The Painting Perceptions blog was started in early 2009 by Larry Groff. This site started with an emphasis on painters who had some connection to observed vision in their work but over time the blog grew to become more inclusive; as much perceptions on painting as it is about perceptual painting. We examine a wide range of stylistic approaches from extremely loose abstraction to precise realism a
Self Portrait 3, Collage on Paper, 5×8 inches 2012
I’ve long marveled over the diminutive works of the Canadian painter Harry Stooshinoff and have been impressed and inspired by his success and creativity with selling his works online, no mean feat in this day and age. I’m pleased to share this interview where he talks at length about his background, process and thoughts on making paintings and would like to thank him for his generosity in responding to my email interview questions. I thought his website’s statement is a great introduction for those who may not be familiar with him and include it here:
I am both a painter and teacher. I hold a B Ed, BFA and an MFA. I have been producing artwork almost on a daily basis for over 35 years. A few decades ago I started making small pictures so that I could start and finish the piece in one sitting. The work is small because an intimate scale encourages maximum intuition, freedom, and experimentation.
My work is both abstract and figurative, and there is no inherent contradiction between these sensibilities; one inclination supports the other.
I am prolific and I do not wish to die with 10,000 paintings under my bed! Making small work also solved a few practical problems; small work is easy to mail. I very much enjoy selling art online. Mailing pieces to destinations all over the world is a great pleasure.
I live in the rolling countryside of the Oak Ridges Moraine, an ancient landform located just north of Lake Ontario, and am inspired by what I see every day. I roam this unique place in all seasons, and document my impressions. At first view, rural environments may seem natural, but they have been continually altered and reshaped by man. The landscape will be very different tomorrow; it seems negligent not to record how it looked and felt today.
It’s a big NOISY world, so I make small, quiet paintings.
March Evening, 8 x 8 inches, 3/2018
Larry Groff: How did you decide to become a painter?
Harry Stooshinoff: I remember wanting to be an artist in Grade 7 and searching out all kinds of books and materials to learn techniques. I always did very well in school so I was no stranger to a library. In high school, art was not offered, and this may have been a great thing in the long run. Through those years I learned on my own by emulating examples from art history, and that method would prove very useful later on. I was producing artwork on a regular basis all though high school and by that time I knew that I would study art in university. I think from a fairly early age I was seeing that through painting…there was this possibility of enchantment, of being carried into another place.
LG: What was art school like for you in Canada when you studied there. Where there many people doing landscape then? How did you get to be a landscape painter?
HS: I did my BFA in studio art at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. When I arrived I fully understood that I knew next to nothing and was very ready to learn. I was an academic high achiever in high school and a certain kind of humility comes with that. You expect that things will not be easy, and you expect to work hard for everything. The program at that point was Open Studio and was based largely on studio critiques of work produced through the week. Looking back on this experience now, I think this program worked well for me. I was terrified by my own ignorance so I produced a great deal of work. One important method was based on going to the library, deconstructing artists from my favourite movements, and allowing them to influence my painting and drawing development over a period of time.
The faculty was mostly post abstract expressionist in their outlook, with critics such as Clement Greenberg enjoying huge popularity. The abstract painter Otto Rogers was the head of the department at this time, as was Stan Day (1974-79). There was a period of time when I painted urban landscapes of Saskatoon in a Fauve manner influenced largely by Derain and Dufy. The department did have a landscape painter on staff (Wynona Mulcaster) in earlier years, and her influence was still felt, but one sensed, and this was reinforced in many ways, that the abstract concerns of a painting were always primary. For those who took the teachings to heart, the process was analytical and rigorous. I remember showing up for term-end evaluations with a stack of works on paper 2 feet high. Figure drawing, ceramic sculpture, printmaking, drawing, painting and art history were all essential parts of my studies there. At the end of my 3rd year I also did a summer session at the renowned Emma Lake workshops in northern Saskatchewan. This was an important time because one had a chance to work next to world-class artists from Canada, the US, and Britain for a number of weeks. Anthony Caro was making sculpture in the parking lot. I still remember admiring how Otto Rogers moved layers of wonderful greys as I watched him work on a works on paper series. I also met my wife, painter Jane Zednik in my 4th year, who was at that time doing her MFA in painting at the university. She was a large influence in my work over the next number of years, and through graduate school, when I worked in a more narrative and figurative manner. After completing the BFA, I studied at a year-long painting workshop (run by Canadian painter Takao Tanabe) at the Banff Center. This was also incredibly helpful since influential artists were brought in for talks and individual critiques every 2 weeks. A great range of opinion, perspective, and guidance could be had in a short time. I still have very fond memories of a summer printmaking workshop taught by Jack Lemon, creator of Landfall Press.
Development Site, 4 x 5 feet, acrylic on canvas, 1986
I then completed an MFA in painting at the University of Calgary, but my work at this stage was still dealing with a variety of narrative themes. I vividly recall one experience close to the end of my time in Calgary. I took all of my paints and a heavy, cumbersome drawing board to a bit of turf next to a busy street beside the campus, and painted a 22 x 30 inch landscape while sitting on the grass. In retrospect it was in important cross-over piece…..I always remembered this piece of work. Pure landscape did not make a full appearance in my work until a few years later when my wife and I moved to Oshawa, Ontario in 1983. I found the industrial city ugly and inhospitable, and the only way I could figure out how to make peace with it was to walk its streets for countless hours, taking photographs that I would later paint from during the nights. A series of many 22” x 30” paper pieces and 4 x 5 foot canvases of urban landscape paintings resulted.
Corner Store, 4 x 5 feet, acrylic on canvas, 1986
LG: Have the great Canadian modern landscape painters like Tom Thomson or the group of seven and similar been influential to you? Any other painters work been important to help you find your own voice?
HS: Over more than 4 decades of painting, many artists have been an influence, at different times. In the very early teenage years I would gobble up all the history of art I could get my hands on. But in small Canadian prairie towns, art wasn’t a large concern, and there certainly weren’t galleries to visit. The wonderful old town librarian would use inter library loans to order books on artists I selected. I recall giving a lot of careful attention to Constable as well as Baroque Dutch landscape painting. I looked carefully at the Group of 7 mostly through reproductions. But there was one year when an excellent selection of their landscape paintings toured through small Canadian western towns. In my town, Kamsack, they were hung in the auditorium of the junior high school for a weekend. I loved that and it was the first time I saw important paintings close up. And it was also the first time I saw Canada represented in paintings. But even then, one doesn’t see the Canadian prairies represented in works by the Group of 7, so there was still a sense that art was made “somewhere else”. I loved David Milne in the early years and still appreciate the work today. I first encountered his pieces at the Mendal Gallery in Saskatoon, when I went away to university, for my BFA undergraduate degree. J.W. Morrice is also a Canadian landscape artist who I admired, especially the small on-the-spot pieces.
Through the university years I took apart every artist who appealed to me. The fauves, the French impressionists, most of the German expressionists, French expressionists like Soutine and Georges Rouault, and select abstract expressionists like Robert Motherwell and Arshile Gorky were all influences at certain times. There was a time when I painted personal narratives, dream images, and book illustrations–medieval manuscript illuminations were one of the influences for that body of work. My MFA degree thesis at the University of Calgary was titled New Humanistic Pictorial Art, with artists such as Saul Steinberg, Robert Crumb, and Jean-Michel Folon, cited as influences. The main idea argued was that there needed to be more than purely formal, plastic, and painterly concerns driving the work. Societal or human situational concerns needed to be somehow addressed. I painted purely abstractly only for a short period of time; through all my investigations, I wanted to paint the world, but this needed to be done in a modern, authoritative way. Picasso and Matisse were important to me almost right from the start, and they remain very much so today–likewise Joan Miro. Really, through all this time I have been very much concerned with method as much as subject, so my range of influences has been fairly broad. The list could go on for a very long time. I still spend a lot of time looking at paintings and drawings every day…all of that has an influence.
Sand Slip, 2016, 8.75 x 8.75 inches
Ceder Shade, Homeline, 2015, 8 x 10 inches
LG: Was there any particular lesson or experience you had that helped you become the painter you are today?
HS: Looking back now, very early experiences seem important. My first years growing up on a farm in eastern Saskatchewan were happy and idyllic. I remember being 6 years old, climbing tall aspen trees, and listening for a long time to the sound of the leaves in the wind, and enjoying the way the tree moved with the wind. I ran freely all over the farm and it seemed an enchanted life. I idolized an older brother who later died at 21 in a car accident. He was great at art and I would carefully watch all the things he did. I recall waking up, in that groggy state between dreaming and waking, and seeing a combine harvester my brother made out of plasticine, sitting on the window sill in front of me. It seemed a thing of magic and I remember holding on to that semi-awake state just so I could prolong the wonderful feeling of staring at that sculpture. We also had a person who lived on the farm with us. I called him grandfather but he was an old Russian craftsman and carpenter who helped on the farm. He built his own little house there, and he decorated various outbuildings with crafted tin work. For me he made a wonderful carved wooden rocking horse, with hand-wrought stirrups and metal moving fixtures, a real horse hair mane and tail, and a hand-tooled saddle. It had marble glass eyes and was beautifully but primitively painted. He also made toys for my brothers and me. Most of the furniture in the house was handmade by him and brightly painted. This type of Doukhobor furniture is very collectible these days. For the first 7 years of my life we lived on this farm with no electricity, no running water, but they were happy years where I learned to love solitude, and where I saw that people could make a bit of magic with their own hands.
Not all early years were as happy. An alcoholic father could not keep the farm afloat and squandered a great deal of the money from the sale of the land. My 12th year was painfully memorable; the family, while awaiting the closing date on a house purchase, was for a few months that seemed like an eternity, squatting in the house of an alcoholic lady with our furniture crammed everywhere including the front yard. Living in a house with daily binge drinkers was unbearable. I remember the great relief of finding a sleeping place under a table with other furniture jammed up against it, which at least gave some semblance of privacy and ‘place’. In all years hence, the security of ‘home’ has been the greatest value, and it’s ‘home’ that I paint today and every day. The idea of being able to depict and comment on all aspect of one’s life seemed to my very young mind as something that could save me, or at least prevent me from disappearing. And a few years later, when the home situation stabilized to a tolerable degree, the study of art history showed that all manner of pain was on display in the range of masterworks. All of my early years were documented in narrative drawings and paintings made between the ages of 22 and 24. Later on, in graduate school, when the work of many outsider artists became a useful influence, I remember the joy of finding the work of the Polish, and sometimes homeless artist Nikifor; he could do so much with almost nothing. I loved the work but was also inspired by his life and thought “well, if it all goes completely to hell, I could still live like Nikifor”.
Toward Lost Dog Hill, Oct 10
Prison Hill, 2016, 11 x 15 inches
LG: What are some of your most important concerns when first starting a painting?
HS: I always want to know that this next painting is not like the one before, or at least there has to be some sense of departure. There has to be something new in both the process and intent. Without this, I lose interest. And there has to be a glimmer, some chance that I might be able to create some sense of life through this work. I also need to know that I’m ready to paint…which means that my mind needs to be empty, and my body relatively loose and relaxed, ready to move and react easily and happily for up to 2 hours.
LG: What are some things you look for when making a selection about what to paint?
HS: I live in beautiful rural area just north of Lake Ontario. The rolling hills, plots of mixed forest, farmlands, roads and lakes make this place endlessly interesting to me. This is home, so I’m interested in poking my nose into all sorts of areas within a 50 mile radius. I walk every day and this sampling of place, atmosphere, and light provides the incentive for the daily picture. I make little drawings of motifs, or I take digital photos, or I might make a conscious mental note about something experienced to base the painting on, and then paint exclusively from memory. One of the influences of growing up in Saskatchewan is that I am always looking far into the distance; this seems to provide some sort of emotional solace…it’s comforting. But as I walk all sorts of arrangements present themselves. Usually a strong painting motif will have 3-5 things in relationship, and I’ll note those. The painting will be made within a few hours of returning home. The motifs that I notice most often seem to carry some sort of strong emotional load; they seem important to me for some strange reason that goes further than pure design. From the daily excursion (it’s usually a walk, but it could also be a drive) a number of ideas will have been noted, and I will select only one for the daily painting session. Painting on location works a bit differently because I commit to a spot and dive right in to the painting. Sometimes I will roam around for quite a while, searching for a place that not only looks right, but ‘feels’ right.
A heartwarming and insightful 2013 PBS video documentary about the New Jersey based realist painter Mel Leipzig. The program was produced over a 3 year period by his friend and neighbor Eric Schultz. Mel Leipzig is represented by Gallery Henoch in NYC Leipzig’s portraits are in the collections of the Whitney Museum, the White House, and many other museums.
A Devastating Critique of the Art Establishment: Museums, Art History (2000) - YouTube
Interesting talk and discussion given on Book TV on CSpan by Lynne Munson about her 2000 book Exhibitionism: Art in an Era of Intolerance The late art critic, Hilton Kramer, also contributes to the talk and discussion.
This video addresses important issues for painters that are as relevant today as it was back in 2000 when this panel discussed such topics as; the unfair and biased awarding of NEA art grants, the loss of teaching aesthetic standards and traditional artistic knowledge in many of today’s art schools and the ridgid hold the postmodernist academy has on our art institutions.
Mari Lyons, Store for Rent, ca. 2004, oil on linen, 77 x 57 inches. Courtesy of Nick Lyons
Over the long course of her life as a painter, Mari Lyons (1935-2016) explored a wide range of genres, from portraits to still lifes, interiors and landscapes. All these subjects she rendered with a modernist’s flair for heightened color, vigorous brushwork, and simplified, often flattened spaces. The memorial exhibition at First Street Gallery presents what may be the single most appealing and accessible of her motifs: the cityscapes she painted from the window of studio at West 80th Street and Broadway.
Among her many teachers, Max Beckmann may have made a particular impression of the artist; one can imagine his influence in Lyons’ bold, dark outlines and sometimes distended forms. But these thirty paintings and works on paper vividly catch the staccato rhythms of Lyons’ own subject, observed for some forty years from her third-floor vantage point. Taxis and crosswalks tilt at crazy angles, signs cry out brand names, and pedestrians weave through the clatter, and yet Lyons manages to keep everything under control, so that one never loses the sensation of looking down upon a unified, spreading scene. The artist’s pleasure in the sheer spectacle of the street is immediately apparent, but so is her savviness about constructing a painting.
Mari Lyons, Snowy Trees with White Car, 2010, oil on linen, 36 x 24 inches. Courtesy of Nick Lyons
Indeed, Lyons seems to invite every visual complication. In one canvas, trees dotted with clumps of snow set off the regular beat of a red and whited striped awning. In others, she records the utter transformations of roads and sidewalks by rainfall, which turns concrete into a patchwork of damp, dark spots and brightly reflecting puddles – the whole punctuated by the colorful crescents of umbrellas. Many a modern cityscapist avoids cars because of their usual lack of charm and complex, shiny surfaces. But Lyons clearly delights in the here and now – however it presents itself – and she pursues this particular challenge, too, often distorting the vehicles’ proportions and angles. (They still convince, rhythmically; the artist wisely prioritizes pictorial heft over perspectival accuracy.)
In their battle between busyness and cohesion, the former wins in a few of the paintings. But others evoke an impression of cohering abundance – a distant echo of Brueghel’s teeming orderliness, in which every element, large and small, plays its part. In these, a central hierarchy of forms unfolds, in the horizontal tiers of facades/ street/sidewalk, or the uncoiling arc of a wall in Broadway’s center divider. Further looking reveals worlds within these worlds – communities of interacting figures within a bus shelter, or a shop window.
Mari Lyons, Thursday Afternoon on the Corner of West 80th Street and Broadway, 2001, oil on linen, 48 x 72 inches. Courtesy of Nick Lyons
While the installation – especially in the gallery’s smaller space – feels slightly crowded, the strategic hanging of the strongest paintings shows them to good advantage. Among these is “Thursday Afternoon on the Corner of West 80th Street and Broadway,” which from twenty feet away greets the arriving visitor. Focusing on a single street corner, this six-foot-wide canvas could be a blown-up portion of the more panoramic views hanging on every other wall. With its much closer vantage point, the viewer practically stands among the pedestrians. The familiar “stacked” space develops as overlapping color-forms that generously pace the movement, figure by figure, into the depths. Lyons seizes the opportunity to explore eccentric details: a pile of opened umbrellas, spreading like a huge, tropical bouquet; an autonomous pair of legs, apparently belonging to a person seated around a building’s corner; twin toddlers in a double stroller, the stroller hoods surrounding them like Egyptian cartouches. The painting celebrates two life forces: the ever-changing energy of New York City, and the peculiar powers of paint to re-make it.
Every Day Of My Life, 48″ x60″ oil on o/c 2018
Lemon Grove 48″ x 48″, 2016 o/c
I am grateful to the Michigan painter, Richard Kooyman for agreeing to participate in this email interview with me where he talks about his background and evolution from being an observational landscape painter to paintings from imagination and inspiration from art historical sources. He also talks about his interest in philosophy and politics how that can relate to painting.
Kooyman received a BFA from Grand Valley University and a MFA from Ohio State University in 1982. In 2013 Nominated for a Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters Grant and has also been awarded; a Michigan Council for the Arts grant, the Michigan Governors Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts grant. Kooyman exhibits his work in numerous venues in Michigan and nationally.
Larry Groff: How did you become a painter?
Richard Kooyman: I became a painter through the back door of craft. I initially wanted to work with clay so I went to Ohio State University to get a MFA in ceramics. I’m drawn to making things and working with my hands and now feel that there is an intimate sensibility between art and craft. I didn’t begin to actually make paintings until years after I graduated when I just happened to take a landscape painting class from Melanie Parke. It was pure chance. I had seen one of Melanie’s paintings that made me pause and think that maybe I wanted to paint the landscape like that or at least begin to paint. Melanie taught me to see through the eyes of a painter.
LG: Please tell us something interesting about your background and/or art school experience that remains important to you today?
RK: When I was 11 years old old I was hit by a car on my bicycle. I severely fractured my leg and had other injuries and was in the hospital for several months. My injuries kept me from playing sports which was what most midwest boys were told to do back then. I think this accident played a big part in me becoming an artist. It spared me the team sports indoctrination so many youth were put through and led me down a different path in life. The accident helped steer my attention to better and more important things in life, like art.
The Green Mill, 40″ x 44″ oil 2012
Chicago Snow Storm, 30″ x 40″ 2012
Downtown, 24″ x 24″ oil 2011
LG: How did you wind up in Northern Michigan? Do you still also work and live in Chicago for part of the year?
RK: After graduate school I was offered a job building small wooden boats in Frankfort, a small coastal town on Lake Michigan. I didn’t have any money for my own clay studio and building boats was another type of making that seemed like it could be interesting. That job lasted a couple years and I really liked the vibe of living in NW lower Michigan so I stayed. But Northern Michigan can also be isolating from the rest of the art world. After I met Melanie and we got married we set up our studios and home in a 110 year old store front in an even smaller rural northern Michigan town. In 2010 we started to worry that maybe the cultural isolation was turning us into the UniBomber so we decide to split our time between Michigan and Chicago. We each got studios and lived there for almost 3 years. It was a really important time. We treated it like going back to school and availed ourselves to every art opening, lecture, and art event the city had to offer. Chicago is a diverse art city and the numerous universities offer lots of different public programming, and of course there is the great Art Institute of Chicago.
We no longer have a place in Chicago but make it a point to take extended trips to NYC and Rome. I think it’s really important to work at staying as relevant and educated an artist as I can be. If you live in a rural area you can easily become reclusive.
LG: What is the Northern Michigan arts community like?
RK: We are spread out. You may have to drive 30 minutes or an hour to have a studio visit with another artist. Artists up here are trying to build there careers like any urban artist does, there just aren’t as many local opportunities that larger urban centers have so you have to deal with that aspect. We just have to travel more to connect and socialize. But we also have incredible natural beauty.
RK: Melanie bought this 115 year old store and barn complex before I knew her. She was looking for a studio/living piece of property and stumbled upon this historical property. Several years later we got together and really began working on the place. The barn became my studio and shop and the old storefront became Melanie’s studio. There is a small living quarters which was built on the side of storefront which is about the size of a trailer. So we have big studio spaces and a small living space which is perfect. I think I have repaired or replaced just about everything over the years. The spaces are really wonderful. We have about 5 acres of land and this summer I’m building a screened in outdoor painting studio. It’s a real artist’s compound in a lot of ways.
LG: You are married to the painter Melanie Parke – how much does her work influence you and vice versa?
RK: A lot. Melanie is a very focused and driven artist. She puts a lot of time and research into her paintings which I hope is rubbing off onto me more and more. We think alike about many things but especially about art. Because we live in such close proximity to our studio spaces we learned early on when to ask for feed back on what we are working on. To know when is the right time to say something. But again this is part of living in a very rural area, you rely on each other to talk and ask questions about the art making process and it’s a great pleasure to share a cup of tea and talk about what we are seeing in each others work. Melanie also has a really quick and open eye so when she sees my new work she actually can assess it better than I can. I’m learning to trust my instincts more.
Blue Day, 60″ x 84″ oil 2012
LG: What influences have been most significant to your work?
RK: The answer to that question seems to keep changing as I get older. Lately I’ve been writing about my work and being an artist and I keep remembering early influences from varied sources.
Like when I was a boy my family visited a relative in the Netherlands who was a landscape painter. I remember his shop and how you pulled back a heavy velvet curtain that separated the shop from the apartment. That curtain felt like something magical to me.
The Bill Moyer’s interviews with Joesph Campbell was foundational for me as an artist. I listened to tapes of those interviews so often I began to memorize Campbell’s answers. Campbell taught me that being an artist was an important and needed societal role, that artist are the true cultural leaders.
I’ve been influenced by painters such as Victor Higgins, Georgia O’Keefe, Tom Thomson, and Fairfield Porter whose painting practice were part art, part environmental immersion. They all seemed to share the painterly sensibility of O’Keefe who said, “There is nothing less real than realism.”
Then there are people like Guston, Joan Mitchell, and Terry Winters who taught me that there were ideas behind paintings. And of course important ideas about beauty from the Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans, so my influences are pretty wide. Not to mention so many great current artists doing just mind expanding things. I recently saw a great show in NYC by Emilie Stark-Menneg who uses florescent pop imagery and beautifully crazy drawing in her figurative paintings, and the Biala show at Tibor deNagy just blew me away. Biala is another woman painter who history has overlooked and undervalued. Her paintings of room interiors and Venice are fantastic.
LG: I understand that you currently are no longer painting landscapes, and instead paint more figurative compositions that seemed to be sourced from other art, especially ancient Italian art. What brought about this decision?
RK: A trip to Italy. I’m a little embarrassed to say I had never been to Italy until three years ago. Melanie and I were invited to do a residency in a private villa in Tuscany owned by the then American Ambassador to Italy. The trip blew my mind wide open. Italy is filled with a history of paintings about love, sex, food, religion, wars, individual people, and politics. Paintings that tell stories, that represent ideas, that symbolize beliefs, and I was left with the overwhelming feeling that I want some of that energy in my work. I want to put more of that into my paintings. I want to make paintings that do some of those things, to tell a narrative, to symbolize something in addition to the landscape.
First Snow, 48″ x 52″ oil 2014
Forest, 44″ x 72″ 2013
LG: What does your current work offer that your landscapes didn’t give you?
RK: On our first trip I started to make paintings about the Italian landscape. Those paintings slowly became about ancient made up landscapes, and I still make some of those kind of landscapes. These are about the feeling of a landscape but also about old fresco surfaces and worn canvas. I like questioning what existed both in the landscape and on the canvas that now has worn away? How is something like an ancient fresco which probably doesn’t looks little like it did when it was made still considered beautiful to us? I like questions like that.
You can’t visit Italy and not be moved by the amount of ancient world history that is visible just by standing on a street corner and looking around you. I started to think about what of all that history I could pull from and bring forward. I became interested in how our idea of beauty today was similar and different than in those ancient days. What have we lost and what have we gained in our quest for the new. And just painting the Michigan landscape wasn’t enough anymore. I wanted more.
Bestia, 36″ x 52″ o/c 2016
Big Pink, 48″ x 60″ 2012
Bathers at the Stream, 18″ x 24″
LG: Has your painting process changed since you started this new subject matter?
RK: I’m the type of person who needs to remind myself that in art I can do anything I want. It was easy for me in the past to simply think that I couldn’t do something because “I’m not that kind of artist”. Like why can’t I be working on two completely different ideas, two different bodies of work at the same time? Why not? Last year I worked on a body of colorful figurative paintings and a body of minimal abstract line drawings.
The art in Italy gave me that permission to change and my process has also drastically changed in the last couple years. In my current work I’m projecting parts of historical paintings onto the canvas. I have this little projector that I use to project images that I adjust to define the figures which I then begin to add to a painting. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to paint projected images but the room is dark and every time you try to paint a section you are blocking your view and the image shifts when the canvas is depressed. It’s both controlled by the projector and totally out of control. It’s kind of like Brice Marden taping his brush to a long stick to challenge his control of the brush. There is a degree of flying blind to the process and when you turn the lights back on the whole thing looks different. I then move back and forth between projecting and working directly. It similar to how we squint at a painting when we are working on it to generalize what we are seeing.
David Gloman is a Northampton, Massachusetts based landscape painter. He has been the Resident Artist at Amherst College, Amherst, MA since 2008 and who has had various solo and group exhibitions in New York and New England. Gloman received in 2005 the John Simon Guggenheim Fellow, New York, NY and in 2004 the Blanche Colman Award, Mellon Trust, Boston, MA 1998 the American Academy Of Arts And Letters – Hassam, Speicher, Betts, and Symons Purchase Award. New York, NY.
Larry Groff Thank you Dave for your generosity with agreeing to this interview and for the time and care with writing your responses to my questions. Let me start by asking you my standard, “How did you first decide to become a painter?”
Dave Gloman I wasn’t a great student in school but always considered myself creative. I drew a lot from cartoons and my imagination. I was really interested in the Civil War, so I drew all the generals, battle scenes and that kind of thing. I also liked and participated in all sports, so I drew my football heroes. I think I got straight A’s in gym and art; a strange combination. I started painting in high school but didn’t think it would lead to anything. My athletic career was over because of a football injury during my freshman year. I didn’t know what to study going into college, so I thought I’d try art and minor in American history, so I could teach.
I studied at Herron School of Art in Indianapolis for a month and dropped out, returning home to live for a year. I started back at school the following year at a branch campus of Indiana University with the hopes of eventually going to the main campus of Indiana University in Bloomington. It wasn’t until I got IU Bloomington when I really thought I could become a painter. I think it was my sophomore year when I started to take it seriously and devoted all my time to painting and have never looked back.
LG What was art school like for you?
DG I came from an extremely conservative family growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I wasn’t exposed to art at all except for a few reproductions in books and illustrations from my Civil War books. The idea of art school was foreign, unknown. I didn’t know of anyone who went to art school. My exposure was, to say the least, eye opening and incredibly expansive and at times frightening. I was kind of awkward and weird and found other awkward and weird people who liked the same things as me. At Indiana, there was a program separate from the regular undergraduate classes called the BFA program. It was select. You had to apply with work and it was a minimum of two years. You had a separate building to working in, your own small studio you shared with other BFA errs. There were weekly critiques with all the professors and it was extremely competitive. Critiques were rough! There was this subtle hierarchy among students. You would be put on probation if your work was not up to par.
This is where I developed my work ethic. I painted all the time and made as much work as possible. I devoured art books and became very serious about making paintings. I grew so much in those years. I remember everyone talked about going to the Yale at Norfolk summer program during the summer. That was a ring everyone hoped to grasp. At the time it seemed so out of reach for me. I just kept working and found out later that I was nominated by my professors. That was the summer of 1982.
Yale at Norfolk was a life changing experience for me. I met so many different painters from all over the country. Really good serious painters. I had my first exposure to the Yale school of Art, which at that time was THE place to go to learn representational painting. William Bailey, Bernard Chaet, Andrew Forge, Jake Berthot, Roger Tibbets, Natalie Charkow were some of the teachers there. The program was really competitive at Norfolk, so you had to work. I made a shit load of bad paintings there which was very important for a beginning painter. That’s was and still is a major part of my process. That was the best summer: Breakfast, paint, lunch, paint, dinner, paint and Beer, Beer, Beer!!! It was great to be exposed to all of these different points of view. I painted outside that whole summer and came back with a greater appreciation for abstraction: for something beyond appearance.
I really felt I learned how to start putting a painting together. Roger Tibbets who taught at Yale Summer School of Music and Art and now teaches at Mass College of Art was a huge influence on me that summer. Got back to Indiana that fall with some confidence and started painting landscapes again. I tried some huge painting outside of the house I was renting, 5×7 6×8 and plein air. I would have cans of enamel paint all over the ground and I painted with house painting brushes tied to dowels. Gradually, I started painting more indoors.
Stream, October 8×10 inches, Acrylic on Paper 2016
Pitcher Brook Falls, NH, 11×14 inches, Acrylic on Paper 2017
I was awkwardly trying to merge abstraction with observation and struggling. I started to deconstruct my outdoor landscapes into simple planes of color like de Stael and some of Klee’s color square paintings. I liked Hans Hoffman’s paintings a lot. I was looking at a lot of abstract painting, Newman, de Kooning, Rothko, Jasper Johns, Franz Kline, Ad Reinhardt, Ellsworth Kelly. Formally, I sort of pulled apart all of my landscapes into pieces and really boiled them down to almost nothing: very minimal. Mondrian’s arc of his work was huge at the time for me. I rarely painted outside for 3 years.
When I graduated I wanted to take some time off before I applied to grad school. It was risky as some advised me to apply right away while “the iron was hot”. Instead I got a job mowing grass and digging graves at a municipal cemetery. No one I worked with had gone to college and that year of working was one of the best educations I could ever receive. I worked 40hrs a week, got off work and painted in a tiny apartment. No crits, no feedback, just painted. I wanted to see what it was like to paint on my own. I was doing these abstract paintings that looked a bit like some of De Kooning’s later abstractions.
I got accepted to the Yale School of Art in 1984. At the time that was THE place representational painters would go. Some of the friendship I had at the Yale Summer School of Art. Carried over to grad school. Some of the same people got into Yale Grad school. Back then there was quite a connection between Indiana and Yale. With both schools trading undergrads to grads. The BFA program at Indiana was a mini version of Yale’s Grad program and equally as challenging. Yale was rough. Very competitive and you were expected to work all the time. It was obvious from the beginning that some students really worked hard at becoming Art Stars and actually succeeded. I could care less. I painted a lot and tended to isolate myself the second year, so I could just concentrate on painting and not be distracted by all the drama. I really honed my work ethic at Yale. I learned to stand up for myself and my painting and I learned discipline and focus.
I also learned, and Yale is notorious for this, Art speak! It was almost a requirement before you graduated! Looking back on it, I really valued what I learned there. I left there with a better understanding of how to put a painting together.
Katy and I met the Feb of my last year and when I graduated I was accepted in the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown for a 7-month Residency Fellowship. It was a great way to leave grad school and gave me a chance to start exorcising all the grad school demons.
Parker Brook Falls, 19×24 inches, Acrylic on Paper 2017
Near West Worthington Falls, 19×24 inches, Acrylic on Paper 2017
Money Brook Falls I, 11×14 inches, Acrylic on Paper
Hubbard River Falls,, 12×15 inches, Acrylic on Paper 2016
LG What influenced you to become a landscape painter?
DG I was always outside as a kid. I was extremely rambunctious as a kid and to preserve her sanity my mom would shoo us all outside to play. My socialization took place outside, my imagination was limitless outside, and I learned so much about the natural world outside. There were cornfields and woods and ponds around my house so most of my time was spent exploring and imagining. I always had a sense of a deeper history to the landscape, pre-people, primal. I felt something that I could not put into words. The light, weather, seasons, smells, sense of space and belonging. I guess I felt the most alive and independent outdoors in the landscape.
When I was an undergrad at Indiana in the early 80’s. I painted a few landscapes for a class I was taking. At the time I was mostly painting people and very simple narratives. During critiques those paintings garnered some attention. My teacher at the time Bonnie Sklarski suggested I go outside and paint.
That idea seemed so foreign to me. I started painting outdoors and something really clicked with me. I sensed those same things I had as a kid but was able to sift through all those sensations with paint.
Gunn Brook Falls,Fall ,18×24 inches, Acrylic on Paper 2016
Dead Branch River, Winter, 9×12 inches, Acrylic on Paper 2017
Dead Branch Creek, 14×18 inches, Acrylic on Paper 2016
LG You are married to the amazing painter, Katy Schneider, and raised 3 children(?), from what I understand, your wife mainly paints indoors, interiors and still life – while you paint outside, how has being married to a painter affected you?
DG Yes, Katy is an amazing painter and my wife!! We’ve been together for 32 years and have three semi-grown children. I was a grad student at Yale and she was an undergrad art major at Yale when we met. We both were in love with each other’s paintings before we actually met in person and there was no looking back. We have very similar philosophies about painting. And I have learned so much from her. She is extremely gifted and makes painting look effortless but works her ass off painting. Her work ethic, focus and relentlessness have been inspirational to me.
Being married to a painter certainly has advantages. We understand the commitment necessary to have a life as a painter. We respect each other’s need to do this and the space and time required to do it. Raising three kids while only having part time jobs at the time was challenging. The fair distribution of time was difficult to balance, but we managed. We’ve both had our successes and failures but still keep working and supporting each other.
Katy paints more intimate subject matter and has a knack for capturing the tactile quality of things. She has an intense connection to things and people and that carries over so beautifully in her work, our shared love of light, form and paint on the surface really binds us together
I love space, air and don’t have the same connection to things. I actually try to paint no things, which says something about the spaces I grew up in in Northern Indiana. Wide open and lots of distance between things.
Katy grew up in midtown Manhattan with 9 people in a small two-bedroom apartment. Space was very limited or practically non-existent and your possessions marked your limited space. It’s interesting how that stuff influences our work to this day.
Leaning Rock, Mill River, Leeds 2017
Becket Quarry late day 2017
Whately Reservoir 65 Degrees 2017
LG What, if anything, is more important to you now compared to what you were doing 10 or 20 years ago?
DG I don’t know if my paintings have evolved. I think it’s cyclical and like a spiral. I revisit ideas with new experiences and knowledge and new mediums. I really think some of my most recent paintings are similar in ways to my paintings when I first started 30 something years ago. There was a freshness in my earlier paintings because I didn’t know anything about art, about making a painting. It was pure experience and my newer paintings are similar in that..
I am honored to be able to present this enchanting new short documentary by Eran Ackerman about the art of Israeli painter Sigal Tsabari who is current solo show of new paintings is on display at the Gordon Gallery in Tel Aviv and will be up until February 3.
Sigal Tsabari, Eran, 2017 photo credit, Avi Amsalem
Sigal Tsabari will also be leading a workshop in Civita Castellana, Italy at the JSS in Civita from July 9th – 30th 2018. More information can be found at this link on the JSS in Civita website.
I interviewed Ms. Tsabari for Painting Perceptions in 2012 which you can read here.
photo credit: Eran Ackerman
photo credit: Eran Ackerman
photo credit: Eran Ackerman
This documentary gives the viewer insights into Sigal thoughts and actions during her painting sites in Italy as well as in her home in Israel. The film also shows how she works on a major drawing of the filmmaker, Eran Ackerman. The literary scholar, Dr. Ariel Hirschfeld, from the Hebrew University, Jerusalem and who Sigal drew his portrait in 2002 states in the video:
There’s something about the way Sigal paints, what we call realism, that I find particularly intriguing. It’s pointless to paint realistically when trying to depict reality. Photography does that in its own way. The intrigue behind realistic painting is that it not only penetrates the scene it depicts, but that it’s filtered through the artist’s consciousness. And that consciousness doesn’t participate in presenting the reality, if you can’t tell that the reality passed through a person’s perception, then realism is pointless. Sigal is a person who sees it all, but she’s also not indifferent.The scene passes through her and is interpreted by her personality into something completely different, and that’s very visible in all her paintings. – Dr. Ariel Hirschfeld,
“…In Tsabari’s work, her detailed, accurate, and pedantic rendering of objects is not felt to be construction, but its exact opposite – deconstruction. The parts brought to greater refinement do not look more “illusory” but rather more analyzed, and as though the whole painting is perceived as a search for another, less accurate modus that could catch movement and color without decomposing the. ‘When I paint and dig to the bottom, to the smallest vein of a leaf, for instance, then – after a short time it looks to me as though it’s enough. If I continued I would become a worker. That’s boring,” says Sigal Tsabari. The key word here is “dig”, that is, there is painting which is observation, and there is painting which is digging, that is painstaking “burrowing” under the surface of things, to their tiny details. The “digging” and the ‘hovering” are the poles between which Tsabari’s paintings move.”– Dr. Ariel Hirschfeld
I asked Eran Ackerman if he would want to write something about his video and he offered the following:
“As a photographer, painting and drawing always seemed like mysterious processes to me. I was fascinated by the classic painters, and really enjoyed the art courses I took. The ability to create a whole new image from scratch was something I had to be involved with during my studies but it wasn’t something that ever came easily.
No matter how much I wanted to learn to draw, standing in front of a blank sheet of paper often just led me to frustration. So, years later, when I found myself at Sigal Tsabari’s studio, I realized that I would be witnessing the real process of how works of art are actually created. Now I would see the truth more clearly but it would only be belated compensation for the disorientation I had always felt in front of a blank canvas.
photo credit: Eran Ackerman
Documenting the progress of a painting is something I had always believed to be almost impossible to grasp. Although it might seem that there’s nothing more visible than the path a painting traces from the very start to its ultimate completion, what we see is merely an external wrapping for the real thing, which is the experience the artist goes through. I found that following the footsteps of the painter was a journey of continuous bewilderment and a constant questioning of my own ability to faithfully record the real essence of the process. There were no precise moments when I felt I had solved this mystery, and if I ever felt I was getting closer, that moment would disappear as quickly as it came.
photo credit: Eran Ackerman
To have the camera pointing not only at Sigal, but also at me, throughout the portrait drawing, was a significant change for me. I now found myself totally embedded in the process, no longer simply an observer, and that difference forced me to reassess my ability to document and represent what was actually unfolding in the studio. Altogether we had eleven drawing sessions, each lasting four or five hours. During this time I began to understand that it’s almost impossible to convey any accurate sense of the pervading atmosphere especially when I could hardly comprehend it myself.
I believe that as the project advanced, some kind of dialogue did develop between us, a dialogue that I feel is, in many ways, present in the video. It also became clear that the very effort of trying to tell the story of the process of creating has its own significant effect on the final outcome.
I feel that this is also the right place to thank Sigal for so patiently sharing her studio space with me and my camera. Even though she invited me to consider this project I took nothing for granted and almost felt that I was entering forbidden territory. To be in a relatively small space and continue to concentrate on painting while someone works around you with all his gear is not a situation I would enjoy. Thank you Sigal.”
By Josiah King, guest contributor
Scott Noel in his studio. Pictured in front of Persephone’s Departure. Photo Credit: Josiah King
Upon arrival at Scott Noel’s studio space at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, I was struck by the abundance of richly painted, large-scale canvases leaning against the walls. Noel, who has been working in Philadelphia since 1978, is a prolific painter of the still-life, figure, and landscape. The artist engages in the making of images through observing his subjects directly. Many of his paintings consist of constructed narratives, in which figures are engaged in roles reminiscent of ancient mythologies. I spoke with Noel about his process and mode of thinking as he was preparing for the opening of Philadelphia, a show of his work at Gross McCleaf Gallery in April, 2016.
Noel received a B.F.A. from Washington University in 1978. In addition to having over thirty solo exhibitions since 1980, Noel’s work is included in many public, private, and corporate collections. Noel has been reviewed in Art in America, American Artist, and Arts. He currently teaches figure drawing and painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he has taught since 1996.
Josiah King: For starters, I’d like to talk about your phrase, ‘the space of desire.’
Scott Noel: I group observational painters with painters that work out of their imaginations, and I set them in contrast to somebody who works a lot from, say, photographic references. You get great work anyway, I’m not dogmatic about that, but when you’re working observationally, or you’re working from your imagination, in both instances you’re tending to try to channel some kind of longing.
You just wouldn’t do anything as gratuitous as make art unless you needed it in some way. You don’t do it because you want to do it, you do it because you need to do it. What you need from art is very elusive, but it’s almost as compulsive as an itch. I’m thinking of someone like Hammershoi, or Degas, or Velasquez, or Vermeer. Part of what we recognize in their work is a kind of strange, compulsive, working out of a series of concerns or needs.
When I use the term space of desire, I talk about the way when you’re looking at something, your looking becomes kind of flawed over time. To know it, in a sense, I have to imagine it in a certain way. That act of knowing through imagination is always fueled and driven by appetite, by desire. These are people I’ve been painting for years. (gesturing towards a painting) Patrice: every time I paint her, her particular appearance is being mapped against other things I care about…such as characters in art. You really want to look at where the locus of desire in a passage is. Look at the intervals. The sense that the intervals are charged with a kind of purpose, or a kind of meaning, not in a literary sense but in a formal sense, or a figurative sense. They become animate.
In fact, there’s a great line in The Remembrance of Things Past by Proust. Near the end, where one of his characters, who is an aesthete, is on his deathbed, he’s dreaming of Vermeer’s View of Delft. What he obsessively circles on, it’s the little patch of yellow, the sunlit roof on the right hand side of the painting. He keeps talking about that little patch of yellow. I know exactly what he’s talking about. That idea of realist painting answering a need, or a longing, or a desire, is very important to me. It’s never as disinterested as just the facts.
Even Euan Uglow with that kind of compulsive act of measuring, what’s he really measuring there? He himself says that it’s really about proportion. The proportions out to the edge of the rectangle, even the decision about the proportions of the rectangle, are as profoundly expressive as figuring how to get from there to there on the face.
JK: These spaces in between – these intervals – are as important as the figures themselves?
SN: They would be. I would want them to be at least as important.
Because of the perverse way we tend to privilege things and people, I’m attracted to artists where you almost sense that the intervals are more important. Who am I thinking of? Morandi, Dickinson, Vermeer, Velasquez. There’s a certain kind of painter – Piero della Francesca – where interval is very meaningful. In fact, Edwin Dickinson actually had a specific word for this. He talked about his interest in terstices. If you look at Dickinson, you can actually find a strange fetishization of these small, tendril-like shapes that move between things. In the hands of a lesser painter or a young painter, they’ll paint something like this beautifully, and then they’ll forget how to resolve the form toward the edge.
You look at Dickinson and Morandi: you can see they’re really thinking about those places as important. You can almost see it a lot of times in my own painting. The last thing that will get painted is a reiteration of a shape, which will bring the form into focus. Once you start really looking, that’s happening all the time. I might say, in a way that I can’t account for fully, those are sights of strange, almost erotic investment.
In a certain kind of painter, maybe all great painters, things like color and shape are erotically charged. It’s not just neutral, it’s not just scripted. There’s just a kind of a deep affinity among painters where the actual stuff of their métier: shape, color, forms of elision – that’s a fancy word for editing – the translation of space and volume into shape form: those are charged categories. They’re not neutral. Every painter knows this, but most civilians do not. That’s, in a short form, what I mean by the space of desire.
Scott Noel, Portrait of Bettina, Oil on linen, 2014, 40 x 38 inches, courtesy of Gross McCleaf Gallery
JK: It’s funny how the quiet moments can be the most powerful in a painting.
SN: Well, yes, I agree, although, I wouldn’t call them quiet. Look at that Degas: that’s a study for a painting in the National Gallery called Madame Camus. Lots of young artists, and lots of really good professionals, would say, “Oh, Degas has done a really great job of off-center composing and it’s a really beautiful design.” I think it’s much more radical than that. I think Degas is in love with that abstract shape as an evocation of that wall, and it’s reciprocally related to her body as the shapes of the yin and yang symbol. I don’t think that’s just a big design decision: I think that’s…profound.
JK: I’m also intrigued about your thoughts about light, which is really important in your paintings.
JK: Natural light.
JK: You’re taking this substance, light, that you can’t really grab hold of, and you’re using a material to actually make it real, in a way.
SN: That’s the deal.
One of the civilian mistakes about light is to think in terms of a binary of light and shadow, as if they were opposed categories. Again, one of the things every painter eventually learns is that there’s no such thing as the absence of light. Every shadow has light in it. Basically, what you eventually have to formulate as an artist is a kind of theory of light. What is light as substance for you?
Most painters, especially since Vermeer and Velasquez, have been more and more inclined to see light in terms of what I would call color atmosphere. Because what we’re really after is the color of light, and light doesn’t really have a color until it passes through the prism of an atmosphere. You see how almost ludicrously attracted I am to low humidity blue skies, which – for me – they’re just the most beautiful thing in the world. I love winter for that.
One of the clichés of Impressionism is that if it’s sunny, shadows are blue or violet because, for some reason, it seems like – back with Canaletto and Velasquez – shadows were grays and then suddenly, with Impressionism, shadows become blue and violet. Well, what happened? An art historian will give you a big talk about color theory and stuff like that. Another art historian will talk about plein air painting (painting outside). What happened in that transit from a tonal interpretation of light and shadow to a more color-based one? One of the questions involved trying to figure out, what is the color of sunlight? It’s kind of obvious when you’re standing in full sun, the kind of strange heat that sunlight has, and the way it transforms different local colors, like a green and a red and a pink, into an overall golden light. Certainly, artists – at least as far back as Turner and Rembrandt – got that, so what was their interpretation of shadow in that light? Again, the Impressionists make the warm color of sunlight more explicit. You’d say, “All right, it’s only natural to make the color of shadow more explicit.” Most people tend to think of shadows as an absence of that sunlight. Every painter knows it is the absence of that sunlight, but what kind of light fills that absence? The sky.
When you cover up the sunlight, you realize that a shadowy passage on a sunny day is diffused with reflected light. In fact, it’s more beautiful, because it’s not as absolute. It’s just color ricocheting everywhere. My evolving feeling about color, with more and more appreciation of what I would call light fields or light worlds, are expressive of a reflective light source. The most obvious one is the way, on a sunny day, the blue of the sky is a second light. It’s a distinct light from the sun and, when the sun is excluded, it becomes a parallel.
The big laboratory for this is what I would call inside-outside painting. I started getting interested in painting figures silhouetted against bright light, because it was so powerful emotionally. There was something about it: it was almost cinematic in its evocative power, but you try painting a figure silhouetted against bright light, it’s a bitch because, really, what you see on a bright day is the figure almost looks like this black thing against the light. If you took a photograph of it, that’s what you’d see. If you try to photograph anybody against a light like that, to get any detail on the city-scape, you’d have to stop the exposure down so far that this would register black. To get any detail in the figure, that would blow out as a white, right?
Painters have been painting this convincingly for centuries, so what are they doing? They’re exchanging a literal value scale for a color scale. The best abstract version of this I can think of is Bonnard. Bonnard is this brilliant colorist that can get light so beautifully, but he never uses what I would call a literal value scale like Vermeer, or even Dickinson might use. When you actually go back and look at Velasquez or Rembrandt or Watteau, all the best painters, they knew it too. They just didn’t use the same color fields or the same color interpretation. It’s always color based, it’s always more radical than copying, and yet it’s profoundly tied to a sense of atmosphere that locates things in very specific depths of space. and very specific fields of light.
Whenever you think your work is about a motif, like a figure or a landscape or memory, eventually you get led to a very concrete visual question, which is, “What is your conception of the light?” My conception of light has really been increasingly filtered through a sort of love of color that is, for me, evocative. I’m absolutely convinced that I’m painting the color I see, and everybody who’s ever seen my paintings says, “Well, that’s your color.” That’s not always a friendly assessment. Some people just do not like the clichés of a given artist’s color. The joke I sometimes tell is my color…actually, as much as it’s driven by the experience of looking at nature, there’s a side of it: it’s almost like a strange Proustian memory of my mother’s interior decorating. Does that make sense? If you had in your family somebody who had a real creative bent for decoration that you liked or responded to, sometimes their color gets in your bloodstream.
JK: It’s ingrained.
SN: Yeah. There were colors that got in my bloodstream when I was a little kid, blue-greens, certain pinks, certain golds. They’ve never left. Arshile Gorky, one of the subtitles for that great artist and mother picture is How My Mother’s Apron Unfolds Through My Life. Nothing is ever just simply an empirical iteration of the facts. It’s always the facts running through experience and meaning.
Still Life with Poppies, 2016, Oil on linen, 46 x 42 inches, courtesy of Gross McCleaf Gallery
JK: This meaning, or a sense of narrative, is a strong component in much of your work. Whenever you have these ideas, how do you go about realizing them? What are your steps in building a painting?
SN: In the early going I had such a reverence for artists like Degas and Reubens. I really wanted to paint complex narrative paintings, but way back then, I tried to do them and they would crash and burn very quickly. My visual imagination hadn’t been furnished with enough experience of how things look, or what’s important to you.
My process for probably the first twenty, twenty-five, years of my working life was almost relentlessly what you’re doing now: looking. I hated still-lifes when I was twenty-one. By the time I was twenty-seven, I realized this was the very best laboratory for understanding what I need to learn, so I became a pretty prolific still life painter. Still do it a lot. Lots of looking, at landscape, the figure, and still life, for years.
In my thirties and when I was forty I started to regain that courage to do narrative painting. I started heading in this direction around ’93 to ’95, when the pictures started getting bigger and more complex. I would start with places or spaces that I wanted to paint, and then those spaces would, little by little, begin to suggest mythic stories or narratives. As the spaces developed, it was very natural to just ask a model to pose here or there, then find them within the space in a way that always felt organically right. The minute a figure came into the mix, you’d almost exactly know where they should be, what they should be doing, how they should be made out of reflected light. When the figure came in, pretty quickly after that, there would usually be some sort of resonance with a story.
Persephone’s Departure, 2016, Oil on linen, 78 x 244 inches, courtesy of Gross McCleaf Gallery
(Pointing to Persephone’s Departure) This story is the myth of Persephone, where Persephone is about to take leave of her mother to go to the underworld for half the year with Hades. Hades has come up at the end of the summer to collect Persephone and take her to the underworld. No one knows this shit. In fact, I have people on YouTube who, in a very sweet way, mock the preposterousness of my stories, because no one would fucking know. The stories are important to me, because they put the specific character of a place or a figure into what I would call a little archetypal dialect.
That’s one of the things that poets do. I don’t think a poet really connects with a mythic story unless they somehow recognize that story’s vibration or resonance with lived experience. At least I don’t. You know, you can find lots of examples. An arch-realist like Eakins has got all kinds of pictures where he’s trying to tell stories, like these Arcadian landscapes and those swimming hole pictures. Even the scullers are a certain kind of hero that’s set loose in a recognizable setting, like the Schuylkill River, or something like that.
Degas was certainly like that. Love those early Degas mythic history paintings, like the Daughter of Jephthah, and the Young Spartans. Those are key works, because you can see, especially with the Young Spartans, those look like a bunch of Parisian gamines set loose on the fields of Arcadia or something. The tension between the mytho-poetic and the realist is actually what is so exciting. It’s not a parody, but it’s definitely got an element of wit and humor to it. That would be another part of – I wouldn’t call it my process- but my temperament.
The Convention Center from the 10th Floor, Oil on linen, 36 x 156 inches, courtesy of Gross McCleaf gallery
JK: You have paintings comprised of several different canvas sizes, joined together to make one picture plane. A perfect example is The Convention Center from the 10th Floor. How did this come about?
SN: That’s a more recent development. It weirdly flows from the narrative thing. Probably about twenty years ago, I did start thinking that I loved large-scale decorative painting, but I’m really basically an easel painter. I’m somebody whose touch and temperament is tied more to the improvisation of a smaller surface. You know, if you’re doing big frescoes or giant altarpieces, you’ve got to plan those things out, because they just demand it, for all kinds of reasons.
My discovery was that I could combine the improvisation of easel painting with the grandeur of something a little bit more architectural and narrative by adding canvases. For years I did it to create a new, unified, single rectangle. About six or seven years ago, out of sheer accident, all the canvases that I had on hand were different shapes. I wanted to paint more than I had time to build the right size canvas, so I started putting them together thinking, how could I map the thing I want to paint against this composite surface? I realized that it actually worked well, because there’s a way in which, as you’re adding up the elements for the visual field, it’s almost like you zoom in or zoom out. Even the forms don’t all naturally align with a single scale rectangle. I started trying to use that as a way of deepening the experience.
I had this fantasy that sometimes these multi-canvas pictures will be broken up, panels will be lost, and I want each piece to have enough internal energy to be self-sufficient. Each moment, in a sense, has to be a germ of whatever the totality was.
The Furness Building Restoration, 2016, Oil on linen, 32 x 94 inches, courtesy of Gross McCleaf Gallery
JK: As far as surface area on the canvas, how do you figure out what you’re going to work on for the day? Do you work in a small section?
SN: Well, I’m trying to learn to work in bigger and bigger areas. The final iteration of this, to be convincing, had to be all in one day. That doesn’t mean it’s only one day of painting, it might have been one or two statements that had to be rephrased, but that’s one layer of paint in there. If I don’t do that, I don’t get the articulation of the tones fine enough so that your eye really flows. My ambition is, above all, a sense of almost seamless flow. It is a lot like fresco painting. Fresco painting is basically giant..
Watteau, The Thaw Collection of Master Drawings, and The Olde Formalism Ye Hardly Knewe
Review by John Goodrich, guest contributor
Formalism. In today’s art world, the word denotes a particular side-aisle in the great bazaar of artistic practices. It tends to be an especially austere and cerebral aisle, one that asserts the significance of geometric shapes by — well, making geometric shapes.
How does it work in practice? Imagine this scenario: a museum-goer enters a gallery to find, spaciously hung in the middle of a wall, a large canvas covered with a single saturated hue. Approaching the painting, the visitor feels practically enveloped by its resonant color, and within moments absorbs a certain singularity of intent; down the middle of a canvas, extending top to bottom, the artist has drawn a single line. One needn’t be particularly savvy about art (or even to have read Barnet Newman’s name on the label) to experience a sense of transcendent purpose.
Barnet Newman, Be I, 1949, oil on canvas, 128½ x 75 in. ca. 1718, black, red and white chalk, 6¾ x 8 in.
But now much of this uplifting experience can be attributed to the internal workings of the painting, and how much to the museum context? A skeptic might point out that the transcendent experience is situational, even prescribed; after all, the very same museum-goer, visiting the cafeteria, probably won’t respond similarly to a vertical seam on a brightly painted wall. Newman’s almost evangelical faith in primal forms and color depends, in fact, upon a shrewd presentation – his, as well the museum’s — and to the extent that his paintings are explorations of form, they show how much notions of formalism have evolved, over the last century or so, from a complex optical experience to a contextual and philosophical one.
No wonder today’s Formalism tends to elicit a kind of obligatory appreciation. If discussed at all in an exhibition review, it’s liable to be in a single sentence on the order of “…moreover, in formal terms, this work positively exudes formalist values.” Formalism, in short, has acquired a role similar to vitamins: necessary but anodyne supplements to the feast of art.
This viewpoint gives short shrift to the millennia of artworks vitalized by formal values; it also vastly (and uncoincidentally) underestimates the richness and complexity of formal expression itself.
Just what were formal values in painting, traditionally? The history of painting is filled with equivalents of what the critic B.H. Haggin termed, in the context of music, “sublime utterances.” When absorbed as a purely visual phenomenon – those color-shapes on a surface – great painting is replete with the surges, recoupings, anticipations, climaxes and resolutions of a Mozart symphony. In other words, painting has historically provided us with extraordinarily rich expressions, based on a visual language available in no other medium.
There is a hitch, and a huge one. The mere act of seeing is more complicated than one might think. The habitual efficiency of our visual systems – eyes and mind, working together – means that we tend to scan with our eyes instead of fully absorbing what’s out there; we assign mental labels to the objects around us rather than taking in unfiltered impressions of them. Compounding this tendency is our reliance on pre-digested versions of our visual world — the pre-flattened, color-approximated, scale-deprived images that continuously bombard us on screen and in print. Indeed, this passivity of our visual systems may explain, in part, our preference for expressions of the immediately and socially relevant. By comparison, the traditional, purely optical version of formalism – call it “Ye Olde Formalism” – may seem an arcane connoisseurship of minor delights. But learning to see the forms in a painting – or, perhaps, relearning to see them, with the impartial perceptiveness of a child – will reaffirm the critical distinctions between artists traditionally considered greater and lesser, and moreover how these distinctions form a bridge linking antiquity and modernism.
Consider, then, another scenario: the existence of a kind of visual comprehension that precedes concept and context. What if painting, as a visual art, appealed to the purely optical, as music appeals to the aural? For a painter, such a potential would come into play with the first stroke of color, and lie latent in every mark. Any technical or conceptual bravado would become indulgent; every attuned artist, whether excruciatingly sensitive or ruthlessly unsentimental, would start, work and finish with these most irreducible elements.
In itself, any mark possesses only a few qualities: a certain visual weight, a location and likely a sense of direction. But the possibilities multiply as accumulating marks leverage one another. The physical limits – the flatness and confined dimensions – actually liberate, allowing investigations of interior scale and the resolution of movements.
This means that, in a cold-eyed, practical way, a line might coil about the painting’s surface and eventually join up with itself, dividing a contained zone from the surrounding “other.” The line may undulate along the way, departing and rejoining the overall circulation. These departures may vary – in fact will vary, if they’re inspired by some outer, larger event – their energies ranging from contradictory side trips to reaffirming echoes. An alert viewer will perceive an unfolding story, animating by interweaving sub-stories, each revealed in its own time and place.
Antoine Watteau, Young Woman Wearing a Chemise, ca. 1718, black, red and white chalk, 6¾ x 8 in.
If that outer, larger, inspiring event is the sight of the human figure, and if you have the talents of Watteau, you may just come up with such a remarkable story as his Young Woman Wearing a Chemise (ca. 1818), one of the highlights currently in the Morgan Library’s superb “Drawn to Greatness: Mater Drawings from the Thaw Collection.” Superficially, Watteau is all fanciful froth – charming subject matter, feathery modeling, a light, darting touch. But what distinguishes Watteau are his extraordinary and comprehensive intuitions about formal rhythms — in this case, how powerful diagonals, moving from lower left to upper right, pace the intervals of the figure’s height; how the measured circulation of limbs releases, forcefully, the unfolding zigzags of one foot, while the “other” – that is, the surrounding plane of bed or couch – opposes, tangibly pressuring the shin of the folding leg above. Experienced as animated forces, the figure’s gesture culminates, finally, in the quick twist of the head, looking back (serenely!) over the long, climbing undulations of her own arm.
The figure’s contours burst with pressures that the mind reads as a human body, but our eyes absorb as a fantastical coherence of energies. The drawing is marks, but the marks (or more specifically, the momentum of their intervals) cohere as an intensely real but parallel version of life — not its physical duplication, but the most eloquent version possible in two dimensions. How radical. Such a drawing confronts, head-on, the sheer artifice of image-making, the rawness of its own materiality, and the struggle of the process. Anything less muscular would under-utilize the power of forms; anything in excess of this would dilute the vigor of a semblance in which every single element counts. And of course, what we ultimately experience is Watteau: his child-like openness to visual experience, and vast intelligence about mark-making. For the devoted museum-goer, knowing Watteau is understanding how he surpasses the relatively inert drawings by Prud’hon, Boilly, and Greuze hanging nearby in the Morgan’s installation of the Thaw collection. (And, for that matter, how the moving drawings by Claude Lorrain, Rembrandt, Goya and Seurat in the exhibition outshine those by Piazzetta, Magnasco, and Boullée.)
Louis-Léopold Boilly, Studies of Members of the Chenard Family, ca. 1800, black and white chalk, 17¾ x 11¾ in
Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Game of Morra, 1756, brown and gray ink over graphite, 9¾ x 14¼
Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, Female Nude, ca. 1810, black and white chalk on blue paper, 23¼ x 12½ in.
It’s also worth noting what Watteau’s drawing leaves out: all presumptions and conventions about how things should look, such as the volume of the neck that would logically connect head and shoulder — which an academic artist would deem indispensable – and the bones inside an arm that would stiffen a wrist. Nor does it reveal in any unique fashion – more so than other contemporaneous French drawings — the social issues and contexts of a particular time. Watteau’s expressions are, in short, universal and immediate, transcending the criteria of both the dyed-in-the-wool academic artist and the cutting-edge art theorist.
What further possibilities could an artist explore? Well, there’s, color – usually the most critical difference between drawing and painting, and one not really developed in Watteau’s drawing despite its traces of red and white chalk. While there are no Watteau paintings in the Morgan’s exhibition, a number of striking watercolors and oil-on-paper works by the likes of Cranach, Degas, Delacroix, and Daumier show what color can do: accord, with luminously atmospheric effect, a whole additional set of inflections to the pressures of lines and tones.
To touch back upon that painting by Barnet Newman – how would his attack have looked if he had explored internal energies just as intensely as these masters? If he had produced a painting that required no viewing context, that could be hung without diminishment in an attic, bowling alley, or palace, without signifying frame or label? We’ll never know, but we might find a clue in the example of Mondrian, and his obsessively inventive compositions. Within any one of the Dutch modernist’s canvases one may experience how a certain nuanced red anchors a stretching vertical white, wedged at one side by a particularly weighted yellow, and letting loose on the other side with a sail of spacious blue. Understanding the muscular poetry of Mondrian — lover of jazz and dancing – is comprehending how he surpasses Theo van Doesburg. Admittedly, in today’s context-suffused art world, this may take a special effort – a return to the unfiltered perceptions of a child.
But then, it takes a child’s eye to truly delight in the visual aspect of our world. Trees are eruptions, emerging and spreading from single points on the earth. Clouds, the largest items we may see on any given day, slowly bob over our heads. The earth’s surface, itself the micron-thin division between air and ground upon which we spend our lives, divides two crinkling shells: the atmosphere, whose bucklings are revealed, moment by moment, in movements of those clouds, and the earth’s crust, which creases at glacial speeds to build mountains and valleys.
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Bulwark De Rose and the Windmill De Smeerpot, Amsterdam, ca. 1649-52, ink, 5¼ x 8½ in.
This is no fantasizing; it is the cold-eyed facts of nature. Corot, Rembrandt, Veronese and other great artists painted our surroundings as if inspired by such realizations; that is to say, they made their subjects rhythmically animate. (Need it be said: to understand their achievement is to see how they surpass the work of their students – Harpignies, Maes, and Bassano, respectively). And, seeing truly has another, immeasurable benefit: an awareness of our remarkable world, as revealed by the human eye.
Untitled, 32×38 inches, oil on canvas, 2017
Untitled, 34 x 28 in, 2016, oil/canvas all images courtesy of Bookstein Projects
Susannah Phillips was raised in London and attended the Slade School of Fine Art in London. Her paintings have been in many solo and group exhibitions in London, New York and Provincetown, MA, and are included in numerous private collections. In 2014 and 2017, she was awarded the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation Residency. The artist lives and works in New York. She is represented by Bookstein Projects in NYC where there will be a solo exhibition of her work in January 11 – February 24, 2018. Susannah Phillips will be the JSS in Civita Master Class Guest-of-Honor in 2018 residence July 2nd to 23rd in Italy.
“…The absence of representational details grants these landscapes an unexpected second life. They have the capacity to suddenly flip to abstraction, for a moment losing their pictorial depth. Yet the muted and succulently specific color always shifts the landscape back into view. The change in light from painting to painting is sophisticated, creating strong implications of volume and space between landmasses. As you walk through the gallery, the landscape progressively reveals more dimensionality, with variations in the height of mountains, the position of the sun, atmosphere, and time of day. Time intervals between paintings seem no more than 30 minutes or an hour, allowing the artist to slow time down to the point of capturing the closest thing to what we can understand as the present.
Phillips’ subjects, whether landscape or interior scenes, are transformed into vessels for explorations into light, volume, and form. Like Agnes Martin or Giorgio Morandi, her motifs seem to have emerged from a metaphysical search, from a need to infringe on the barrier between the concrete world and ourselves, to reach a point just beyond our grasp. These new paintings and drawings straddle a line between spirituality and philosophy as they begin to utter the unspeakable, the nature of time and the instability of reality and perception.” –– Beverly Acha
Lobster Lake I, 2008, oil on canvas, 24 x 18 in
Larry Groff: Thank you Susannah for your generosity with agreeing to this interview and for the time and attention with writing your responses to my questions.
Susannah Phillips: You’re welcome.
LG: What was growing up for you like and how did you decide to become a painter?
SP: I had a happy childhood despite having divorced parents, moving around and not really having a sense of belonging to any country. With my father, there were summers in Cape Cod with its artistic offerings. Otherwise, I grew up in London–I went to school at the French Lycee there–and Europe. Saw a lot of churches, frescoes, paintings, ruins. I spent one year in Athens when I was fourteen, and in the evenings we, my mother and I, would go into the Parthenon, walk around, have a picnic. There were no fences, gates or guards. That same year, I was taken to a Morandi show in Bologna, and that’s when I decided I wanted to paint. For me, Morandi was very approachable compared to what I’d seen before.
There are several painters in my family, father and sister included–it was on the cards to consider becoming one. And I was always encouraged to draw.
LG: I understand that your mother’s first marriage was to Arshile Gorky and she was close to many famous painters such as De Kooning, and Matta. Was that something she talked about much and influenced you in some way?
SP: I’d say the only important influence on me of the Gorky connection then, was growing up with his paintings. Some sort of osmosis. I’m not aware of when I first noticed them. The negative side was that I felt my efforts were a bit insignificant, as I thought his paintings were so beautiful.
And yes, I did meet De Kooning and Matta, but mostly the painters who came through the house were European: Helion, Craxton, Ghika, Paolozzi, Cloclo Peploe, to name a few, some of whom became important to me for their encouragement and example.
Still Life, 2003 oil/canvas, 20 x 24 in
Still Life With Pink Cloth, 2007, oil on canvas, 30 x 22 in
Cupboard with Mirror, 2006-2008, oil/linen 42 x 32 in
LG: You went to art school at the Slade and studied with Coldstream and Uglow. What was that like for you?
SP: Disappointing. I was looking for some structure, but it was the 70’s and classes weren’t compulsory. I mostly worked where I was living at the time, except for using the life room quite a bit and the print department in the first year. I didn’t have much to do with Uglow, regrettably. Coldstream was always friendly and supportive. Apart from learning about printmaking, I felt I wasn’t taught much at the Slade (partly my fault for working outside the school), however I’m grateful for those four years because it allowed me to focus on painting. In a way I regret not having involved myself more in the school. I’m sure I missed out on things. But I still have one valuable Slade friend with whom I talk shop.
Untitled, 2001 30×22
Still Life with Saucer, 2000, oil on linen, 16 x 18 in
LG: What lessons did you learn from Coldstream that still resonate in some way with you today?
SP: Possibly my grey-leaning, restrained palette might have something to do with Coldstream? Or with the English weather. In fact, at the time I was at the Slade, I was still much more influenced by American 20th century painting and Picasso than by Coldstream. Colour, surface and shapes attracted me more than the palette and soft contours of his paintings.
LG: What did you do after finishing art school?
SP: Oddly enough, it never occurred to me to do a post-graduate course. Hard to remember why.
I went to New York for two years and took odd jobs and painted in my bed-sit, which at one time was in Georgio Cavallon’s house. Loved–still love–his whites and dry paint.
After a couple of years, I returned to London. In my early thirties, John Craxton got me my first show there, in the gallery that represented him. After that, I moved to Montreal, raised our son and painted for years in isolation, and now here I am, in NYC.
LG: Did you ever feel the need to rebel against what you learned in school in order to find your own voice?
SP: The Slade imposed little on its students in those days. There wasn’t much to rebel against.
LG: What artists or art has been most significant to you and how you paint today?
SP: First there was Morandi, then I forgot about him and got interested in Spanish painters, Velazquez in particular, but also Titian, and many other early and late Renaissance painters. But at one point, quite late, in my thirties, I felt I was painting too many subjects at once and not developing as a painter, so I decided to focus only on still-life painting. Enter Augusto Torres, Braque, Cubism. I became more interested in composition and lost interest in recording everything in front of me. I looked at Derain for many years and, like everyone, I had many crushes: Cezanne, Manet, Matisse, Picasso, Poussin – all the obvious ones, even Guston. The list is long.
My interest in Augusto Torres, a more obscure crush, was in how he simplified, how he kept the geometry and structure in the composition and gave shadows importance. Lots of art and artists have influenced me. Even the Acropolis. Recently, I did a stint at the Albers Foundation, and during the following months, found a lot of rectangles appearing in my canvases.
Untitled, 2015 31×24
untitled, 2015, oil/canvas 26 x 18 in
LG: What more could you say about Morandi?
SP: As I said above, he was my first love. However, now I no longer look at or think very much about his work, although I’m always happy to see a few at a time and I would like to see more of his landscapes. I like the bunching up of his objects and his inclination to simplify. In fact, I think it’s time I looked at him again.
LG: I’ve heard you are friends with the painter Paul Resika, how would you say this friendship has influenced you?
SP: Paul is my brother-in-law (and friend), and he has been important to me. I’ve watched him for years in the studio. I took from him my habit of doing variations on a subject. I don’t seem to tire of working ad infinitum on many surfaces for one pictorial idea. I suppose I also got that from Morandi at the start.
LG: Many of your paintings, especially your still life, seem less to do with describing actual things and more about the mystery and poetics in the relationship between those things. How do you go about setting up a still life and deciding what to paint?
SP: I don’t have a stable method. I’m sure what I do is pretty standard. Roughly, this is how I go about it.
I have an idea, an urge, for a composition–the kind of shapes, the mood–before I find the objects. The objects are usually chosen for formal reasons–the shapes and shapes of their shadows play a large part. Often the objects have been lying around for years, collected as props. I have a feeling about an object when I see it, I recognize in it something that I see already as a painted object. Often the props are personal, for example I associate them with someone or they evoke a memory but It’s not important for me that the viewer be in on that.
When the setup is ready–objects will shift in the making of the painting–I make drawings, and then painted versions. These variations bounce off each other and, even though they tend to pile up unfinished, they help move things along. The first paintings are largely descriptive. I then go back to the original idea I had of the composition, and the objects become more an arrangement of shapes, nothing specific. By the time I am doing the later versions, I am no longer looking at the still life setup particularly. It’s in my head and in the studies. At this point I’m just making a painting.
Untitled, 2004 12×24
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