This time of the year always brings of thoughts of change and transition, loss and renewal. As 2019 has rolled over into 2020, these reflections are much more intense, intricate, and prolonged for me, as I recently lost my mother…a major life event; a huge transition.
My father-in-law, not a religious man nor particularly self-reflective, used to have a timely observation in times of trouble. It went something like this: “The chapters of the good book begin with ‘And it came to pass…’ They don’t begin with ‘And it came to stay…”
The things/people/practices that we love don’t always come to stay, any more than the difficult or painful situations. It is one of the things that is interesting about mindfulness practice, that as we focus on the moment, the moment is gone. And then the next, and the next, and the next…
My understanding of mindfulness is more like riding a wave, the mind following each moment along the way with focused attention. I discussed this form of happiness as it applies to a creative practice in an earlier blog post, “Creativity and Happiness”.
And this brings us to the winter studio. As life is quieter and the colors less vivid outside of it than during the warmer months, the potency of the creative life inside intensifies.
Snow cover bounces light into the studio and makes a perfect neutral foil for open color exploration within. Instead of open windows and doors inviting in the sound of the stream and birds, I often play the radio or listen to podcasts or music. The summer feel of expansiveness is replaced by a distillation of energy as focus narrows and intensifies.
My winter work often feels sunlit. Without the canopy of leaves covering our hamlet in the central Catskills, the sun streams at a dramatic slant into my house, my studio, and the yoga studio where I practice and teach…and then is gone, as day moves quickly into evening. We count the minutes of returning daylight…
In December I ordered an enticing assortment of custom-stretched linen for my winter work, and now have, at the ready, this stack of canvases in an array of sizes and formats:
I started work immediately on the largest one, a 44″x66″, almost finished:
I am also generating ideas for my next Atlas Project installation, this one focusing on rivers and streams, exploring the ecology of my local watershed. In my Atlas/Forms of Water show I solved several problems that I saw carry over from the previous Atlas Project installation. At issue now are verbal/written components more than visual ones: how to get my “Mapping Memory” stories in a more accessible form; and how to bring more natural history and climate change discussion into the installation.
I am seeing stream-like formations wherever I go…including places I have been many (for this image, thousands!) of times. Can you tell what we are looking at?
And the other day I saw this gorgeous Motherwell painting in a catalogue that I have in my studio. Viewed vertically rather than as the horizontal that it is…another stream…
A few paint-mixing sessions with my good friend Jenny Nelson in her winter studio have yielded new teaching tools. My color-mixing workshop (next held at the WSA, June 22-23) brings the student back to primaries and how all color evolves from there, which is a very complex undertaking.
Our intention with this collaboration was to pretty much do the opposite of that detailed breaking down of color, instead creating simple, limited palette exercises—using mixtures or primaries from the tube— for new students or those who feel color-blocked.
I will use some of these prompts in my next workshop at the WSA. Constructing/Deconstructing the Landscape (April 17-19) focuses on compositional strength, so a few structured color shortcuts to augment this emphasis are a welcome tool.
These were the palettes that evolved as we brainstormed and mixed, discarding some earlier versions. Now we will each re-do these on paper in our studios with better placement and clear labeling for sharing with our students.
Our ongoing conversations about our classes and workshops always include the abstract/landscape discussion, since Jenny teaches abstraction. Mixing color is one thing when you are using a reference of any sort, including working from life, even if you will likely want to tweak and adjust. It is quite another when you have not even a suggestion of a road map and mixing your palette is the first step in figuring out your abstract painting on the easel.
The collage exploration continues to fascinate me. I went from earlier just-barely-landscape versions (about 8-10 years ago) with altered papers, book bits, pattern paper, a bit of paint:
To the collaged maps, made with many bits of hand-dyed rice papers and other things (wasp wing, samara, dried leaves, pattern paper, old books, a bit of paint):
To a simplified version of the above, where I am working more with effects created while dying the papers, and then using larger swaths of them. Here are some of my latest:
I am very pleased with this beautifully produced recording of my December interview with audience Q&A at Albert Shahinian Fine Art, by Brett Barry of Silver Hollow Audio. The discussion ranges from my decades of contemporary landscape painting to the environmental themes of my Atlas/Forms of Water show to the gallery-artist relationship. You can listen here:
I am doing final updates on the blog post about this Atlas Project show, which was the highlight of my exhibition season for 2019. Here is the link:
On this day of pouring snow, everything else I had planned has been canceled. And so, I get to be in here:
And soon enough, it will look like this:
This topic, a favorite of mine, resurfaced recently in a discussion of Andrew Wyeth with my son. He had stumbled across and was admiring some of the more minimalist drawings and prints, not being familiar with the more famous work (Wyeth is not taught in most BFA program art history classes). In contrast, I had never taken a really close look at the more abstract work, finding it masterful—especially in terms of composition– upon scrutiny.
All artwork that uses recognizable imagery carries some kind of a story, from the merest hint of one created by our own associations with an object or objects depicted to artwork that focuses on documenting something very specific about the world around us. Where an artist chooses to fall along this spectrum is of course a major piece of our stylistic puzzle.
Wyeth’s work is a good vehicle for the discussion of high narrative vs. open abstraction, as is my own, since we both wander back and forth between greater openness and more specificity in different pieces.
“Christina’s World” is the obvious choice for a high-narrative Wyeth. I have never liked this piece so I originally wasn’t going to include it, but the reasons for my dislike pertain to this discussion, so I will begin with it.
This is a piece that is melodramatic, and photographically so. I find the poignancy of the narrative so cloying that I can’t appreciate the composition, and the rendering so exact that I take no pleasure in the surface of the painting. The story is sown up to the point that there seems to be no room for the viewer.
Public Sale”, in contrast, is a gorgeous piece in its tonalist color and sweeping angles that manages to combine a strong narrative with equally strong painterly devices.
Wyeths compositions are stunning in their use of interlocking diagonal shapes and edges to create movement. In “Public Sale”, the tilt of the hill serves the story, clearly the destabilizing event of a home lost to the bank. We are kept from a sense of sliding off the left side of the piece by the dominant color of the driveway angling back toward center right and by the lovely soft stands of trees on upper left that travel off the edge of the piece with the slightest upward angle.
The ample use of gritty black and near-black for the human-interest details of figures, car, buildings, and so on also help convey a theme of human unkindness and grief in the midst of an idyllic (though also man-made) landscape. The genius of this painting is that it has in equal measure the open feel that the sweep of the landscape provides and the tautness of a clear story line.
I suspect that for these major oil paintings Wyeth started with the story and mood that he wanted to convey, and organized the painting to express these.
In the watercolor below there is a major shift toward the abstract with dynamic angles delighting the eye as the lines and shapes lead it back and forth across the painting. Even the signs of human activity have more presence as shapes than as descriptive objects. Much as I am impressed by “Public Sale”, I actually want to look longer at the watercolor. There is no story arc…just endless possibilities as shapes lead into others and tones and lines divide the picture plane.
The following two watercolors are quirky and abstract, playing with forced perspectives, odd linkings of shapes, and fabulous textures. The documentary nature of many of Wyeth’s figurative paintings and figures in a landscape is not present in any of these watercolors, creating an open feel that invites the viewer to enter.
This discussion of content and abstraction is of enduring interest to me as I explore the compelling terrain that contains them both. My roots lie more in the abstract (I call it my “comfort art”, the work I was studying in my teenage years: Rothko; Agnes Martin; Kandinsky—the abstract expressionist work; Frankenthaler; Gotleib; de Koonig.) That I long ago chose to work with landscape imagery doesn’t lesson my ongoing love affair with the formal elements of painting, though it is exactly the intrigue with the push and pull of these two aspects of representational art that generated that choice, as I try to have it all.
The following pieces of my own compare to the Wyeths as examples of paintings with either more or less narrative.
In the first, “Bridge Crossing with Violets”, there is an openness of the dawn sky seen through the fog that counterbalances in mood the grittiness of the truck traffic. We are clearly in a particular moment in time, but there is no story arc.
Sandflats with Cloudbank, in contrast, is almost a pure color-field painting. The whole piece sits right up at the front of the picture plane, the horizon line implying depth but not really describing it (abstract artists always say that the minute you put a horizontal line on a canvas you have a landscape whether you want one or not). The clouds have a bit of volume, anchoring the flatness of the sandflats and stripe of a tidal pool. The shapes of the scene actually looked like this—I might not have had the courage to paint that stripe if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. Still, this is a piece that is more about painting than place.
“Diagonal Cloudbank” falls somewhere in between–still a minimum of detail, but creating an experience that takes you there, and perhaps is equally about painting and the moment in time.
My approach to a painting is to carefully work out the formal elements of color, shape, edge, and surface and let the implied narrative and mood follow organically, sometimes surprising even myself. With the below piece, for example, I didn’t expect it to convey such a taut mood, since it is an ethereal subject matter.
Someone once said that all good art allows for the viewer to project their own feelings into the piece. That turf is vitally important to me—I want every single painting of mine to provide that opportunity, at least to the right viewer. In my experience, if the narrative is too specific, it does not leave this chance for open, nonverbal interpretation.