The specifics of how to create a less literal landscape painting seem to be a constant topic of discussion with my students, especially those who don’t come from an art-school background where the artist spends formative years in the mix, constantly exploring or discussing different ways of making art.
I have previously written about the toggle between formal concerns and storytelling in representational work in the following post:
And about pure abstraction in this post discussing the shows of Ellsworth Kelly, Jenny Nelson, and Melinda Stickney-Gibson:
Stepping further into how to break down this discussion, I see that most non-realist landscape painters are combining several ways of achieving this, and that the methods fall broadly into the two categories of what you choose to paint (and leave out) and how you choose to paint it.
In the image selection arena, the artist can either choose a view that had reduced detail for an open, minimalist landscape, or a macro view that has a prominent pattern —-for example, a rock cliff , sundappled water, or a glen of tree trunks.
The tools that the artist then employs in the painting process to emphasize abstraction can include simplifying, flattening, or distorting the shapes: reducing the amount of elements included; changing naturalistic color to non-literal choices; and/or unifying the surface with brushstroke or other technique to create overall texture or pattern.
I have selected pieces from a number of contemporary artists who explore this terrain, many of whom I know or am friends with. In most cases artists are combining several of the approaches mentioned above, using pictoral tools that we, in this generation, have been fortunate enough to inherit and absorb from centuries of painting. The contemporary landscape painter then draws from the smorgasbord that art history provides and, putting it all in a sort of personal artistic blender, comes forth (usually over time) with their own version of the abstracted landscape.
Because the combinations are personal and often subtle, I have chosen to discuss each painting on its own merits rather than sift them into the categories introduced above.
I should add that I love gestural and color field abstract painting and generally am not so interested in realist landscape work. But having long ago chosen for myself a stylistic swath that lands somewhere in the middle, I find these explorations to be endlessly exciting, both in my own studio and in the work of other artists.
I couldn’t resist selecting this piece of Stuart Shils, as I have also painted this dramatic locale in Western Ireland. It is just clear enough that in foreground we have farm fields, but the second shape is so peculiar that the mind could read it as abstract. So, by choosing to paint this bit of cliff that wends its way out into the Atlantic in a long curve, the artist has chosen subject matter that lends itself to abstraction and has also painted it in a broad, loose, and painterly way, emphasizing the color field aspect of the shapes within.
Deborah has selected as her subject matter in this painting broad areas —and only two–that lend themselves to a patterned surface. It is key to the painterly beauty of “Sparkle Square” that the flecks of reflected light are varied in placement and shape, as are the shallow waves and subtly shifting color. Mystery is created by the dark shape of the shore. This is an example of the artist both selecting an image that is abstract in its simplicity and rhythm, and enhancing those aspects in the surface treatment.
Hannah, who also paints pure abstraction, selects material for her landscapes that has a feel that suits her sense of shape—squared off rhythmic forms that repeat within simple divisions of sky and land. In “Windham” I love the way the sky is so different from the ground—the sky like a Rothko and the ground a de Stael. At the same time, the mind reads them perfectly as an ethereal sky and cultivated sweep of land.
In Eric Aho’s ice series, the view is more pulled in than expansive, creating opportunity for very strong compositions that play with the formal elements of shape and line within a reduced color composition. The black shapes have depth when the eye reads them as descriptive—cracks in the ice leading to water below—but also emphasize the directionality of the fractured shapes as they point toward each other and the center of the piece. My eye delights in the play of shapes with this piece every bit as much as it does with a completely abstract painting.
As I have long influenced by the mid-century generation of American color field painters, this piece of mine reads as near abstraction, sitting on top of the picture plane almost before it reads as landscape. My selection of tidal flats as subject matter—already so stark and minimalist—is the starting point, enhanced by flattened shapes with subtle variations in color but no descriptive textural detail. The strong horizon evokes a vista, but turn this piece on its side and you have an abstract painting.
Brighter-than-literal color is not of itself abstract, but combined with the simple fields of color that Wolf Kahn is known for creates a painting that sits right up on the surface plane. In addition to his famous barns, Wolf has also worked extensively with the repeated motif of tree trunks moving across the canvas, creating the patterned effect discussed above. In some paintings this is a more regular and more pronounced repetition, but I particularly liked the color in this piece and the way that the folliage is treated as diffuse scrubs of color. Look carefully, though, and you can see that as soft-edged as these shapes are, they are very particular, varied, and elegant.
“Waves at Jenner” uses brush stroke to create both an energetic expressive field and at the same time capture the feel of big surf crashing on rock, all of this using low-key, tonalist color. To my eye, the mind reads the scene perfectly for what/where it is, but the white strokes are actually more abstract than descriptive, sitting up on the surface of the picture plane. Arnold works in both abstraction and landscape painting, and this piece falls beautifully somewhere close to the middle of that spectrum…but rather closer to abstraction.
Heather very much starts with the first strategy, reducing the content not only by choosing the simplest sea and sky imagery but also by eliminating detail within that. The subject is just recognizable, mostly because of the horizon and the gleams of light in the sky. The color is dense and murky–and also gorgeous—evoking one of those heavy weather days, but even more so a color field painting that sits on top of the scumbled and blended surface.
In “Outlook XVI”, as in other work by this artist, the soft blend is a wet-into-wet technique starting with a little more detail than many of the pieces discussed here. The surface is so heavily blended, however, that the subject matter takes a back seat and the viewer’s attention is brought to the movement that Jeorg made to achieve this effect. The result, in a descriptive sense, feels both like moving weather and as if we are witnessing the scene from a moving vehicle. As a whole, the technique crates both dreamy narrative and energetic abstraction.
This monoprint of Steve Dininno’s is a study in monochromatic color and and reduced detail. To abstract an urban view—a scene that is inherently busy—certain light/weather phenomena are generally employed. In this case the image is being swallowed in fog, allowing the graphic elements to swim out of its implied depth even as the lines of perspective lead the eye forward into the scene. That there is so much interest in “Boardwalk” while at the same time so much empty space is a clear demonstration of the power of the less-is-more phenomenon, when skillfully done.
These trees and, I presume, a light pole, are about as un-fussy as they could be. They, and the blended and scumbled surface relate to the Wolf Kahn piece. However, the eye here is funneled back in space, much like in the Steve Dininno above, and the analogous color composition is quietly moody. The foreground blacks help anchor the piece, creating contrast within the otherwise low-light scene. This piece balances beautifully between capturing the mood of a moment and place and pure, delicious painting.
In this piece Kate uses surface texture to work the sky into a color field that is only just recognizable as a cloud bank. The shape of the shore is simplified, color exaggerated, though she did create a juicy reflection–so much a part of the land-into-water visual experience. The water is quieter than the sky, as is often the case. The white line that was scratched into the pigment on the left is a lovely graphic element that is entirely non-literal. Examining the elements, there is clear back and forth between those that are more descriptive of the scene and those that are more abstract.
Thomas is doing several painterly things in this piece that move it away from realism. There is clear patterning and brush stroke both in the field and the sky above that break up the surface into rhythmic abstraction. Combined with the soft band of fog in the middle distance, this creates a duo perception of paint sitting on top of the picture plane and a recognizable field/sky with atmospheric perspective. The relative symmetry of this image also illustrates the point that when a painter reduces the number of elements, those that remain hold an enhanced interest.
Staats is a master at relating shapes and creating light. Similar to my aesthetic, the number of shapes tend to be reduced and surface of them flattened, but the outlines of the shapes themselves have a good deal of subtle variation. In this piece, the paint handling within the shapes is also beautifully varied, the strip of light in a way that describes light itself and the shapes within the buildings in a more abstract manner. The blur on the left encroaching on the foreground building also seems to be more about the movement of the watercolor than about any recognizable visual phenomenon.
On the whole, what makes these all good paintings is that they are successful in capturing both the feel of the scene depicted and the surface, compositional, and color interest of pure painting, allowing the viewer to delight in both aspects. As for all painting, drawing ability is essential, since the artist needs the hand to do what the eye requires; creating dynamic compositions made of compelling—and usually highly edited— shapes, palettes, and surface.
Occasionally, there is an element that is barely or not quite recognizable…but interesting or gorgeous. My comment to my students when this emerges in their work is “I don’t know what that is…but I really like it so I don’t care”. This observation would apply to the irregular light shape on the right in the Fasoldt piece and the field in the Sarrantonio. In many of the other pieces, there is an element or shape that we think is probably this or that…but we are not sure: the cliff in the Shils; the dark shore in the Munson; the orange band in the Kahn—field or hill?; the tidal pool in my piece; the light pole in the Elder, and so on. These mysteries serve to create complex interest as the mind works to accept the mixed metaphor that they provide.
Update, February 2021, with work of contemporary artists who I feel add to this discussion:
Joanna creates landscapes with a painterly surface that belie literal spacial references. The work could be read as surreal if the surface treatment were more realist/detailed. Instead, the lush paint handling leads us to a fuller appreciation that goes beyond a specific narrative, transforming it by creating non-literal areas, such as the white behind the birds, that bring the eye right up to the surface plane in the manner of mid-20th century abstraction. Color is often a light and airy version of local, reading as rich and inviting. The result is a multi-layered affect that beautifully and confidently challenges the norms while feeling almost magically inviting.
David has an excellent drawerly hand that he uses in service not of the highly descriptive but instead to create boldness with flat or nearly flat areas of black and desaturated color. Shapes and edges have elegant variation and interest. His negative spaces—“sky holes”—are as interesting as the positive ones, and the deep, subdued color works to integrate with the blacks. Blacks dominate and are used both as areas of “color” and also as irregular, subtle borders within the deeper color. The effect is high drama at first glance, drawing the viewer in, and then allows for the eye to meander around absorbing the more subtle information in sky and ground.
Harry has a stylistic tool kit that includes shapes that nudge the border between quirky and elegant and the strong use of blacks, along with color that is almost but not quite local. The edges are most often not blended or scumbled, which is one of the things that makes the work stand out among landscape painters who reduce detail while exploring large areas of color. Small works with a big feel, they rely on large loose brush strokes and beautifully composed color within the discrete planes of action for the subtlety that offsets boldness, creating a mixed metaphor.
After a hard and busy winter I am so very happy to be in transition to the warmer season ahead. The work in my studio and recent events gave me a wonderful distraction from the relentless weather in the Northeast, but all logistics and movement are so much easier and more enjoyable with warm sunshine, no snow or ice, and planning that can be relied upon.
My solo show at Gold Gallery in Boston remains up through April 25th.
Everyone has heard how massively hit Boston was with snow this past winter, and the reports were no exaggeration. We had planned a February show, agreeing that since they had February traffic and business, we should go for it.
Sometimes I just love the expression: “Man plans. God laughs.”
After a few postponements, we did open with a reception on March 13th. It was a lovely time for me, with many in-depth questions, especially about my Affinity Series and the multiple-panel pieces.
The gallery brought my work to the AD 20/21 Fair down the street from them a few weeks later. I love the way the work pops on the grey walls.
I wrote a blog post about this multiple-panel piece in the show as an example of how a new idea evolves. This piece has quite a story, involving photos of my son Tony; Maya Lin; Storm King; and many sketches and studies.
Edgewater Gallery of Middlebury, Vermont brought my work to the Affordable Art Fair NYC at the end of March, so I decided to attend. I hadn’t been in several years, and found the whole fair to be well-organized and accessible, a kind of bubble of positive energy. This year was very successful, not surprising with with the quality and variety of work and the good vibe.
I was meeting up with friends and collectors at different intervals for three days running, so I spent quite a bit of time there. The first day I decided to get further involved by collecting information on some of my favorite artists being exhibited at the fair in order to write a blog post about it. This is a review of the work of the five artists that I selected:
I got a first-hand look at how hard the galleriests at these events work as I returned often to the Edgewater booth, enjoying the chance to get to know Kate, Rachel, and Zoe a little better in between their many conversations with fair-goers and invoicing and wrapping sold work. The days were up to 12 hours of standing and smiling and chatting, and they had a great attitude throughout.
I have had several commissions in the first months of this year. Although I am a tonalist by instinct, over the years I have found that I like to meander this way and that with my palette. These five pieces are about as bright as I can imagine going, but I am pleased to see how “me” they look, even with more saturated color.
I recently enjoyed a visit at my friend Marie Vickerilla’s studio. She had new work finished for her upcoming show in New Jersey that I was determined to see before it left her studio.
Our conversation about this body of work had a lot to do with mixed associations (see my discussion of this in the blog post reviewing the Affordable Art Fair) and complexities of surface. I have always loved Marie’s more minimalist work, and found this new series to be exciting in a different way–lost and found edges and layers; unusual color juxtapositions; and stories begun one place and and finished in another.
From her statement about this series: “Not until after the work is complete do I realize from where the painting has come. From shifting lines holding up a shape, lines and bars moving from place to place, a kind of organization emerges from the randomness, and I find a correlation to some slow-moving event in life.”
Actually, I’ll just say it, since I have before in conversation: I think Marie is a genius. It’s not always apparent to me where and how her decisions are made, but they have amazing clarity, subtlety, and depth—“unique voice” is an understatement.
May 9th: Chace-Randall Gallery (upstairs space), Andes, NY, 10th Anniversary show, 5 – 7 p.m.
A solo at Albert Shahinian Fine Art in Rhinebeck, NY, July 16-Labor Day, reception July 25.
The Shandaken Studio Tour, July 18-19.
A solo or duo at Louisa Gould in Vineyard Haven, MA, August 13-26:
A few new pieces:
A few of my recently sold pieces:
My February workshop “Constructing/Deconstructing the Landscape” at the Woodstock School of Art managed to come off, despite terrible weather, and succeeded in what I had set out to do. A new workshop, it involved an unprecedented amount of planning for me, as I was determined to develop exercises that would lead my students into a deeper analysis of composition and color, and a more conscious understanding how the elements form the whole.
The landscape itself is so seductive that it can actually get in the way of crafting a good painting, so much so that often I see artists plateau in their skill-building, finding it hard to advance to the next level. This workshop was designed for those artists, though I think it also works well for beginners as a step-by-step.
I was concerned that the artists in this workshop would feel constrained by so much structure, but they all surrendered to the process and felt that they learned way more than in a workshop with more open painting time. The exercises are also really fun—I did them myself first to make sure of that.
I will be teaching the same workshop in Provincetown in September, as well as these others coming up in 2015:
Woodstock School of Art, “Landscape in Large Scale” , June 20-23:
Artists Association of Nantucket, “Landscape and Mood”, July 13-15:
Provincetown Artists Association and Museum, “Constructing/Deconstructing the Landscape”, September 14th-17th.
Woodstock School of Art, “Interpreting the Landscape in Oil and Pastel”, October 17-19
I hope to see many friends and followers this spring and summer at a reception, a workshop, or my studio. Many of you have been students, collectors, and friends, in one order or another, and I love to see you show up.
I had a fine time at the Affordable Art Fair in NYC recently. Edgewater Gallery of Middelbury, Vermont featured my work along with eight other gallery artists, so I decided to attend to meet up with friends and collectors.
The quality of the work was overall higher than I had remembered from my last visit, and as I wandered around and connected to the work of several artists on view, I decided to write about some of my favorites.
These bodies of work bring up some thoughts about mixed metaphor in art. Aspects of complex combinations found in a given piece or body of work are often hard to name individually, since the references are myriad: historical, art historical, nature-based, daily visual stimuli; art forms such as music and literature; and they source many personal experiences and memories embedded in the mind and body.
With representational work, there is a narrative, at least implied, as well. I prefer one that is not sewn up tight and so leaves room for the viewer to emotionally occupy the piece.
The art that I respond to the most is a rich visual stew that is experienced viscerally but bears additional fruit with analysis. Even when minimalist on the surface, it evokes deep, complex feelings.
The work of Tessa Grundon, at the Arco Gallery booth is rich with associations. I see ancient parchment or fabric; the residue of floods both small and large; things buried and rediscovered; the passage of time; and the impermanence of our treasured objects.
Tessa Grundon says about her work:
“I use an array of materials and artifacts relating to specific geographical locations – local maps, wax from nearby beehives, pigments from the muds, earths, plants and charcoal, debris found along the strandlines of shores and riverbanks both rural and urban. With these materials I create work that embodies a sense of place, totems of landscapes I know and love.”
Her lines are based on topographical maps, and also feel like leaves, forests, seaweed, Chinese landscape painting; the hand of a talented cartoonist, and Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock depictions of ocean waves.
Much more overt are the photographs of Nine Francis at Julie Nestor Gallery. The subjects of these portraits look out at the viewer with matter-of-fact assurance, seemingly taking a brief pause in the course of a busy day.
“I use photography to express personal versions of my own selective truths. My images start off in the objective, as all photographic records do, but frequently don’t stay there. They are transformed through various techniques and processes to make them mine–to take them out of the realm of fact and reportage and and place them into the service of exploring and responding to my world.”
While the narrative element is what is first perceived, the photographs have a strong formal presence with reductive off-center compositions, soft edges, and sepia-and-white color. One aspect of their narrative presence that I like is that they balance perfectly between visual richness and beauty and a slightly goofy, cartoonish air, leaving the story open to interpretation.
Ren Adams at New Grounds Print Workshop is very consciously working with mixed metaphor in her hybrid-technique prints. I get a sense of batik fabric in some of them; physics; surrealism—the abstract kind, such as Miro; a dash of Kandinsky and maybe a little Klee. Her color choices are almost but not quite organic and also evocative of the traditional inks of Ukiyo-e woodcuts.
“Synthesizing ideas found in physics, information theory, Eastern philosophy, archaeology, digital culture, mass media and linguistics, I embrace the interdisciplinary nature of mixed media, layering printmaking techniques with drawing, painting and digital processing. These layers address convergence, the originating space where substance takes root, generating a virtual archaeological dig where viewers uncover artifacts, moments and mysterious terrain. The resulting alchemy of image integrates micro and macro components, revealing transitory connections while expressing multiple points in time simultaneously.”
It strikes me that these layered prints explore space beautifully. Within a relatively shallow space, the elements occupy varying depths and push against the edges of the paper, creating movement both outward from the sides of the picture plane as well as back behind it.
I was immediately smitten with the work of Park, Sun Hee with Artflow Gallery. Constructed of tea-bag wrappers, these minimalist pieces are highly crafted and rhythmic, art historically evoking Louise Nevelson and Agnes Martin. They invite the viewer into a contemplative zone with reduced color and a surface texture that create the illusion that these are made of a natural substance—cork, perhaps. The construction also brings to mind the rock work of an intricately designed wall or chimney.
“We see a minimalism not smothered by geometry and are returned to the metaphor of thinking. Following her analogy, we come face to face with the necessity of cataloguing and sorting one’s ideas. But, as theses grids she has set out towards refuse to flatly repeat, we are reminded of the even greater importance of disjunct thinking and and outjutting whims, runaway trains of thought, illogic, and must needed asides in the life of the cognizant mind.”
Underneath the associations created by the formal elements, I catch undertones of long-vanished warehouses containing carefully stacked silks, teas, woods, porcelain, and fragrant spices.
The intricate mixed-media drawings of Laura Jordan with Rebecca Hossack Gallery reflect city life with its packed visual stimuli. With a lively line and strong narrative, Laura “works in pencil, pen, watercolour, collage and print to create wonderfully rich large-scale images of Metropolitan existence – in all its vitality, humour, horror, pathos, wonder, and bathos.”
“With an acerbic wit and visual acuity that place her in the great satirical tradition of Hogarth and Rowlandson, Laura Jordan maps the political, social and architectural landscape of contemporary London, New York, Hong Kong and Rio de Janeiro.”
Always on the lookout for strong formal elements, I appreciate the lovely, almost organic-feeling shapes that the accumulated detail of each drawing creates. The drawings also scatter off from these clusters in sometimes truncated fragments, as if sections were erased—but oh so carefully—leaving the compositions enhanced.
Since I can’t resist being in such good company, I will include my own work. Here is my Skyline piece, quite a different take on the urban experience. Employing the flattening, simplifying effects of moments of light and atmospherics such as rain, fog, or sunset, I am take an intrinsically busy locale and find a view and treatment that creates space.
There were not a large number of tonal pieces at the Fair, so my body of work stood out in that way (as did several of my selections above). One fellow who was enquiring about my work commented that while my skyline is in greys, it is softly uplifting, and also very clean.
The simplest thing I can say about this body of work is that it is about creating light and space in a world crowded with possessions, information, obligations, and actions. I choose a minimalist approach to balance all of that with softly flattened shapes, blended edges, and tonalist color while recognizing and retaining undercurrents of more complex realities.
I got halfway through writing this blog post before I realized that all five of the artists that I selected–six including myself—are women. I am not even sure what to make of that, or if there is anything to be made of that, except that women are masterful at multi-tasking (this is explained in brain science research) and so by extension might have a particular facility with artwork that accesses multiple associations.
You are welcome to comment if you have any other ideas.
It has been a busy, fruitful year, but I am not dwelling too much on the past! My sights are set on 2015, when I will have several shows that I am very excited about.
The first will be in March at Gold (Au) Gallery in Boston, my second solo show with the gallery. My solo in fall of 2012 was quite successful, but I am looking forward to this show taking place in a better economy. Below is the piece we have used for advance PR, just finished less than a month ago.
There will be another version of “Trove”, 35 3″x5″ paintings in a divided frame—here is the one that I did and sold in 2007. This second frame is the last that I have been able to find, so only one more of these! The new one will have a weather theme.
I am working on a new idea for a multiple-panel piece, waiting for the delivery of canvas to begin work on the final version, which will come in (framed) at something like 14″x82″. A planning stages photo is below.
Some recent highlights have included three blog posts that I quite enjoyed writing. These often generate quite a bit of discussion on FB that I wish was taking place on the blog where more folks could enjoy it, so feel free to jump in.
Most recent, this short one about how grounding a creative process is:
Some stories that I love (and a few of you might recognize them!):
And my version of a rant about the costs, hidden to many, of making an artwork and bringing it to the public eye:
My early fall was well-occupied with this commissioned piece which was challenging in certain ways. My clients–who are also friends–wanted a piece that was most definitely in my signature style, but that also included a fairly large structure.
The small pastel looked great with some loose detail for the building, but when I got to the large oil, there was just too much of it to leave open. So I hunkered down and went after the architectural detail, surrendering to process. Then, however, the building looked too linear and didn’t fit with the rest of the painting. Finally, I made it all sit together by putting a fairly translucent layer of a lighter brown over the whole castle and embedding it with more blend into the white sky.
This is what makes each piece an adventure. I thought that the large Rhododendrons flanking the pond would be difficult to pull off/make interesting, but they fell right into place.
The reflection, however, was always going to be the star of the piece!
One other observation about process is that when it comes to a section that has quite a lot of of detail, I think of it as an abstract painting within a painting. This slows me down and enables me to focus with pleasure and patience, eventually backing up and scrutinizing how the area is working with the whole.
Below, a few recent pieces.
And this piece that I repainted last summer, brightening the color.
Some work that has sold recently through my galleries.
My other shows coming up in 2015 are with the Louisa Gould Gallery on Martha’s Vineyard and a show exploring my most minimalist, color-field imagery with my gallery of longest-standing, Albert Shahinian Fine Art in Rhinebeck.
My fall workshops on in Provincetown and Woodstock were very focused and great fun. For 2015, I have two new themes on the schedule. (Contact me for a full course description.)
Constructing/Deconstructing the Landscape, WSA, February 14-16 Sat-Mon
Landscapes in Large Scale, WSA, June 20-23, Sat-Tues
Provincetown Artist’s Association and Museum, Sept. September 14-18 Mon-Thurs(Workshop will be similar to Constructing/Deconstructing the Landscape.)
Interpreting the Landscape in Oil or Pastel, WSA, October 17-19 Sat-Mon
Last comment for now is that I have been doing quite a bit of mentoring/coaching of other artists this past year and especially recently, enjoying working with both early career and experienced artists. I developed my mentoring programs years ago after meeting and conversing with many artists who had so much hope and conviction, but didn’t understand the ropes. The work is satisfying to me because I can clarify and demystify, and thus take some of the emotional weight out of the process of bringing artwork into the marketplace. I am grateful to the many artists who have trusted me to help them rewrite artist’s statements, brainstorm new series, scrutinize resumes for old contacts, and open themselves up to advice.
Happy holidays, happy 2015!