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Arnot’s 76th Regional

A couple weeks ago, I was pleased to deliver two still lifes to the Arnot Art Museum for the 76th Regional Exhibition. The show will run from March 16 through June 14. My two contributions are Breakfast with Golden Raspberries and Begonias and Dahlias.

Better belated than too soon

He was experiencing one of man’s keenest but least understood drives–information compulsion. –Tom Wolfe, Bonfire of the Vanities

I devote myself to painting, and then writing about painting, and I deposit any checks that come my way when someone buys one of my paintings, but I’ve never strategized any of it as a career.  I do have a career, but it isn’t the point, that’s all. It seems like a way of warping the whole activity into something it isn’t. A CV resembles a parasitical, invasive life form, imported from the world of business, the way sparrows were brought to North America from Europe. I’m a professional artist, but that term seems almost an oxymoron, and I don’t really think of myself as professional (except for my diligence at the easel) any more than Socrates would have thought of himself as a professional philosopher or Jeremiah Johnson a professional badass. I always think of Van Gogh when I imagine the system in which artists now vie to get onto a career track–prestigious MFA, straight to prominent gallery, applications for grants and residencies, keeping a running tally of awards, all of it as dutiful as the path of a white collar organization man in the Fifties. I keep my CV fresh, I list my awards and summarize my shows and sales. Yet it feels as if I’m applying for a job as a comptroller whenever I submit my CV upon request. Where would Vermeer have found himself in this system? Imagine his exhibition history. After a lifetime of work he’d have had enough for one big solo show at Zwirner, with maybe some other artist to fill out the adjacent space. 

My work always takes more time than I would like, but at that constraining pace I know I’m doing good work. The more I become committed to my best possible work, the less new work I have to show, though I’m starting to find ways to shave a little time from the process and actually do more during a day of painting, which is nearly every day of the week.

This puts me into a bind as far as hewing to the ostensible necessity of building a social media following. (In book publishing, this has become brutal. Publishers more and more have no interest in authors who don’t have a following.) As much as I like it—Instagram is the only social media I really use with any regularity, other than this blog which is social only in its availability to anyone. I recognize social media as yet another “professional” taskmaster even though it’s promoted as a service. If you are already known and have a serious following, it can be extremely useful, as is Twitter, which I don’t use at all. If I were far more famous, I would enjoy posting almost anything that seemed worth photographing on Instagram just as a way of being open about who I am. But I’m not, and Instagram isn’t going to get me there. The companies that own these platforms want you to think they will get you there. It’s a lie to make social media feel compulsory, in both senses of the word. They want people to feel irresistibly drawn to them but they also want the stream of content to begin to feel like a duty, an obligation, a necessity. Social media uses FOMO, the fear of missing out, to drive most users (sounds like “drug user” doesn’t it?) to work harder and harder to build a following and get likes, but all of social media has an inherent Catch-22. You need to have a following already by other means to even get noticed, which means there’s no way to gain followers unless you already have them. There are always rare exceptions as in the case of emergent YouTube stars, but any kind of time devoted to Instagram is better spent in front of an easel.

I like Instagram. It’s a quick way to catch up on what others are doing. And I enjoy sharing art that moves me. But when I really want to work as slowly as I need to work, it becomes a specter. My feed sits there neglected, smirking at me. So this year I’ve decided to post little of my work on Instagram—while continuing to post art-related things, including the work of others—because I’m immersing myself in a long series of paintings, variations on one subject, and each painting will take between one and two months to finish. I may do the same next year as well. If Instagram really worked in bringing me serious followers–which in turn would bring my work to the attention of people who would love it–then I would feel more incentive to reveal what I’m doing as it progresses. Novelists don’t serialize their work anymore, as Dickens did. Why should artists let everyone see what they’re doing before a possible solo show? I’ve never sold anything I’ve posted on social media—almost all of my sales have been through Oxford Gallery at this point. And my sales have been steady enough that it’s actually a challenge to assemble a solo show at regular intervals. So I’ve begun to question why I should show anything from this current project before the entire group of paintings is finished. It isn’t that each individual painting won’t stand on its own, but they will gain considerably when they are viewed together–the consistencies and differences among the paintings will put each individual one into perspective. In other words, I’m working toward a solo show more integrated any I’ve had in the past and I’d like to see most or all of it assembled before I show anyone what I’m doing, as I’m doing it. 

I’m not the only one dubious about Instagram. On Quora, from November last year, there’s a nicely succinct expression of the truth about this platform now. Here is the commentary in full. I notice this is a serious Quora contributor, with 2.2 million views. (Social media, even Quora, is filled with these cues that prompt popularity-seeking behavior, which to me is the opposite of what should be driving a painter.) The question she’s answering is: why do I keep getting new followers on Instagram but the total number of followers on my profile doesn’t go up? The answer to this question demonstrates that for the vast majority of people Instagram, like Facebook, is little more than a way to exchange images and comments with people you already know. If you see someone whose following has risen dramatically over a short period of time, either they’ve just come out of nowhere to be given a retrospective at the Whitney or almost none of those followers are real:

Zoe Larkin, Recovering Instagram addict.

Answered Nov 24, 2018 · Author has 199 answers and 2.2m answer views

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that any new follower you get is a permanent follower that is somehow committed to your account and will be a follower for life.

As an Instagrammer of 3 years, I can tell you that a majority of new followers (maybe even as much as 95% or higher) are just following you because they’ve allowed a bot to follow all accounts that use a certain hashtag, or follow a certain other user (or follow users according to some other parameters they’ve set).

You’re being targeted because you fit into a certain perceived demographic, not usually because this real account has actually seen your work and somehow been so completely in awe of it that they just had to give you a follow.

Whether or not you follow them back, it makes no difference. They are programmed to unfollow everyone they followed within a set period of time, so they can go ahead and follow the next batch of 1,000, 2,000 accounts or whatever. (It just has to be under 7,500 as per Instagram’s limitations).

So let’s say the bot unfollows everyone one week after the initial follow. Your new followers you picked up today are still following you in a week, but followers from last week have now unfollowed you.

These days Instagram has just grown so big, with so many content creators out there, that the days of standing out as a new account by just having informative, engaging, attractive content are gone. The days when you would get genuine comments and new followers from an admiring public are likewise gone the way of the Betamax.

In my opinion, the only way that accounts experience growth is by having absolutely extraordinary content that literally no-one else in their niche is doing, or by follow/unfollow with one of the many bot systems. What worked in early 2018 doesn’t work in late 2018. What works now won’t work in 2019.

The new advice is don’t get transfixed on the numbers. Engagement is meant to be more important, but I agree it’s hard to get high (or even any) engagement when not many accounts follow you, and your stuff isn’t being shown to those that do.

So I’m going to continue to follow the artists I like and click or comment on their posts, but I will be delaying posts of of my own work at least for this project. I’m actually excited about what I’m doing, but I want to keep my powder dry. Meanwhile, I’ll keep passing along, as I do here, anyone else’s work that looks beautiful with the praise so much of it deserves.

Have razor, will paint

One would think only action painters would be honored as action figures. When you fail to get that Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Genius Award recedes beyond the horizon and MoMA looks less and less likely to put you into its permanent collection, take heart, as always, from Van Gogh’s non-existent career. Even if all else fails, a century from now they might make an action figure of you, only by then it will be fully animatronic and equipped with AI to keep painting in your style, perhaps even better than you do now. At last, action figures will live up to their toy category.

From the back of the package. Wait for it:

Full Name: Vincent Willem van Gogh

Occupation: Painter

Weapon of Choice: Straight Razor

I like how he comes with two heads, the one before and the one after he used that razor to turn his ear into a Valentine.

Skulls and jars and unmethodical doubt

I had a recent email conversation with Chris Pulleyn, an old friend, a former employer, and a central figure at the Rochester Zen Center, where I’ve been a member mostly in absentia for a couple decades. She asked me a few questions about the relationship between my still nascent meditation practice and my painting–so that she could publish some of my work and our conversation in the Center’s publication, Zen Bow. It was a wonderful gesture on the part of the people at the Center, and much appreciated. One thing that was fun about the conversation was that she had a hard time seeing common ground between the few paintings of skulls I’ve done—which struck her as very Buddhist, being emblems of mortality and impermanence—alongside my candy jars. It forced me to think about how much meditation has governed not only the energy I bring to painting, but also influenced my understanding about how painting works. What follows is a condensation of the Q/A in Zen Bow.

My first encounter with Zen was in college, when I was a student at the University of Rochester. With a friend from my dorm, I attended my first workshop, run by Philip Kapleau, the center’s founder, in the early 70s. I began sitting then, and have been doing it off and on ever since—constantly trying to establish a daily habit. After I joined as an actual member in the 90s, I spent some regular time in the morning at the center but I’ve drifted into simply sitting at home. It was more than taking up something like yoga. It was, for lack of a better word, a philosophical pursuit.

I came out of high school with a kind of corrosive sense of doubt: a tenacious questioning about the possibility of meaning that seemed urgent but unanswerable. The nature of this doubt is hard to describe without muddling it up, but it was difficult and life-changing and psychologically “totalizing,” to use a word I hear in other contexts now. After contending with this state of unrest for a couple years, as a freshman at UR, I finally got around to reading J.D. Salinger’s Glass family stories, which introduced me to a variety of spiritual traditions: Vedanta, Zen, Russian Orthodox Christianity. His fiction offered me an intersection of references to a variety of spiritual paths. I was so impressed by Salinger, in addition to my curriculum in English lit, I made out a reading list of Salinger’s favorite authors and read them, one after another, as if he had introduced me personally to each of the writers themselves and said, “you two should get to know each other.” Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Proust, Henry James, Keats, Coleridge, and so on, (some of whom I’ve been going back to reread now after all this time.) As a result, I spent the summer after my freshman year at UR reading all of Proust and most of Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard was crucial—my parents were Presbyterian for a while in my teens, and I still consider myself a Christian who uses Tolstoy and Kierkegaard both as an excuse not to go to join a church, but a few of Kierkegaard insights were very close to the paradoxes one faces in Zen practice when trying to break through how the mind entraps itself without realizing it. (I think the conscious, egocentric mind is itself often a sort of self-sustaining trap.) In addition, I made a list of references to spiritual disciplines and other writers mentioned in Franny and Zooey: Ramakrishnma, Meister Eckhart, the Upanishads, the haiku translations of R.H. Blyth and D.T. Suzuki. That last name was the door to my interest in Zen. One thing led to another. In the middle of all this self-directed study, I was delighted to discover a new organization devoted to Buddhist meditation here where I lived. That’s how I started.

Painting began earlier. It was an outgrowth of playing a Fender guitar in a couple garage bands in high school. I wanted some large posters of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton to put on my bedroom wall, but didn’t know where to find them—this was long before the Internet. During a brief illness, out of boredom, I found a starter set of oil paints my father had used once to make little Cubist-type scenes on Masonite he hung on our walls. I used them to copy the portrait of Mike Bloomfield by Norman Rockwell on the cover of “The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper.” I still have that oil painting on paper—I discovered it a few weeks ago in the basement. I went from that to a 4’ x 4’ copy of the cover of Band of Gypsies that I bolted to my wall—it was painted on soft thick board, like acoustic ceiling tile. When I discovered an Art News Annual with a long feature about Van Gogh, my interest in painting began to take the place of my desire to play the guitar. And I’ve painted ever since. I chose to study literature and writing rather than painting because I didn’t entirely trust what was happening in the art world at the time and still feel wary about most of what goes on there—I wanted to keep my distance from it and yet still be an artist.

I’m still a beginner at Zen. When I sit, I count my breaths. Even after decades, I can’t do it consistently even over short periods of time. I have to keep coming back to the counting after losing track, as most people do. I know all of this is just the doorstep to serious Zen practice, yet I think even this kind of effort is central to my painting in a couple ways. What painting, including my own, has in common with sitting is the need for sustained attention to the task at hand over long hours. Both require patience and an ability to ignore restlessness and distractions. And both not only require, but are entirely about, paying attention: it’s the central discipline of a representational painter and it’s also the primary effect of the finished painting on the viewer. The point is to see what’s there with fresh eyes—which means forgetting what you think is there. Both painting and sitting require a willingness to stay in one place for hours in ways that often feel unpleasantly constraining for the purpose of simply being intensely aware, period. I paint mostly still lifes now, in various modes, and I think of it as a way of attending to the simplest, most commonplace things with care. It’s a way of becoming aware of the simple fact of something’s simply being there, disclosing itself to me simply as what it is, which gets so easily taken for granted and overlooked when daily human purposes come into play. It also teaches me how difficult it is to actually see what I’m looking at: the actual tones that exist in front of me rather than the ones I believe are there from what I think I know about the object or scene. Painting requires a trained mindfulness that also makes it possible for the act of painting to invest an image with qualities that I’m not even conscious of, qualities that somehow arise on their own, while I’m busy thinking about getting something accomplished on the canvas.

My methods are photo-realistic, but the jars I’ve done are more painterly and not as precise as most hyper-realism these days if you get up close to them—though actually not as painterly as I’d like. The skulls are actually more exact than the candy paintings. The three skulls I painted were almost the antithesis of the subjects I usually pick. My primary interest has always been color and this is a difficult passion when you are painting most of what’s in the world accurately: most things aren’t that colorful. The skulls were the least colorful objects I’ve ever painted and a genuine detour for me. They were done on a dare, more or less, but I loved doing them. An artist I know in Brooklyn suggested I try a skull so I tried three of them, thanks to loans from Chris Pulleyn, as well as baboon and cow skulls a second Brooklyn artist, Susan Sills. I got to keep the cow skull. Technically, in the Western painting tradition, they are “vanitas” paintings—time is short, use it well—but I loved them because of the complexity of light and shadow, the texture of the bone, all of the ways in which they could have passed for rock or driftwood. Painting a skull reminded me of painting a dahlia, actually: but it was even more challenging. When Chris loaned me the human skull, she said it was a gift from her father who had used it as a teaching aid in dentistry school—and in that painting, rendering the box that he’d used to ship it to her was actually the biggest challenge. It was worn, so the ribs in the cardboard created ridges in the surface of the box, and the old packing tape had yellowed a bit, and the words “actual human skull” were written in large script across the face of the box, which made me laugh. (Try to ship something with that sort of notice on the side now.) It looked impossible, a complicated mélange of textures and colors and shapes. Much like the skull itself. I don’t know how I painted that box so accurately, and I’m sure I couldn’t do it again quite as well. When I started the painting, I thought it would defeat me but I ended up doing things I didn’t know that I could do. In a way, the box carried the same aura as the skull: old, battered, forgotten and pretty much discarded until I started paying attention to it for a bit.

The large candy jars, and jar paintings in general, I’ve been doing off and on for a decade, and they actually fulfill, more than anything else I do, one of my steadfast motivations: they are a balance between representation and abstraction and they are mostly about color. The scale and the way the jars are brought up close to the viewer, so that they seem near the surface of the canvas, gives me a chance to make color the primary concern, within the geometric patterns formed by the content of the jar. It’s as close to “pure painting” as I’ve gotten and is one way I’ve responded to my love for color field painting in the 60s, even though as a jar full of objects, it’s also a still life of sorts.


Monopoly Board Tokens, oil on linen, 40′ x 40″

I was pleased to learn recently that Monopoly Board Tokens was selected for inclusion in Manifest Gallery’s 9th International Painting Annual. They received 1313 entries from 399 artists and picked 122 works by 73 artists from nearly half a dozen different countries. I was included in the INPA 8 as well, which is available, and will be shipped soon for anyone who ordered it. Thanks, Manifest. Note: this is one of three paintings in a triptych: as part of the triptych it’s entitled Renunciation: Monopoly Board Tokens. 

Jessica Brilli

Jessica Brilli, Caddy in Carport, 2019, Oil on Canvas, 36×48

A preview of Jessica Brilli’s work, which keeps getting better and better, on view at Kobalt Gallery in August.


Earth, sky and water

Roadside I, Ken Townsend, oil on panel

There’s a little more than a week left to see Among Untrodden Ways at Oxford Gallery, and it’s well worth the time to get there before it closes. Sean Witucki, Charles Houseman, and Ken Townsend are all working in the same stylistic neighborhood, but each of them has a distinctly individual vision.

Of all the work from Witucki in the show, the standout is a small oil, only a foot in height,  Wolf Creek After the Rain. The way he renders the water of the creek purling over the shallow ledge of laminated shale so common in Western New York is remarkable. Anyone who has hiked the Finger Lakes will recognize that hardened prehistoric mudstone, once the bottom of a sea, under such a thin layer of fresh water. The color of the water, from ochre to olive and then to a gray/greenish blue where it recedes to the far rocky bank, is amazing. The little fringe of foam, harmless whitewater to a wader, beckons to the viewer, but it’s what’s below that remains enticingly visible, an inviting but risky submerged surface, seen through ripples and reflections of the sky. He manages to capture that sense of being able to look into the water down to the slippery face of the creek bed—there’s more trouble here than the shallow depth would suggest. One wrong step and you’re on your back. The woods beyond are done with Corot-like flicks of the brush on soft masses of color. The image conveys a rapt, luxuriant pleasure in the paradoxical stillness, the restfulness, of water that never stops changing but always seems the same. 

Charles Houseman has contributed more than a dozen of his newest paintings to the show, and I reacted most strongly to the most elemental, his vision of the Maine Coast, Great Head at Low Tide, where rock, sky, trees and tidal pool compose a scene that—like Townsend’s shale—could have remained largely the same for a hundred thousand years. It perfectly captures the way the Maine coast seems assembled—or rather dropped into place by a receding glacier—to repel anyone who isn’t standing on dry land, while still inviting you through a jagged gauntlet of stone with its hazy beauty. One of his smaller paintings, Newton Farm, was a minimalist composition with a small strip of land beneath a blue void, an apophatic affirmation of energy through the absence of everything inessential, both pictorially and for anyone actually standing out in that open field, taking it all in.

The revelation for me in this show is Ken Townsend’s assured versatility, where nearly every painting looks utterly natural while being carefully, masterfully designed. It’s his first appearance at Oxford and an auspicious one. Most of his paintings can be broken down into four areas of comparatively uniform value that lock together like a simple puzzle, with all the detail rendered as variations within that particular value—darkest, second darkest, second lightest and lightest. The way he gives each of these areas a clearly defined contour, compositionally, makes the paintings so visually powerful. It also enables him to emphasize and augment the color in each of these areas almost as an abstractionist would. He could push this even more than he does, but when he allows himself some rich hues, the colors are beautifully chosen, deeply felt. This is readily apparent in work like Gardner’s Road and Mendon Ponds, an overhead glimpse of water lilies, with one small white blossom serving as the tiny, lightest section. Yet a second painting of probably those same water lilies, Dar Reflected, is a perfect example of how Townsend is able to lay down areas of vibrant color by emphasizing and unifying those four areas of value and working within them as a structure for the image. All the viewer sees is a flat stretch of violet water, reflecting the sky, throughout most of the lower half of the painting, broken up by a cluster of lilies with one blossom, and then in the upper half of the canvas, the reflection of the dark woods and at the top, what appears to be the rippled reflection of a two-toned kayak with a slash of pink for the paddler. Keeping out of view what would have been the subject of the whole painting for most painters (Eakins, for example) is what enlivens the entire scene. The brilliant blue and green of that reflection draw your eye and then leave it wanting, hinting at what’s almost visible, so that what you actually see feels more like a memory or a dream of something even more alive than what’s available to the eye.

The Townsend painting that knocked me out, though, was a very small square one, Roadside I, executed with palette knife. The technique, though rougher and more approximate than any of the paintings done with brushes, creates a snowy embankment almost more visually convincing than anything else in the show—with a tremendous sense of clarity. Again, he’s broken down what he sees into continuous areas of value, the darkest, a line of trees on the horizon, then the brightest strip, in the patchy snow just beneath it and then, above and blow these two tiers of color, the cerulean sky and a violet reflection of the sky in the snowbank, sharing almost the same value, with a triangle of road at the bottom, the second-darkest region of the image. He captures everything perfectly, the low sunlight scudding almost horizontally across the embankment, the becalmed sky, and the purple shadows that look scraped into the soil and driven over by a plow or a truck, yet without any indication of exact detail in the thickly scumbled paint from under his knife. The eye sees what it expects to see though it isn’t really there. He works into the image not just the purple of the snow and the classic blue of the sky but a little strip of orangish growth along the tree line, a color also breaking through the snow in the foreground, that makes the other colors sing a little more distinctly. It’s a perfect painting, hopefully hinting of more to come. 

(Note: for fun, see if you can find the one Witucki painting in the show that bears the same title as an old Pearl Jam song.)

A train is also just a train

J.M.W. Turner, Rain Steam and Speed

From My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s phenomenological angle on Turner’s painting: 

. . . the eye that puts aside all it knows, that puts aside all preexisting insight, is the eye that can see the world anew, as if it were emerging before it for the very first time. Turner was interested in the relationship between the inconstant and the immutable, the solid and the fluid, and in that way the train becomes an expression not of anything else, one of the many categories into which it might be placed to do with modernity, industrialism, civilization, and the man-made, but only of what it is in itself, in pure physical terms, an enormous iron object proceeding along an iron track, almost obliterated by the snow, which would obliterate almost any other object in the same way: a sailing ship, a horse-drawn carriage, a funeral procession, a bear.

—Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Volume 6

The painting shows how dwarfed this massive iron horse appears in the context of a nature overpowering and sublime. Our view of nature now is both the same and the opposite: in the “anthropocene,” we constantly tell ourselves that we are changing everything around us, spoiling it and twisting it into a state of imbalance and disorder, and we makers of engines are going to incite nature to violent storms and deadly droughts and massive, hostile phenomena akin to what Turner was depicting. The difference is that now we think our little engines, our technological and chemical footprints, cause the storm that envelopes them and threatens their and our disappearance. Now the engine in the painting, as it were, creates what dwarfs and erases it from view–we are the storm. As usual with human beings, it’s all about us. 

Knausgaard glosses over Turner’s awe and passion for nature’s beauty and power, no matter how hostile it becomes to human life, his Romantic devotion to nature as a new sort of God, a source of mystery, if not meaning. He’s right that Turner wasn’t trying to illustrate an idea, but convey through perception and intuition the relationship between human life and a larger, implacable world–the way Chinese scroll paintings juxtaposed tiny human figures against beautiful, craggy mountains, putting us into proper perspective within the whole. (It’s nice that the Sung Dynasty had no locomotives to include.) Man isn’t the measure of all things, in those paintings, except as a unit for judging the scale of a world infinitely more extensive than the human body and human concerns. 


Visions of the unbuilt

Andrea Durfee at ROCO

When I was growing up, in both East St. Louis and then in Idaho, my family lived at the edge of undeveloped land. These havens for my imagination weren’t protected, just overlooked or privately owned—undisturbed stretches of wildlife and undergrowth, a mix of grassy slopes, streams, and wooded paths. In a suburb at the edge of East St. Louis, it was a small copse at the base of the hill behind our little Cape Cod, and in Idaho, from our home sitting at the rim of the bench—just above the Boise Valley—I could walk to the edge of our back yard and look down at a fenced pasture with horses and, alongside it, the only human development within a convenient walking distance from the base of the slope, a sawmill. (We had some dangerous forbidden fun bounding across those floating logs.) My friends and my brother and I would spend hours in those spaces, only dimly aware of the smells, the soft feel of the earth, the birds and insects—yet all of it was imprinting itself on my mind whole, planting in me the desire to grow things as an adult and to get outside whenever possible. In those little overlooked tracts of wildness, I felt in touch with myself and the world in a way that I couldn’t in school or inside our home, in front of a television, the only screen that existed back then. 

There’s a surplus of artwork on view in Rochester right now devoted, more or less, to the symmetry between human nature and the natural world. (Thou art that, the ancient Hindu philosophers would say.) In a fortunate coincidence, while Oxford Gallery is showing the work of three masterful landscape painters, Rochester Contemporary Art Center has assembled a themed show, Landscapes and the Unbuilt, that celebrates the slightly paradoxical effort that we human beings are making to keep from spoiling places like the ones that helped shape me as a kid. We’re intervening to prevent ourselves from, well, intervening. For the RoCo show, a group of artists took as their subject a particular parcel of land under the protection of the Genesee Land Trust, and they created one or more works to capture the spirit of the place. The work is all marvelous, especially grouped together in a way that amplifies each individual effort—and some of it represents the best work I’ve yet seen from these particular artists. The terms of the show may have brought out new dimensions in their work by forcing some of them to pay attention to the particulars of a specific place.

I responded most intensely to what I saw just inside the entrance to the East Avenue membership gallery. There’s an intricacy and density in Andrea Durfee’s paintings and Bill Stephens’s drawings that makes it hard to get any deeper into the exhibition, there’s so much to see in just one or two of these pieces up front. In the work of both, the task of having to convey an actual, particular place—to sift through myriad impressions of a specific location and nurture a companionship with that landscape—produced excellent results. I’ve always liked Durfee’s work, but the clarity and particularity of her vision is amazing in her three largest paintings of Full Lotus Farm in Arcadia, NY. It feels like a new benchmark for her. She uses flat areas of color outlined with spiderweb-thin lines, vaguely reminiscent of stained glass. Her technique echoes the outlines of cloisonnism and some of the Nabis, yet her paintings have a different effect on the viewer—they draw you deep into the scene she depicts, forgetful of the painted surface, though they aren’t conventionally realistic. In each one, she conceals a nude female figure—her avatar, maybe—merged with the landscape yet emerging like bedrock pushed up from beneath permafrost.

Each of these images could serve as an emblem of the show’s purpose, to emphasize the symbiotic unity between nature and its most conflicted creature. Yet here, these elements of her style efface themselves behind the vibrant light and the scene’s immediacy. You feel the sun on your face and hear the cicadas. The surfeit of detail in the foreground of her recent paintings somehow unifies itself into an effect like the energy of a summer day. The most impressive painting in her grouping, Through the Garden, depicts receding tiers of vegetation, layers of growth that stand at successive distances behind a frieze of wild grasses in the foreground done with assiduous draftsmanship. These swaying stems are backed by more and more distant strata, with the female nude so unobtrusively camouflaged beyond a road as an irregular bulge of earth that I missed it at first and wondered if Durfee had given up on the trope. In these pieces, it works perfectly and underscores the point of the show: how hard it is to draw a border between human nature and the world it reflects. 

Directly across from her work are some of the largest drawings I’ve seen from Bill Stephens—and the surprise is that somehow the larger scale seems to have spurred him to find even more dense levels of entrancing detail, smaller regions of fascination within larger forms that emerge under his pen. In his methods, Stephens is has essentially been a surrealist, surrendering to process, letting the image emerge on its own as he works instinctively from his first marks. Yet here he’s taking pains to capture particulars of what he saw at Gosnell Big Woods Preserve in Webster. The results are dramatic and some of the work reminds me of Barry Moser’s illustrations of the dark wood introduced at the opening of The Divine Comedy. These drawings feel like work done from a deep sense of confidence and purpose, in a way the sort of images he’s been working toward over the past few years, and the marvel is how much he finds to see and show in ink drawings that conjure up psychological depths from a few gnarled roots or frond-like leaves. As in Durfee’s paintings, there’s a fine balance between complexity of detail and overall unity—how the unity is achieved represents part of what fascinates. In my favorite piece, Big Woods Spirit, what appears to be a twisted tree trunk, in literal terms, morphs into a hooded figure, like a ranger from Lord of the Rings or maybe a hint of Donatello’s prophet, some visionary wandering in from a long stay in the wilderness, impossible to ignore or dismiss. I think I wouldn’t want to turn my back on this particular tree—out of respect and maybe caution—and then I remember I’m looking at something akin to driftwood. It doesn’t diminish the respect.

Jean Stephens brings a similar kind of intensity—with a more traditional emphasis on building form from areas of value rather than with her husband’s storm of etching-fine lines—in her graphite drawings from Ganargua Creek Meadow Preserve. In a poem she wrote about the project, on display with the work, she refers to the trees and vegetation as “these old gals” and her imagery evokes an anthropomorphic likeness to human form in vegetation and the earth—but, as with Durfee, the vegetative world reveals itself to Stephens as distinctly female. It’s a cosmic yin to the yang of human technology and artifice. Portal shows an ancient-looking trunk where it spreads out into exposed roots as a door between inner and outer, a gnarly portal that might be a feminist nod more toward Georgia O’Keefe than Judy Chicago. These anatomical overtures speak more about nature’s generative power than gender politics.

Even though Phyllis Bryce Ely has been exhibiting a lot over the past year—at Main Street Arts and Oxford—she doesn’t appear to be stretching herself thin. This show, on the heels of the others, gives you maybe the clearest way to see the full scope of her work, from oil to encaustic. Some of the small paintings in wax serve as simple, iconic distillations of what she saw at Cornwall Preserve in Williamson, NY. Yet her most characteristic strengths are in her larger oils. The swirls of sky and land almost seem emblems of altered states: psychotropic visions of a natural order. If Edvard Munch had been a much happier camper, he might have painted scenes like this.

She was paying a visit to the exhibition when Bill Santelli and I arrived to see the show, and she explained that the artists all had about two months during which to do the work, a very tight opportunity, and she hadn’t gotten to know her paintings much before delivering them to RoCo. “I feel a little exposed,” she said. One of the interesting features in several of the paintings: she did them on discarded engineering vellums, from the planning office where she works in Penfield. Developers bring them in and if something turns out to be unacceptable in a particular schematic, they toss out the drawing and bring back a revised one. She collects these discards and uses them as a support, with a palimpsest of lines and words showing through layers of paint. In some cases, the drawings resonate or contrast with the image she applies to them.

I can’t do justice to all the work in the show, though it’s all fascinating and beautifully presented. Jennifer Schinzing’s glass boxes laden with beautiful, lapidary glass sculpture serve as beds for small taxidermied animals: bunnies, birds, and squirrels. It sounds macabre, but the effect is entirely the opposite: the small animals look asleep. The work is serene and almost radiant, qualities virtually impossible to capture in a photograph. (I know; I tried.) Nate Hodge, who has done murals throughout the region, produced a single painting, with an assembly of collateral objects linked to the site he depicts and his interaction with it, including a pair of muddy boots. The parameters of the show: to produce work that conveys a relationship with one particular place seems to have focused and concentrated his talent–as if may have done with Durfee and Stephens–in a way that makes the painting much more intricate and concentrated than his expansive murals. The work is a soaring abstract evoking a forested scene under a brilliant sky, though nothing is rendered in conventional ways. It’s assured and  exuberant, spontaneous but disciplined. It feels as if he’s worked hard to be true to something outside his imagination. The outcome is exhilarating.

Seeing for the first time

Jim Mott, from his recent show at ROCO

My next post will be about the current, marvelous exhibition at ROCO: a group of artists showing work that celebrates a particular place worthy of preservation in this region. But first I wanted to catch up on Jim Mott, whose own work would have found a place into that show if only he hadn’t had a solo exhibition there just a short while ago. Jim does, all of the time, what the artists now on view at ROCO did simply for the curatorial purposes of the exhibition:  to pick a place, sometimes at random, and depict whatever he sees as equally worthy of consideration, no matter what it is. 

Mott came by for a cup of tea recently and talked about a variety of things and rather than take time to rework our conversation into a regular post, I’ll just pass along the conversation, as I’ve done before, which should be of interest to his fans. I have high hopes for the residency he’s seeking at the University of Michigan. I think his proposal should get some serious interest, but the ordinariness of his work almost puts it outside the mainstream now—but he has an interesting angle on how he might present his project, which he discusses. He stayed long enough to touch on a lot of different things, yet left in time to get in some cross-country skiing at Mendon Ponds Park before it got dark: 

Jim: I’ve been reading this longish book. Richard Powers? A friend of mine from Nature Conservancy gave me this novel of his about trees. The first half is brilliant but the second is good but not as exciting. He takes nine different characters, odd people who are moved by trees toward something and then he goes to a showdown in the Northwest. It’s intensely poetic and full of information. He got a genius award.

That always helps.

Jim: He gets all ecstatic about trees. I didn’t loan you Julian Bell did I?

I don’t think so. Are you still communicating with him?

Jim: Yeah, I have an open invitation if I ever get to England. 

<I mention that I’m reading the last volume of My Struggle, which includes a long essay about Hitler and how Knausgaard thinks the modern era has de-individualized society and has cut people off from nature so that