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Figurative states of being

Lacoon, Julio Reyes, egg tempera on panel, 16″ x 16.5″

You have a few more days to catch the exhibit of egg tempera paintings from Julio Reyes at Arcadia on W. Broadway in SoHo. They are well worth the visit. He has an ability to use figurative painting to convey internal states of mind and heart. He searches for objective correlatives, as T.S. Eliot referred to the poet’s quest, for these complex internal worlds. Some of his oils are included in the show, but mostly you’ll see his recent efforts in this medium that’s been around far longer than oil. Steve Diamant, who is almost always at the gallery when it’s open and ready to offer commentary on the artists he has chosen to represent for years–the old-school way–shook his head with admiration when I asked about the process. He said it’s arduous, time-consuming and requires the building up of an image through many coats of paint, mixed from pigment and raw egg yolks. The medium was used by artists as diverse at Botticelli, Thomas Hart Benton and Andrew Wyeth. Up close, the mark-making is a marvel. It’s essentially an impressionist technique, where Reyes builds up his forms through thousands of repetitive marks, but each one has its own distinctive and precisely defined shape. The images are luminous, dreamlike and suggestive of heightened states of perception and feeling, and the workmanship is masterful, personal, fully-realized.

New work, Bill Stephens

New work from Bill Stephens

I sat down last week with Bill Stephens and Bill Santelli, outside Santelli’s home studio near Powder Mill Park. We talked for three hours about many things including my exhilarating recent visit to New York, and their work. I saw one older painting from Santelli hanging on his wall that knocked me out–I’ll post it next. Stephens sent me these two recent pieces, continuing evidence that he and his wife, Jean, are the most experimental painters I know at the moment. Their work continues to morph into new areas, sometimes gradually, but also abruptly and unpredictably. These two acrylics by Bill are marvelous in entirely different ways, the one Rothko-ish and the other drawing comparisons to Monet from Santelli. Yes, if Monet had been at the bottom of his water lily pond looking up toward a sunny sky . . .

Zoey Frank’s counter-cultural party

Zoey Frank, Pool Party, Oil on canvas, 114 x 96”

Art isn’t a contest. There are plenty of art competitions, yes, and there are hierarchies of talent, but the idea of scoring Piero against Giotto . . . what would that even mean? However, if painting were a competition, after seeing Zoey Frank’s current work, painters with a competitive itch might want to consider something comparatively easy as an alternative, like running a three-minute mile.

Frank is freakishly talented, a technical virtuoso whose work often has a cool, emotionally remote tone. Her chill facility hasn’t exactly been a hindrance. It was no surprise when Danese/Corey decided to sell her work. As I’ve followed her, I’ve often felt her greatest strengths were the ability to capture and convey fine gradients of inarticulate feeling—my favorite kind—where it’s almost impossible to distinguish between feeling and perception. She achieves this through her amazing discriminations of how light falls in different ways on objects depending on their distance from the viewer and position in a particular space. Her spaces seem quietly more alive than the objects that occupy them, her scenes hauntingly discernible, but in an indeterminate way.

She’s never content with representational prowess, constantly requiring the viewer’s visual understanding to flip back and forth between two and three dimensions, flattening her image into abstract patterns and then popping it back out into what’s easily identified, often without feeling the need to make the image entirely coherent. Much of this is at the core of what the perceptual painters tend to do, but she does it in an especially complex way, and the complexity often feels like something she has pursued for its own sake. Her surfaces are intensely alive, offering no place to rest. She gives her scenes an allover quality that dispenses with anything like a focal point, in the way a Persian rug greets the eye, but without its regularity and symmetry. She wants that middle ground between verisimilitude and geometry, but she also wants to create an almost Escher-like visual tension in a scene that often seems visually impossible so that the abstract and representational elements don’t quite abide each other. This strategy disorients the viewer, taking you out of familiar time and space, pushing you into a waking dream, vaguely nostalgic, that sometimes just flattens into a pattern that might as well be a strip of contact paper stuck to the canvas. With her, it’s sometimes like seeing the world whilst being a tad high on a controlled substance. It isn’t surrealism. She has none of that dark weirdness. Looking at her epic scenes of social gatherings, her teeming hives of cheerful and happy human activity, it’s more like remembering a sunny summer love-in from the Sixties than some episode from the subconscious. It isn’t about the recesses of the mind. She’s is an intensely outward-looking painter.

Her latest post on Instagram won me over. It’s one of the large paintings she will be showing, starting Thursday, at Sugarlift, a thrilling little operation, full of hope, piss and vinegar–the breakfast of all champion painters and gallerists–in its view of the current art scene. There’s a bit of Artsy in its business model, I think, but it has a new, cool brick and mortar space on W. 28th St.  It seems to operate less like a traditional gallery and more like a continuous flash mob of quality painting outside the mold of the big white cubes where the most ridiculously priced work gets shown. (Pay a visit to Zwirner in Chelsea right now, if you want to see a depressing contrast of big money chasing diminishing returns for the viewer. It will intensify the glimpse of sanity that Sugarlift represents.)

In Frank’s new painting, people are situated around and in a swimming pool. Everything fits together. There’s no splicing of figures seemingly from different views of an event. Pool Party is of a piece with her other large paintings, where that civilized and more conservatively dressed hint of a Woodstock vibe lurks in her sun-drenched gatherings outdoors. But hers are well-behaved weddings and parties, domestic, familial, neighborly, not underscored by grand statements about life or society. These are scenes of contentment, friendly kinship. It’s an orgy of old-school normalcy and middle-class predictability. She plays it straight and lovingly. There’s no sardonic smirk here, nor does the technical virtuosity undercut the respect and pleasure she takes in the commonplace human connections of ordinary people she celebrates.

While she’s offering this quilt of hourly, mundane narratives, paintings as dense with briefly glimpsed human interactions as a Bruegel, she continues to work the surface of the painting in a slightly Cubist way, creating an armature of almost arbitrary lines that seem to serve as edges of shadow but also mark the transition from one quasi-flat area of paint to another, curving through a three-dimensional form. It’s the way a line works in a Braque tabletop, where a continuous fissure cutting through various forms can be both the edge of a knife and the string of a guitar. Yet in Pool Party these lines, these techniques, are subtle enough that you hardly notice them at first. Then, the more you look, the more you realize how flatly rendered shapes were just informative enough to seem three-dimensional. In this case, the patterns work as realism and don’t pull you out of it. That’s a remarkable truce between abstraction and representation. She has found the perfect balance here, for her. Somehow, the Cubist tendencies can make the three-dimensional shapes even more defined in a way that creates little pings of pleasant visual surprise. Swimsuits flatten into wallpaper patterns, but she divides the pattern into areas hit by the sun and those left in shadow—so the modeling of the form comes simply from the shift in values rather than by curving the pattern of a swimsuit around the shape of a breast or hip. Flat patterns are everywhere in the interstices between faces and arms, yet they work without violating the realism of the image, as a kind of shorthand. A partition in the back of the gazebo moves across your field of view, peeking out between people, making the image shallower by pressing forward against the three-dimensional figures, so that everything and everyone seems to be placed in compacted space, all of the bodies quietly roiling together almost as one organism. (Which contributes to the Persian rug effect.) Everything presses forward. Step back and the entire image looks like a large complex pattern itself, a continuum from one edge to the other, with no negative space, no background as such, not even those leaves clustered in the upper corner.

Yet, in this painting, even with all of this modernist business going on, the image, at first glance (and then after continued study) still looks almost as directly presented as, say, The Surrender at Breda, an equally busy, complicated image. What Pool Party has in common with Velasquez is, well, a whole bunch of people, but also the sense of immediacy, the living breathing present moment, with a flame of joy at its heart (as Velasquez has in Breda). Without any mediation, without any sly, knowing commentary or any attempt to take you out of the abundant pulse of the now, she offers an appreciation for the decency of the people having fun in and around a pool. The way the two figures reach up and wrestle with a colorful banner, or bunting, for the party, in the upper right corner brings to mind the two figures in Raft of the Medusa—another group of people crammed together—desperately lifting fabric into the air as an S.O.S., a plea for rescue from the ocean. The irony of that reference is slightly comical: the ocean has been tamed into a recreational pool and life has become reliable, safe, and predictable—people surround the water, not the other way around. This is no place for Gericault’s existential dread. That mood, that happy affirmation of what human society has achieved, seems to be where Frank is headed, and in this regard, speaking of water, she actually brings to mind Renoir. It’s thrilling to see someone step back to the dawn of modernism, the Impressionists, and harmonize her scene with Renoir’s boating party in their tank tops and straw hats, everyone laughing, everyone fully alive, nothing contrived going on with the way the paint is finding its place on Renoir’s canvas. Pool Party is far more contrived stylistically but it works in a similar way. It’s about fun.

That willingness to echo Renoir, though, lurks as something radical, by implication, in this painting. Not radical in the old art historical terms. Radical as a skeptical apprehension of where the past century and a half have taken us as an intellectual culture, with a refusal of the brooding critique of normalcy that art seems required to embrace since Picasso and the early expressionists. Formally, Frank is pulling from quieter modernist traditions, but here is a painting—in its totality—that actually affirms ordinary human experience familiar to most people as a good thing. And she is affirming it without condescension, without a political agenda, without any pretense of superiority toward what is essentially ordinary, middle-class happiness. Norman Rockwell did this as well, brilliantly, and it took decades for someone by the name of Dave Hickey to give Rockwell the respect he deserved. There’s a lot more going on here than in one of Rockwell’s paintings; Frank’s painting is steeped in modernism’s journey into abstraction, but in spirit it’s a celebration of human ordinariness that seems to have been largely occluded by visual art and its intellectual analysis over the past century or so. Marxism’s identification of the bourgeoisie as the repository of everything inauthentic and oppressive—a loathing embedded almost subconsciously in much of what has happened in visual art in the 20th century—seems to have no place here. This is a vision of American suburban life, dug in, settled and secure, unglamorous, friendly. Renoir’s drinkers were charismatic. They could have been the young and beautiful hipsters, the Silver Lake and Williamsburg crowd, of their day. Here, almost everyone in the painting who isn’t a child is middle-aged or older. This is the mundane happiness most people feel in their lives right now, pandemic notwithstanding, contrary to the vision of our culture that’s fed into the port behind your neck the debased media keeps plugging itself into, hoping for a profit. Frank’s is a subversively beneficent vision of what actually rules in this country most of the time for most people: friendship, family, decency, love, happiness, and cheerful conversation. These days, a painting that affirms that kind of everyday beauty in a happy community of people feels both gleefully against the grain—counter-cultural in a way the Woodstock generation would have considered extremely uncool—and deeply wise.

New work from Jean Stephens

Through the Hedgerow, Jean Stephens, encaustic on board, 8″ x 8″

Jean Stephens has one of her newest paintings on view at the Annual Spring Member’s Exhibition at Mill Art Center and Gallery in Honeoye Falls. It’s a small landscape in encaustic, Through the Hedgerow, an example of how she’s working more loosely with her medium, with impressive results. It’s a more experimental phase for her, part of a transformation in her work over the past couple years, and she’s getting some remarkable results. The show includes the work of a couple dozen member artists, all of it interesting. Stephens also has an excellent figure drawing chosen for a national show at Main Street Arts, on view now as well in Clifton Springs, juried by Steffi Chappell, assistant curator at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse. Both exhibitions close on June 11.

Bartlett Pears, Redux

Bartlett Pears, 12″ x 16″, oil on linen

My life the past two years has toggled between slow-burning family emergencies punctuated by intervals of regular, predictable daily hours of painting. The crises have morphed into ongoing obligations to care for family members who need assistance, but this is a shift toward regularity that allows me to restore the concentrated, monotonous, repetitive attention essential for painting. I’m finally emerging from unpredictable interruptions and, if I’m lucky, I’m hoping I can look forward to quite a few years of being able to put in significant daily hours of work.  It’s what I need to finish a suite of paintings I started more than two years ago: images of salt-water taffy I haven’t been posting because I want to complete most of the whole series in order to decide what to put on view. I’ve completed only ten of these paintings so far—even the smaller ones have taken four to six weeks, with six weeks as the average for painting the largest of them. Even at that deliberate rate, I should have completed far more than ten, but for the entire summer two years ago while providing care for my father I was unable to sit at the easel and then I had several months helping my brother get my mom’s life in order in his absence. Then my son and daughter-in-law left California to stay here in Rochester during the pandemic, finally deciding to actually move here when Laura realized she could work remotely as a video producer—which Matthew may be able to do as well once they hire help for childcare. A freak automobile accident created a situation similar to what we faced with my father two years ago—but Laura eventually recovered enough for them to buy and move into a home a mile away. And then she had a baby, their second son. Her recovery and the new grandchild are a blessing, but also—in a wonderful way—it has provided fresh excuses to do things other than paint. All of this has prompted me to go dormant for periods on Instagram and this blog, still working pretty diligently, but not communicating much about what I’ve been doing.

Next month I should be able to restore the daily/hourly discipline I enjoyed two years ago and eventually finish my series of salt-water taffy paintings and offer them as a solo show. Meanwhile, as a balance to the deliberate, painstaking work on the salt-water taffy paintings—they are not hyper-realistic; the marks are visible up close, as usual, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse (in my view)—I’ve started a side practice of doing small, traditional paintings with a quicker, more painterly technique. As the first in this line, last week I finished a second version of a painting I did more than a dozen years ago, two Bartlett pears in a small metal dish. It’s a second version of the first painting I ever entered into a juried exhibition—my first entry was also my first acceptance—at the Arkell Museum. This version required four days, but could have been finished in two. I’m pleased with the results, but it was a fascinating learning experience. At every turn in the process, I recognized my ability to get the image convincingly close to the original painting, but also saw how impossible it was to duplicate the exact tone of the original paint. There’s an almost greenish undertone at the bottom of the foreground pear, in the dents, a marvelous cool tone I came up with mixing who-knows-what color into another. It was enjoyable to look at my past work and react the way I do when I see work that impresses me from other painters: How did that happen? The impression this painting gives, now that it’s complete, is virtually identical to what I see when I glance at a photograph of the first painting, but in each detail, the color is slightly different from what I mixed while painting the first version. The relationship among all the tones is what holds up between the earlier painting and this new one. I did this once before—doing a second version of an earlier painting—with a small painting of a sugar bowl I exhibited at the Butler Institute of American Art. In that case, I discovered that I actually preferred the second version to the first. I don’t plan on doing a slew of new versions of old paintings. I want to embark on a new set of small, simple still lifes—with a less assiduous attention to photographic detail, more emphasis on “putting one spot of color next to another spot of color” in a way that captures how light falls on various colors and forms. I hope to make the character of the paint on the surface of the canvas part of what gives the viewer pleasure. What I’m hoping is to experience the pleasure of actually finishing a painting a bit more often than the taffy paintings have afforded.

We’ll see if successive efforts lead me toward some insights I can apply to the more strenuous project of the large taffy paintings—I’m already discovering many new things to keep in mind in those paintings, new personal guidelines I discovered as I finished the tenth one a month ago. Also, I’m planning to have a new studio built as an addition to our home this summer as well—so, in preparation for the construction I’ve moved into a more confined space at the moment, while looking forward to the largest and brightest studio I will have ever had. I’m determined not to let the construction distract me from my own work, but I know how that goes, based on the past two years . . .

Oregon Fringe Festival Opening Celebration

Join the Oregon Fringe Festival on Wednesday, April 28, 2021 at 6:00 p.m. to celebrate the opening of this year’s festival!

Dean Kyle, Ashland, Oregon percussionist
Dean Kyle, percussionist

Meet artists and producers and enjoy an evening of performances and visual arts exhibitions, a mixed drink demonstration from Hearsay Restaurant, Lounge, and Garden, Honorarium Recipient Awards from Festival Director, Paige Gerhard, and more…

Performances will feature Alexandra Doyle and Lily Gelfand, dancer and composer from Brooklyn, NY, and Dean Kyle, percussionist from Ashland, OR.

(Ashland, Ore.) Each spring, the Oregon Center for the Arts produces the Oregon Fringe Festival (OFF), a multi-day event bringing together emerging creators and real-world artistic practitioners to share their respective experiences and to engage with each other’s work. The festival’s mission is simple: to provide a boundary-breaking platform for free expression and to celebrate unconventional art and unconventional spaces.

This year, we are excited to announce that the OFF will feature over 50 acts from over 40 different artists. From live virtual performances to artist lectures/workshops, an extensive virtual gallery, and outdoor art installations, viewers will have the opportunity to interact with a variety of creative work.

Individuals with disabilities are encouraged to attend our events. If you are a person with a disability who requires accommodation(s) in order to participate in this festival, then please contact Disability Resources at [email protected] in advance.

The OFF is committed to providing a boundary-breaking platform for free expression that amplifies the voices of those who are all too unrepresented in the creative arts industry. A lens focusing on equity, diversity, and inclusion will filter our selection process for all projects submitted.

Alexandra Doyle and Lily Gelfand
Alexandra Doyle and Lily Gelfand

– OCA at SOU –

About the Oregon Center for the Arts:

The Oregon Center for the Arts at Southern Oregon University serves as a creative catalyst for the mixture of students, educators, and artists from the state, the nation and the world. The beautiful Southern Oregon mountain setting provides a special place to learn, explore and train in all of the arts disciplines.

Visit: oca.sou.edu

About Southern Oregon University:

Southern Oregon University is 175 acres of beautifully maintained campus with outstanding facilities, occupied by a committed and well-respected faculty and talented students. SOU’s vision is to be an inclusive, sustainable university for the future. Faculty, staff and leadership collaborate to achieve those ideals, and are united in their dedication to the students who will create lives of purpose and fulfill our region’s

promise. SOU enhances the economic, cultural and social well-being of southern Oregon, and helps its students learn the skills to work both independently and collaboratively, be adaptable and embrace creativity. Its diversity gives SOU both texture and strength. Students’ thoughtfully shared points of view are valued and respected.

Visit: sou.edu

Oregon Fringe Festival 2021 Schedule

2021 Oregon Fringe Festival is HERE!

Thursday, April 29 – Saturday, May 1, 2021

This year’s festival will take place online and feature outdoor art installations located on the SOU campus.

https://oregonfringefestival.org/2021-off

This is a free, virtual, and in-person event. Submission fees do not apply.

The Oregon Fringe Festival is excited to announce that this year’s schedule is HERE! Please visit our website or review the pdf below (it’s a large file, so please give it a moment to load and/or refresh the page if it doesn’t display) for a complete list of performances and exhibitions. We’ve included dates and times, descriptions, performance links, and more. Don’t forget to follow us on social media either! Festival highlights will be covered in addition to other pertinent information.

Facebook and Instagram: @oregonfringe

(Ashland, Ore.) Each spring, the Oregon Center for the Arts produces the Oregon Fringe Festival (OFF), a multi-day event bringing together emerging creators and real-world artistic practitioners to share their respective experiences and to engage with each other’s work. The festival’s mission is simple: to provide a boundary-breaking platform for free expression and to celebrate unconventional art and unconventional spaces.

This year, we are excited to announce that the OFF will feature over 50 acts from over 40 different artists. From live virtual performances to artist lectures/workshops, an extensive virtual gallery, and outdoor art installations, viewers will have the opportunity to interact with a variety of creative work.

Individuals with disabilities are encouraged to attend our events. If you are a person with a disability who requires accommodation(s) in order to participate in this festival, then please contact Disability Resources at [email protected] in advance.

The OFF is committed to providing a boundary-breaking platform for free expression that amplifies the voices of those who are all too unrepresented in the creative arts industry. A lens focusing on equity, diversity, and inclusion will filter our selection process for all projects submitted.

About the Oregon Center for the Arts:

The Oregon Center for the Arts at Southern Oregon University serves as a creative catalyst for the mixture of students, educators, and artists from the state, the nation and the world. The beautiful Southern Oregon mountain setting provides a special place to learn, explore and train in all of the arts disciplines.

Visit: oca.sou.edu

About Southern Oregon University:

Southern Oregon University is 175 acres of beautifully maintained campus with outstanding facilities, occupied by a committed and well-respected faculty and talented students. SOU’s vision is to be an inclusive, sustainable university for the future. Faculty, staff and leadership collaborate to achieve those ideals, and are united in their dedication to the students who will create lives of purpose and fulfill our region’s promise. SOU enhances the economic, cultural and social well-being of southern

Oregon, and helps its students learn the skills to work both independently and collaboratively, be adaptable and embrace creativity. Its diversity gives SOU both texture and strength. Students’ thoughtfully shared points of view are valued and respected.

Visit: sou.edu

Flash of genius

Mark Tennant, untitled from Instagram

Mark Tennant ought to be understood as one of the perceptual painters, but he doesn’t really adhere to any of the half dozen implicit rules the hardcore members of that group observe: the delicate balance between flatness and the illusion of depth; the preference for middle values, the slight fetish for letting one’s process show through a palimpsest effect that, for example, allows the viewer to see pencil lines through thin layers of paint or ghosts of earlier and abandoned shapes; their willingness to repeatedly rework a surface, groping toward a final resolution; a preference for middle values; and a general avoidance of photography. Tennant doesn’t adhere much to any of this, but his work shows random glimpses of mundane life in a way that works as both representation and almost gestural abstraction, which seems the prime directive for most perceptual painters. Tennant always works, it seems, from snapshots. His paintings seem intensely immediate and present—an impression of human motion frozen by an explosion of light. The work of the perceptual painters seems closer to the indeterminacy of memory, its slightly faded moodiness, than to the crisp detail of what greets the eye here and now. Tennant’s work oddly toggles between past and present, but it seems to make the past look contemporaneous, rather than the other way around. The look of a snapshot evokes the past, by definition, but what you see in one of his paintings seems alive and ready to move, something that caught your eye fifteen minutes ago. He loves the baleful glare of flash photography and the way it gives relief to figures, nudging them toward the viewer by coating them with dark outlines, penumbras of visible shadow that often seem, by some inexplicable leap, to hint at moral decline.

What’s so remarkable about his paint is the way it looks fresh, spontaneous, alla prima, and yet so astonishingly accurate—each little painting is like a visual haiku, the scene reduced to the fewest possible descriptive details, a face nothing but spots of color with three tiny marks to indicate eyes and nose, no need to even indicate a mouth. But nothing looks all that worked over: he’s giving you just what’s there, minus all the information you simply don’t need. That’s classic painting, but it feels, in his hands, like something fresh and unfamiliar. (And that’s great painting.) So simply executed, yet that little face of the woman in the center of her cocktail party chatter, that visage the size of a fingerprint, would be instantly recognizable to anyone who knew her, whoever she is. How is that possible? The eyes—like the tiny eyes in a very small El Greco I saw in New York years ago—convey a whole world of personality and experience, a soul. But Tennant has nothing else in common with the Greek. There’s no transcendence here, just that unforgiving flash of light and the darkness it only briefly penetrates. At first, his brushwork seems to descend from Matisse and Porter, looking loose and bold, everything quick as a sketch. But he’s intensely accurate, and his sensibility is brooding and ironic. His process may be much slower than it looks, so the painterly effect probably goes back more to Manet and Sargent, where you have a sense of mastery closer to Velasquez than the Impressionists, and they share Tennant’s vision of how metropolitan sophistication draws some of its energy from decadence. Matisse and Porter use color and tone for their own sake, presenting the joy of natural light just as it is, reaching out and embracing the world with love and appreciation; Tennant inhabits a spiritual world as distant from theirs as Alaska is from Africa. Perhaps what continues to awe me with the work he posts is how much it has evolved and crossed some kind of qualitative border late in his career into this recent mastery. Decades of work leading to the alchemy of this transformation after so much effort: Porter crossed that border too in his last decade. You can see something similar happening as well in the work of some other painters, like Stuart Shils, on Instagram. It’s marvelous.

Master builder

There’s a nice video on YouTube about Philip Reed, a professional model builder: “a man who has committed his life to his craft; a lifetime of scrutinising detail, obsession, perfectionism, and in the end, something truly beautiful.” The short film is more reverential than instructive, if you want to know how he actually does what he does, but some of his comments in the video certainly resonate:

I remember Gerald Cooper, a very renowned painter. One day he just stood and looked at us for a while. He said, “I’m going to tell you the secret to happiness. Get up every morning and paint a flower before breakfast.” That is what he loved to do. So the first thing he did in the morning was that which he loved.

I think of them as three-dimensional paintings.

There are many times when little is achieved. There is frustrating research to be carried out and dead times when nothing seems to move forward. But then there are many others when the work just flows and you enter a very quiet space. Time passes effortlessly.

I go through very dark times sometimes. A recent model I’ve been building, every day has been struggle. It’s difficult. I need focus. The work is very fine. I don’t want to be there. But if you keep going you discover something new and suddenly it’s as if the sun’s come out and I’m loving what I’m doing again.

There are moments of excitement and pleasure when you start to see it come together. If you can get the tone, the color, and everything blend together, that final stage, working through it, is a joy.

 

Engaging in creative work can be, at its best, a mystical experience. I don’t know what is behind the creation of art. It’s something innate in man. It’s one of the profound mysteries in human life: creative work and art.

Susan Jane Walp

Four Figs, Two Swans, and Pair of Scissors, 2017, oil on linen, 10.125 x 10″

Matt Klos invited me to sit in on a group Zoom last week with Susan Jane Walp, hosted by Klos and Candice Hill, who teaches in the English Department at Anne Arundel Community College, where Matt teaches painting. Walp has a quiet, distinguished career, living in Vermont, studying Tibetan Buddhism and painting and doing little else, having moved there from Soho where she worked in the 80s. It was a long, interesting conversation partly because so much of it felt attenuated by Walp’s difficulty in putting the most essential elements of what she does into words. That’s refreshing, a person of few words in an era where we live under a tsunami of social media inanity. A lot of the discussion was about a series of improvisational paintings she’s done as a meditation on the loss of her husband six years ago, paintings that somehow remind me of Jung’s The Red Book images, not in form but in spirit—as if she has been sketching emotional and spiritual archetypes drawn from her own subconscious. These are quite different from her core work in still life. What I found most useful was the discussion of these still lifes on linen.

The most interesting questions and answers were on how her work in oil resolves itself into something she considers finished; how she manages to keep the process feeling alive and risky after investing long days and weeks or months into a given painting; and what her primary considerations are, the core values, she tries to observe in the process of making a painting.

This last issue was very appropriate to this particular conversation, because Candice Hill specializes in lyric poetry with a focus on Emily Dickinson and found many parallels between Dickinson’s sidelong, elliptical poetry and Walp’s spare, improvisational watercolors. Walp has said she draws inspiration from Dickinson’s poems, their paradoxical sense of scale, particularly in Dickinson’s ability to evoke cosmic truth through such a tiny pillar of words on the page. That use of scale links her with Dickinson: the leverage involved in using something small to evoke something big. Walp’s paintings feel in some ways even smaller than Dickinson’s gnomic lines. Walp said: “Even in these paintings that are quite small, eight inches by eight inches, if that relationship becomes accurate (between the precise detail and the more indefinite lines of larger areas), I feel there’s something big about the painting.” Given this indebtedness to poetry, it wasn’t shocking that Walp cited Elizabeth Bishop, who was a serious painter as well as a uniquely great poet, as someone who perfectly articulated the three qualities creative work must have. Bishop said every poem needs to be accurate, spontaneous, and mysterious. Walp wants her paintings to hew to those rules.

There is a tremendous tension implicit in those first two qualities. How to be both improvisational and accurate seems to be a core competency for perceptual painters in general and a difficult tightrope to walk for any painter. (Fairfield Porter managed to balance accuracy and spontaneity perfectly again and again toward the end of his career, but Walp’s work doesn’t owe much to the way Porter handled paint, except in a few instances.)

Walp said: “In Dickinson the thing that has struck me in my non-scholarly reading of her work is the way that she can go from some very almost microcosmic detail to just the macrocosm. This idea of scale; how there can be an infinite space in such a physically small poem. That’s something I aspire to certainly in the still lifes . . . Bishop’s . . . three criteria for evaluating poems: accuracy, spontaneity and mystery. I’ve spent a lot of time working on the spontaneity. The mystery is divine grace. It’s given to you in certain work.”

Matt asked about how a painting arrives at a state she considers complete and didn’t get a direct answer, but more of a meditation on her process, especially the symbiotic counterpoint of going from watercolor to oil and back again. Specifically, she touched on a struggle all painters endure: having the courage to do what you don’t know how to do with a painting after having spent many days or weeks or months on it, plus the simple investment in materials, the monetary cost, all of the selfish concerns that work against creativity—how the prospect of loss in time and money can kill the courage required for spontaneity.

I’m a painter so in love with working toward articulating detail and the danger can often be that things kind of tighten up, so working on paper is a way to work more quickly. It has to do with the support I’m using. On paper, there’s a freedom in working on paper. If it doesn’t work out you can just toss it. It doesn’t really matter. Once you have this stretched linen that has been prepared with white lead and the stretchers are ordered custom-made, so there’s a certain pressure to actually bring the painting to completion. On paper it’s a much freer kind of endeavor. I always have worked on the paintings on paper, and I often work on two pieces on paper as I work on something on linen, and it becomes almost like a horse race. In the morning I’ll pick the piece that is the least good, and it’s very freeing because there are two that are better, so it frees you up to be courageous with it.

Klos asked her if the assiduous rendering of a little town on the side of a cork in one of her paintings was the byproduct of the same process that produced the rest of the much less minutely detailed surface. Her answer demonstrated how difficult it can be to describe the impetus of a painter’s quest—the inarticulate imperatives that govern how somebody applies paint in a certain way. Braque is without parallel in this regard, and there is much in her work that reminds me of Braque. His mid-career gueridons all look perfectly realized, and cosmically monumental, but their accuracy and grandeur has little to do with anything Braque could have captured with a photograph. There is nothing but the painting: no familiar source for the image against which to compare it. It has to have its own “inner necessity” as Kandinsky put it. It’s all pushed toward an intricate, decorative flatness, and yet you feel you’re almost looking at a life form he’s evolved in his studio lab rather than an image of anything outside the painting. Every centimeter of a Braque oil from that period is alive and proper in a way that can’t really be arrived at through a reasoned process. Walp talks about working from what she sees but the heart of her process is about “keeping it alive” which is when the representation of what she sees fails to be enough. Like Braque, but in a less radical way than his neo-Cubism.

Walp said, “I’m someone who believes that technique should follow the seeing because I’m working from observation and looking at the motif for a long, long period of time, so the technique just follows and serves the observation. (The question is) how do you keep the surface of the painting alive for as long as it takes to bring the painting to resolution. Every painter finds their own way to work with the surface of the painting so it can continue to receive however many layers are required to take the observation and see where it needs to go.”

She said that she’s reluctant to teach or critique another’s esthetic, and avoids value judgements about work her students have done, preferring to stick with technical tips, matters of craft or motivation and she especially avoids delving into a painter’s internal relationship with the work.

I haven’t taught for a while, but . . . I’ve always admired Morandi, who gave so few interviews. He said the reason he taught only etching is that he only wanted to teach technique, his knowledge of print-making technique. He wouldn’t presume to pass esthetic judgement on his students’ work. That’s always been my favorite way of teaching, someone who wants to know the limited knowledge I have. I’m much more comfortable teaching technique than talking about students’ inner lives.

Matt said, “If spontaneity is the muscle you are trying to work on and accuracy is your home base, maybe using the different substrates is a way to cut against that, and you can remember when you are working on linen the spontaneity (of watercolor and wonder) how can I do that on linen?” She answered:

I start the linen paintings very freely, they start the same way as the paintings on paper. Technically this is something I probably learned from Lennart (Anderson). What you do the first thing in the morning sets the tone for the entire day; what you do first on canvas sets the tone for the rest of the painting. You have that memory of the beginning being very free and spontaneous. It’s important to keep the edges open and not prematurely define those edges. In nature edges are porous, they’re different.

With her watercolors she tries to recapture the tone and mood of a dream she has had. With her still lifes on linen, it’s more about arranging objects without a pre-determined motif in mind, and discovering the right arrangement for a particular painting. It’s a process of discovering the motif rather than re-excavating the dream. This is something I would imagine most painters would recognize, the sense of connection and “rightness” with something seen or imagined.

The set up becomes very important. I take a lot of time to set up the motif. I’m really waiting for this image to appear and it comes with a very strong feeling, and I’m waiting for this feeling of the rightness of it and my connection with it. I do a lot of measuring, and so I’m constantly redrawing, but generally I’m not moving the objects in the motif. At some point I’ll dismantle the motif and it goes on the wall and the painting takes over. That often happens. It’s usually nothing that dramatic. (It’s) important, but nothing very radical at that point. Sometimes it involves bringing out the more abstract properties or a simplification.

Near the end of the Zoom, Matt Klos brought up a particular work, Walp’s simple painting of a luminous greenish-yellow compote she has used in many paintings—she goes back to a certain set of objects again and again as Chardin and many other still life painters have done—and he marveled at the value of the dish in comparison with the background, which is of almost the same value, so that the dish pops toward the viewer only because of its hue, the tone of that vibrant yellow and not because it’s lighter or darker than the ground. It contains a few figs, and is accompanied only by a pair of scissors and a greeting card, maybe, showing a pair of facing, symmetrical swans. (Maybe a callback to the days of her marriage.) It’s probably my favorite of all her oils, probably because of the almost neon intensity of that hybrid yellow-green—a sort of pickle-juice color—that seems to glow in a rambunctious way that oil paint almost never can, alongside the incredibly beautiful and much more typical muted blue-green of the patterned swans below it. That brilliant compote brings the image to life in a unique way, full of a spring-like affirmation of the present moment. And yet if you squint you can hardly see it. It’s a rare technical achievement and an image of rebirth, full of restrained energy.

“The thing that’s so remarkable is that the green is so invisible if you squint,” Klos remarked.

“It’s the same value, yeah.”

“They are just kissing values, and you always talk about the need for experimentation and constant change and people might look at the still lifes and say, oh that’s a Susan Jane Walp. But in this painting and in your work there’s a quality of risk-taking from one show to the next,” he said.

“Yes, this was in the last show. That object, one of my friends in New York alerted me to the fact that it’s Depression-ware and a lot of it is radioactive and I’ve done a lot of research and I’ve decided I’m just to attached to it. At my age, what does it matter. . . “

“Just don’t eat the figs,” he joked.