Moody, Minimalist Landscape Painting

Weather Disasters

 

After witnessing the recent devastating floods in our area, I feel compelled to attempt a more complete exploration of the reasons for and implications of using weather disaster images in my work.

Recently I was asked some questions by a graduate student from SUNY New Patlz about my large painting, “Flood” (44”X52”, 1998), that is in the permanent collection of the Samual Dorsky Museaum of Art there. She clearly expected a response—to be used for a class in curatorial studies—that was anecdotal, focused on the narrative of the event. Instead, I provided the following, excerpted for our topic.

Flood is one of my most minimal, color-field pieces. I had been thinking about doing an aerial view of a flood, due to the formal attractions of the imagery (flattened expanse of water with oddly dispersed detail of hills and trees remaining on higher ground) and to engage with the narrative of nature’s transformation of an internalized landscape (and the way that the brain has to struggle to make sense of it this mind-blowing alteration).

This particular image of a flood, I believe in the Midwest, drew me partly because the color of the water, which dominates the piece, is so subtle and rich. I eliminated a great deal of detail, choosing which bits of field and trees poking out of the water to include based on compositional and directional concerns. I chose to emphasize the semi-circle and sweep of land pointing to the two trees on the left. (I also painted, repainted, tweaked, and adjusted the shapes of brown earth endlessly until they hit my eye properly.) The shadows create a color value bridge between the light water and the dark land and trees.

I painted in and then painted out another bit of detail on the lower right, preferring in the end the expanse of water/color in the whole lower two thirds of the piece to create a bolder and more unusual composition. I opted not to include any traces of humanity, finding that without an element so specific as a stranded house, the scene is both serene and desolate in a wide-open way that does not overtly tug at the heartstrings.

When I paint disasters, they are always beautiful.”

“Ahead of the Storm”. (Private collection.)

These images are riveting to me because they are not things that you see every day (hmmm, another good blog topic), and they create arresting shapes, and compositions, and color.

Waterspouts descend from a cloudbank over water, sometimes quite quickly and several at a time. (Private collection.)

What I haven’t fully grappled with, however, is the inherent  narrative. The violence and destruction that follow a fire, a tornado, or a flood, is one thing when implied, left outside of the image. The reality is something else altogether—loss of life and property, homes and businesses destroyed, the continuity of life interrupted for weeks, months, or forever.

So why do I want to paint that? Is it irresponsible? Cold-hearted? Opportunistic?

“Cyclone Sampler”, the energy of many small twisters, contained in a tintype box. (Collection of the Tyler Museum of Art, Tyler, Texas.)

My answer is that I have to return, again and again, to the visual richness that life provides. Within all of this variety, the intensity of nature at its most violent is riveting. We crave a sense of awe, and can’t help being drawn to cataclysmic events that are bigger than humankind. Who hasn’t thrilled to a pea-green thunderhead over water, or the enormous breakers of a Nor’easter along the Atlantic? Even a lovely sunset at sea is often bittersweet, bringing awareness not just of the passage or time but also how quickly the serene sea can change.

I can’t control or prevent the weather…I can only observe and comment, visually, on how achingly beautiful it can be, even—-or especially—when not pretty.  The world, in all of its complexity, is both a lovely and a threatening place to be.

That—softened by light and with the atmospherics that I love—is what I want to paint.

The odd shaped box diffuses the intensity of the image just enough. (Private collection.)

A perfect example of the amazing, amorphous shapes that a tornado can take on. (Private collection.)

Fog, so lovely, can also lead to trouble… (Private collection.)
A threatening storm over New York Harbor. (Private collection.)
The long, vertical reach, colors that are warm and friendly contrasting with the reality of the twister.

A very minimalist approach, the division into five parts emphasizing the wide sweep of the landscape. (Private collection.)

3 responses

  1. Vince Walisko

    A very timely and thought-provoking body of work. I can feel it like I felt the recent events.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:48 pm

  2. Helen Koehler

    I related to this investigation of why you paint these events. I have been wondering why I paint these corners of my world, the same subject in variations of light. My friend, a good painter, does people in edges of emotion-why paint calm minimal scenes and not a story of human struggle. I am thinking that the calm scene is a sort of buffer against the uncertain world of which I am so aware. An alternate awareness. Will explore this more on the retreat.

    September 24, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    • I painted the most serene, flat-light, minimalist images for YEARS…until it was time to move out, one new thing at a time. Took me about 15 years to paint a tornado—or for it even to occur to me want to do that, since I had no other landscape painters among my friends or influences.

      October 7, 2011 at 1:44 am

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