to communicate the raw essence of one’s soul. At the time I painted small and thin, but my still life objects were ugly enough to earn me a partial pass. I began to paint still lives that were little tableaus. I arranged figurines, toys, posters into set ups that told odd tales.

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Penelope, Oil/Canvas, 1989

Years later, I grew desperately tired of painting still lives and began a series of narrative paintings with figures and interiors created from memory and imagination. Stanley Spencer, Balthus, and Philip Evergood were sources of inspiration. I painted stories about everyday life and my personal history. “Every Day” is a portrayal of the rituals of married life, of intimacy that eventually becomes mundane.

Picture 004

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Every Day, Oil/Canvas, 2000

I took up another subject: blue collar life. Third Shift is the story of a man who comes home early in the morning from work. His wife’s schedule opposes his. All he wants to do is to collapse, but she has other things in mind. The Night Factory is a bit of working class surreality. The men and women build things even in their dreams.

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Third Shift (top), The Night Factory (bottom).

I began to think about combining words and images to tell jokes and farces.

The main sources for the paintings in the show are 19th century portraits and illustrations. I’m drawn to the stiff formality of the former, and the exaggerated drama and sentimentality of the latter. I enjoy undercutting them by making ironic juxtapositions and hinting at unfortunate back stories. Paintings by Magritte and collages by Max Ernst and Hannah Hoch are lurking in the back of my mind when I work on these pieces.

 

Top left:  Hannah Hoch.  Bottom left:  Rene Magritte’s Premonition.                                           Right:  Max Ernst collage.

Sometimes the words are at war with the image (what does it all mean anyway?). Sometimes the joke is on me when I devote long hours to craft an image that is nothing more than a punch line for a stupid joke based on a pun…all that effort and technical knowledge to create something pointless and silly…Sometimes I create open-ended narratives. I like to short circuit a story by using vague texts that hint at multiple plots. My fables are open-ended, and outcomes are only suggested. The picture becomes something more than an illustration if the meaning isn’t fixed.

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Inseparable, Acrylic on Board and Canvas, 2018