This spring my mind has been on many of the seasonal imperatives, like creating new work for my galleries on the Cape and Islands and sorting through and shipping or delivering their selections. It has also, after a huge jump-start on my Atlas Project during my residency at the Nantucket Arts Association, been very much on advancing that exploration; and the spring has been spiced up by a few other new projects.
I have scheduled a talk to discuss my Atlas Project for July 15 during the Shandaken Artists Studio Tour, 4:30-6pm. I am currently developing the third sequence, Atlas/Hudson Valley segment. This means that, in addition to other work in my studio, I will hang a grouping of each of the sections that I have been working on this year: Atlas/Forms of Water/Snow; Atlas/Island (Nantucket); and the most extensive sequence to date, the Hudson River and Catskills work and mapping thereof.
In my studio work progresses on my third prototype map for this grouping, which will include mini-monotypes of the paintings involved; maps of various sorts of the area; and a number of other elements, both descriptive and visual. I am hoping that this map will be the working template that clicks for me so that I can use it for new groupings/exhibitions going forward. This involves lots of trial and error, applied problem-solving and then experimenting with the materials (maps, acrylics, printmaking, rice paper, collage, river mud, etc.).
I have found that when I pose myself a complex creative problem to be solved, following a simple process works quite well. I start by seeing how far I can think my way into it, often using moments when I am driving or walking, and when I hit an aspect or aspects that stump me, I plant those as a seed, and then let go of the conscious effort. Some time later—usually weeks—the answer will pop into my head, my subconscious having been at work on it all the while, sometimes aided by new information that comes my way in the interval.
Here is where I am so far with the latest Site Map and associated prints:
Above and below are a few of the Hudson River & Valley/Catskills paintings that are part of the new sequence:
My new series is bringing me ever closer to the many aspects of the natural world that I have in the past observed, researched and delighted in. Which of these things and how they can manifest in the work is the adventure. As is true of most meaningful new endeavors, the space this holds for me is both stimulating and disquieting.
My first gallery show of Atlas/Hudson Valley is scheduled for 2018 at Thompson Giroux Gallery in Chatham, NY.
During spring I am always preparing to deliver or ship new work to my galleries in Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and/or Cape Cod. Below are some new pieces at the Louisa Gould Gallery in Vineyard Haven on Martha’s Vineyard. She always has a beautifully installed grouping of my work on display throughout the year, so please stop by if you are on the island.
My residency at the Arts Association of Nantucket in February resulted in many advancements in my problem-solving curve for the Atlas Project; a number of small paintings; and some monotypes (see my blog post on the residency):
The five monotypes hanging below are a the results of printing sessions in both Woodstock and Nantucket.
And a few others:
See more of my prints and pastels here:
In April I flew to South Florida to do a large painting for friends with a new house there. I managed to pack in one big suitcase everything I needed, including the 16″x20″ version of the wave image that I had painted ahead of time. The one thing that did not fit in my suitcase was the 48″x60″ stretched linen canvas, which we had shipped from my wonderful stretcher-makers in Vermont, Brickyard Enterprises.
I had exactly one week to do this large piece and so, concerned about the possibility of things going wrong, I put in long days for the first several, working under an overhang in the pool enclosure.
Happily, nothing did go wrong, so we had a finished piece on the wall ahead of deadline and then I got to play, spending time at the Morikami Gardens and the beach (more wave paintings to come!).
My winter-spring show with Albert Shahinian Fine Art wrapped up in early April. We had a nice run of of two receptions—one at the gallery and one at my studio; a number of sales of pieces small and large, old and new; and an interview with the Poughkeepsie Journal containing questions that I quite enjoyed:
Several of the pieces that went to new homes from our show “Gallery/Studio: A Symbiosis”:
I am teaching four more workshops in 2017, several of them new. In my workshops I emphasize composition as well as color, and share not only my techniques, but also an eclectic delight in many styles and aspects of contemporary and historical art.
The Woodstock School of Art:
I have plans for some new pastels in the near future—its a good time of year to approach these, with the studio windows wide open (ah, and I must mention sounds of birds and the creek behind my studio), mitigating any effects of flying dust. Below is a fairly recent one, in which I was pushing the color somewhat.
Over the years I have at times felt pressure from some of my galleries to work brighter. I am very often a moody painter, though I don’t ever want to limit myself to any palette, locale, format, or mood. I do love a bright sunny day, but painting dramatic clouds and subtle, tonal color often draws me, and many of my collectors will follow me into that terrain.
With the pastel above, I set myself the intention of not going as dark along the horizon as I often do in a seascape, and in general keeping the colors more saturated or desaturated with white instead of grey. I wanted to see if I could make myself happy with a lower contrast, brighter image. And I did.
This is turning a request, essentially, into a creative problem. When people ask me how and whether being a full time, self-supporting artist affects my decision-making in the studio, that is part of the answer—that if I feel that I am being nudged in a particular direction, can I turn that into an interesting problem? And after I work that one out, what else can I do that is generated exclusively by, to use Kandinsky’s term, inner necessity?
The first sequence that I approached, before going to Nantucket, was Atlas/Forms of Water/Snow. Using drawing, printmaking, pasteling, writing, and mixed-media along with oil paintings, I am exploring with these sequences the interrelationships of process, history, and memory, as revealed not only by air, land, and water but also by my materials and personal history as an artist, family and community member, and frequent inhabitant of the outdoor world.
In late February, all set up in my studio on Nantucket, I began work on Atlas/Island with painting in oil so that, in my process of layering wet over dry, I would have time to finish and safely bring home the pieces accomplished.
“Coatue of the Scalloped Edges”, oil on board in vintage drawer, 6″x10.5″ overall.
For some of these locales, I wrote a bit about them and later included these observations in the Site Map. Coatue is a stunning landform, and the perfect image for my box with the circular pull. These unusual scalloped edges of sand have been held in place for centuries. In perfect equalibrium, prevailing winds create waves that push sand out to the points, while currents move it in the opposite direction, depositing it on the bends.
The pieces on board in vintage boxes were not framed that way but rather painted to go inside of those particular boxes, adjusting color and feel of imagery to meld with the tray. I liked the lovely old boxes for this project as a nod to Nantucket’s intricate and unique history.
With Night Harbor my observations turn to a personal memory of the sweet evening last summer when I experienced the view depicted. During the day, while I was teaching, my husband was catching fish. We cooked the fish at our friend’s modest house that looks out on the harbor from the outskirts of town, the Creeks to our right. The three of us sat watching the fog roll in and out of the harbor for hours, barely speaking, until well after nightfall. Night Harbor is an image of the view off to the left of the lights on the wharves and Brandt Point.
Steps Beach appears a few times in this body of work. I researched and wrote a bit about interdune ecology, described below after the second dune painting, a summer image in greens.
I did one piece using my Affinity format, since this image called for it both in color and in the strong horizontal and diagonal compositional elements.
This pastel is a view from the ferry of Tuckenuck, the island just visible on the right, the sky a late-day winter sunset:
After several days at work on imagery with grey/blues or warmer color, I had a yen for some greens, so I did these three pieces, using reference collected last summer while I was there teaching.
Madaket also appears a few times, as I am endlessly drawn to its varied topography. I include the famous story of the formation of Esther Island during hurricane Esther in 1961, and it’s reattachment and detachment in relation to Smith’s Point over the years since then.
The steep dunes on the north side of the island can be safely traipsed through and enjoyed going into Steps Beach. The scene above, a view off to the left between the two large dunes above the beach, is a thriving interdune habitat with just about every shade of green within. The mists tamp the colors down just enough to appeal to my subtle color sensibility.
I knew that dune grasses hold dunes and that marsh grasses both hold ground from eroding seas and clean water passing through; but I didn’t really understood how. Thanks mostly to several articles that I read from Yesterday’s Island by Dr. Sarah Oktay, formerly of the Nantucket Field Station, I now get it and am suitably impressed.
Dune grasses not only anchor sand that is there, they also trap windborn sand and hold it, building dune height. Then, due to their extensive system of underground stems, they are able to grow right up on top of themselves to trap more sand, and so on. Further, as the grasses below decay, soil begins to be built and other plants and small deciduous shrubs can colonize the dune. As these seasonally drop leaves that compost, more soil is built and plants with larger roots can attain purchase and now you have a healthy, diverse, interdune system that protects the shore from erosion during winter storms.
Now, for marsh grasses, perhaps my most frequently painted subject in the past several decades. These grasses trap sediment and organic matter with every tide—cleansing the water—creating a kind of peat at their roots. They, too, can then grow up on top of themselves and this peat and gain height to keep pace with sea level rise, protecting the shoreline from erosion. That is, they have been able to so far. It is unlikely that they will continue to succeed with the potential six foot rise predicted, at this juncture, by 2100.
The imagery for the first two monotypes below came out of walks I did on Nantucket during my first week of the residency, at the Creeks, a lovely marshy area on the harbor near town; and the Moors. The third is an image of Madaket from last summer that I both painted and explored in monotype.
I also worked on small monotype thumbnails, as well as a linocut map of Nantucket, to incorporate into my Site Map, printing one thumbnail each for the oil paintings that I did for this grouping of Atlas/Island. The map is the new element for me, still very much a work-in-progress, that knits each thematic sequence of paintings, drawings, and prints together, and gives info about the work and the locales. The below is the second prototype–the first was for Atlas/Forms of Water/Snow—and most definitely not the final template. The idea is to map both the subject matter I am working from and the body of work that results.
I am now, at home, hard at work on a third prototype of the site map, trying to integrate the thumbnails, maps, and writing in a more visually lush way. I’ll add it to the post when I am finished.
In my work I have always seesawed back and forth between the universal and the particular. With a new framework for the work I can continue to do this with individual pieces, while exploring an expanded conversation. Land and and water use has been political since the beginning of our time on earth. As these issues continue to become increasingly critical, I have been catapulted —and also eased, nestled— into creating the Atlas Project, a love-letter to our planet.
Additional images can be viewed at:
I am very pleased to have new representation at Gallery 901 in Santa Fe, NM. Please check out the gallery if you are in town:
I have just added some newly returned work to my data-base, and taken off the aforementioned holiday gifts. If you are looking for a large painting, this is a rare moment to peruse the many choices:
Since I sold the piece in October that was on my large living room wall, I have had the pleasure of replacing it, temporarily at least, with this favorite that I recently had returned to me:
Looking ahead, my thoughts are on the project I am developing for my residency in Nantucket in Feb.-March. This will involve an expanded and more experiential exploration of place, using drawing, printmaking, painting, writing…and who knows what else? Memory will be a theme.
Also coming up this winter, a special show/sale starting in early February at Albert Shahinian Fine Art in Rhinebeck, NY. More on this in a few weeks.
Finally, for those of you who do the drive from Kingston, NY up Route #28 to your home or weekend place, or if you just want to listen to a very well-produced culture/history/arts audio tour of the Catskills, check out this piece by neighbor and friend Brett Barry of Silver Hollow Audio (who Catskills/HV/Berkshires folks will know from the segments that he does on WAMC). My bit is about half-way into it, but with Brett’s interview prompts that created the individual discussions followed by skillful editing, the whole piece is beautifully interwoven and well worth listening to.
I am wishing us, individually and collectively, a year of truth-seeking and compassion; of finding community; and exploring our deepest joys.
In the postscript to Umberto Eco’s dense and philosophical historical novel, The Name of the Rose, he observes: “…I would define the poetic effect as the capacity that a text displays for continuing to generate different readings, without ever being completely consumed.”
Such interesting language, and of course relevant to all art forms. I have often mused on the first part of this observation, knowing that the art that moves me the most and that I am intent upon creating invites interpretation and projection on the part of the viewer. But the second part is so delicious—“without ever being completely consumed.”
So which pieces from my formative years, my “comfort” art, can I point to that continue to nourish with new information, new sensation, never being finished?
The four paintings below send me into an almost conditioned swoon. So, pulling myself out of my art-induced trance, I will take a close, fresh look at them.
Rothko said, “If you are only moved by color relationships, then you miss the point. I’m interested in expressing the big emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom.”
I enter into a Rothko like looking at the ocean. This phase can last for quite some time. Eventually, as the eye wanders toward the edges, my consciousness is popped back out again and onto the surface of the painting, the blues anchoring me to the here-and-now. The gorgeous uneven edges of the main shapes going into the brighter blue…they make me feel stirred up and moored at the same time, as does the color. On the whole, I would say, deeper than tragedy, ecstasy, or doom… way down deep, sub-verbal.
“I have always been concerned with painting that simultaneously insists on a flat surface and then denies it,” Frankenthaler has said. The flat surface at work here is quite evident—and beautifully so. The mauve shape has the illusion of sheen that brings silk to mind. The most complex shape in the piece is without paint at all, bringing the eye firmly to the surface of the raw canvas. The small dark shape in the upper left looks like a piece of tape or paper placed on top, emphasizing flatness.
What is denying the flat in this piece? I see a subtle vibration in the mauve field that is full of movement, as if rippling in the wind, inviting the viewer to float into it.
What delights my eye the most is the interaction of shapes. The edges are softly stained and jagged with lovely variation. Each shape is a statement in its own right, but all are nudging the eye toward the unpainted angular form as it moves across the canvas. The dark corner at the top left presses the eye down and into that shape. The spot on the lower right where it almost but not quite goes off the canvas also leads the eye back into the piece, and both of these elements create a needed tautness to the otherwise open surface.
It is nowhere clearer than in minimalist non-geometric abstraction how much a play of edge and composition can directly reach the viewer’s heart. Without the descriptive content of a representational image, it is much easier to see how these shapes interact. There are good (dynamic, interesting, disconcerting, playful, assertive, and/or pensive) shapes and not-so-good (boring, overly regular, static, needlessly complex, and/or repetitive) shapes. Even more importantly, their interaction and directionality define the feel of the painting.
“With color one obtains an energy that seems to stem from witchcraft. “
Clearly, I love color-field painting. This iconic Matisse painting was already there back in 1911. It does as beautifully as any painting I’ve ever seen what a non-realist representational painting should do: both describe the space and flatten to the front of the picture plane. This is much like Frankenthaler’s observation above, made more complex by the descriptive aspect of the subject matter.
I have always delighted in the way that the white lines, created from negative space underneath the red, are the drawing element. (The grandfather clock is brilliant!) I am now noticing for the first time that it is the perspective, I think quite accurate, that really describes the room for us.
Whites and pinks punctuating the space and a handful of curved shapes keep the eye circulating and create clusters of compositional interest.
All of this is embedded in one, flat plane of red; a red so rich you can almost breathe it in.
“Art cannot be modern. Art is primordially eternal.”
Shapes, stunning shapes. This painting has a complex composition that still leaves the piece feeling open, mostly due to the reduced palette. The whites and almost whites along with the Chinese Lantern snaking up behind create the most startlingly interesting element of the piece, to my eye—the small white shape sitting on top of the shoulder of the figure.
There is narrative here both in the painterly treatment of the figure and in its placement and expression. Schiele depicts himself with his signature angular shapes and dramatic cropping. The harsh texture on the face projects a view of self while the subtler texture of the black shirt brings movement to the largest single shape in the painting. One is pretty and the other is not.
The head is cocked and the gaze quizzical but challenging.
Knowing that Schiele died at the age 28 of the flu, and viewing this piece from my current age and perspective, I can’t help but feel that along with its pictoral brilliance, the painting projects a young man’s working-it-out doubts and hubris, all very raw.
Some of these emotions I remember feeling at 17 or 25, and other observations are fresh. Looking at these pieces today, I find the sensations that they provoke, familiar or new, more exciting and moving than ever.
So it is a conversation that never ends.
In representational art, the formal aspects of a painting can contribute to a narrative or mood just as readily as the descriptive. This is a theme that I discuss often in workshops, talks, and here on my blog. I recently finished two paintings of the same locale and time of year—same day, in fact—using a very similar palette that illustrate this point well.
In fact, the difference between them really boils down to the mood that the shapes create.
In “Lingering”, below, the overall feel of the piece is warm and welcoming, despite the weather depicted being overcast. Putting ourselves in the scene, the misty/drizzly day creates a sheen and depth to colors in the marshes and a sense of intimacy—privacy, almost— within the landscape. On these sorts of days there are fewer people about; the air is thick and embracing; vistas tend to be limited. There is a boundary of trees at the horizon, enclosing the space.
On the formal side, the eye is led into the piece by the wide open shape of the tidal pool at the bottom left, and then is invited to move around by the directionality of soft edges and dispersed accumulations of detail. Variations of color within the areas of orange marsh grasses encourage the eye to linger. Sky and water are a mauve, relating to the coolest of the reds in the marsh.
I would describe “Lingering” as warm; friendly; intimate. And descriptive, for sure.
In the second piece, the color is the same but the feel is much bolder. Now we have a highly structured piece with assertive directionality. The eye is swept into the image by the strong zig-zag created by the edges of the marsh and moves back to a open area with minimal detail along the horizon. The detail that does exist is necessary to balance the composition, keeping the eye moving within the painting rather than being swept off to the right by the strong edges of the tidal creek.
The description of “Edge of Discovery” could include abstract; expansive; dynamic. Movement within structure.
As I was working on these pieces–about a month apart—I decided independently with each that the image needed some interest in the marsh as it went back in space. I decided to add the back tidal pools to create this in both cases, and then the evolving paintings clicked into place.
Even here, with a similar solution to a common problem, the feel of these pools is quite different. In “Lingering” there is quite a bit of detail to the two glimpses of white, while in “Edge of Discovery” the bit of water is minimal, austere (and right in the middle!), jibing with the overall reductive composition.
So, when we talk about mood in a landscape painting, we are discussing two things. One is the mood of the moment captured—how would it feel like to be there? The other is the feeling that the lines, shapes, and surface of the painting create for the viewer.
Color relates to both. It reflects the seasons; light; locale; and time of day of the views that we see around us. It also is inherently linked to mood and personal preference.
Kandinsky in his 1910 “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” posits that abstract elements have emotive power in their own right. In comparing these two paintings, it becomes clear how the shapes with their edges and directionality and the overall composition that they create impact the mood projected.
Unlike with color, many people are not consciously aware that these particular formal aspects are actively contributing to their experience of a representational painting. It is up to the artist to be adept at exploring the endless possibilities of these pictoral tools as the painting is being shaped, narrowing the gap between a good painting and an excellent one and finding variation in feel from piece to piece.
I recently had an invitation to place my work in the newly renovated space of Terrapin Restaurant in Rhinebeck, NY. The designer, also a collector of mine, thought that my work work be perfect to bring views of the Hudson Valley into the restaurant, long known for its locally sourced food.
Immediately looping my gallery—Albert Shahinian Fine Art, located just a few blocks away— into the process, we came up with solutions to some of my concerns. Lighting, in restaurants, is always a big one, as well as how to make clear to diners the names of the artist and gallery; that the work is available for purchase; and that a price list is available, without overly obtrusive wall cards and signage.
At chef Josh’s suggestion, we settled on using mostly farm field and meadow imagery.
Fast forward several weeks and the designer, JT, and Albert and I arrived for the installation. Dodging the still working painters; metal fabricators; and workers with a lift to do the lights in this vaulted space, we commenced hanging on the walls that we could, and Albert finished the job through the course of that week.
After all was said and done, the space looks like this:
Before the launch party, Abbe Aronson, PR person for the event, asked for comments from us and composed this:
MODERN UPDATE OF “FARM TO TABLE MEETS BARN TO TABLE”
RHINEBECK, NY – After drawing gasps of appreciation for food, décor and setting for 15 years in its current location in the historic circa 1825 “First Baptist Church,” award-winning Terrapin restaurant is undergoing a stunning renovation in its main dining room, to be unveiled on Thursday, May 5th at a “First Look, First Taste” cocktail party.
“First Look, First Taste” celebrates not only the redesigned space but also the new spring menus in both the dining room and adjacent Bistro. The party takes place from 6-8 p.m. by invitation only, after which the dining room opens for reservations. As always, emphasis on organic, local cuisine shines at Terrapin, but now will be presented in a chic new setting that, while refreshed, still evokes key sensibilities of the Hudson Valley.
“It was time for a change,” said Chef Josh Kroner who said long-time restaurant patrons as well as new guests were defaulting more and more to Bistro, not because they necessarily preferred the casual menu there but because the dining room had become known as ‘formal’ – “and that’s not the way I intend for people to eat at Terrapin.”
Enter JT McKay of bluecashew Design, an offshoot of neighboring bluecashew Kitchen Pharmacy and longtime friend of Kroner’s. “Josh was ‘farm to table’ before farm to table became a marketing term. That sort of food wasn’t a gimmick for him. So when we began to discuss the dining room redesign, we decided to give a proverbial ‘nod’ to this world.”
McKay continued, “There’s a real sense of bringing the outside inside with the new look here. We’re focusing on modern earth tones in the palette and using furnishings and design elements that evoke history and substance, so the two-inch thick red and white oak tables, which are old barn wood with contemporary finishes, are more than just reclaimed materials – they have real presence. Their age and history inform the energy of the entire room.”
Kroner added with a laugh, “I’ve wanted to collaborate with JT for years. The first time he came to my house, he rearranged all of the furniture and the lighting, so I know he was dying to get his hands on this place!”
Nearly all the key elements in the redesigned Terrapin dining room are new, including the lighting scheme, carpeting, place settings, metal railings and chairs, much of which are sourced locally and some of which are available for purchase through bluecashew Wabi Sabi Wood (WSW), based here in Rhinebeck, was tapped to create the dining tables, the true anchor of the room now that the restaurant is abandoning tablecloths in lieu of a more updated look. Company co-owner Patrick Neri explained that in this project, Terrapin and WSW “have focused on bringing the highest quality ingredients into the hands of skilled craftsmen. WSW uses wood reclaimed from the hand-hewn beams of 18th century barns. These beams once stood as trees in the Hudson Valley’s long forgotten old growth forests. The material represents some of the finest wood that ever grew from American soil. With these ingredients we built tables to be the foundation on which the craftsmanship of Terrapin will be displayed. Beneath every dinner plate lays a stunning display of hundreds of years etched in wood grain and patina. This truly will be ‘farm to table meets barn to table.’”
Paintings from Hudson Valley artist Christie Scheele will grace the new walls, curated and installed by Albert Shahinian he of the eponymously named fine art gallery also located in the village of Rhinebeck. Says Scheele, “The single most distinctive aspect to what I do as a landscape painter lies in my ability to reduce a scene to its essentials. This gives the viewer what is important, without the distraction, or visual clutter, of too much detail. Both by providing this overview and by using soft ‘scumbled’ edges, my paintings can quiet a viewer’s mind and evoke a direct response.”
She continued, “My work is, above all, about creating space—within the image of the painting, most often a wide-open vista—but also emotional and mental space for the viewer. The large, open space of the restaurant and the new color scheme in soft cream and a deep, slightly grayed green are perfect for my work. The elegance of the off-black metalwork that accents the room, with its strong, clean lines, also meshes beautifully with my strong, albeit soft-edged, shapes and sweeping contours.”
Shahinian said working with Kroner and Terrapin was a very natural and important collaboration for the neighboring businesses. “Many of our gallery visitors ask us about dining in the village. For years we’ve suggested Terrapin as one of the top places to dine. It seems logical that part of a Terrapin ‘experience’ could suggest a visit to the gallery! There is synergy between such diverse businesses: we both present high standards of quality, presentation, respect for our product and clientele, and offer high value for our visitors. One could say, ‘It takes a village to support a village!’”
Rhinebeck is a great town for a day trip, which could include a glorious stroll to the Hudson at Poet’s Walk; a visit to Albert Shahinian Fine Art; and dinner at Terrapin, where my work will be up for at least the next six months. Hope you make it!
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.
I would like to mention the galleries that I share with many of these artists: Julie Haller Gallery in Provincetown, MA; Albert Shahinian Fine Art in Rhinebeck, NY; Gold Gallery in Boston’s South End; and Edgewater Gallery in Middlebury VT–check them out to see additional work!