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.”
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.
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?
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.