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Painters' Table Blog
Brenda Goodman: Paintings is on view at John Davis Gallery, Hudson, New York from July 17 until August 10, 2014.
In Brenda Goodman's recent works, completed after her move from Manhattan to the Catskills, she continues to explore powerfully personal narratives animated by a visual language that moves that moves freely between abstraction and representation. On the occasion of her exhibition at John Davis Gallery in Hudson, New York, Goodman graciously agreed to discuss her recent work with Painters’ Table. -- Brett Baker
Painters' Table (PT): Equating the materiality of paint with that of the body has always been present in your work, but in several of your new works – such as Red Branch (2014) – painting and body seem united as never before in a metaphor of process. The life of the paint (its material journey) and the life of the body (also a material journey) become one.
Brenda Goodman (BG): An interesting observation. The thing is, I don’t make those kind of distinctions. Ever since I was a student over 50 years ago, I have been in love with oil paint and the sensualness of it. I have experimented throughout my whole career with various tools and additives to express my emotional life in the paint. Sometimes, for example, my self portraits are painted very thin and built up in thin veils of glazes and other times I felt they should be thick and raw. And that goes for my abstractions and my figure/abstract paintings as well. I love playing thin and thick, bold and subtle, off each other. But most important, this is not an intellectual process. I use the techniques and materials that FEEL right for any given painting. I guess I’m just one of those artists who puts it on and takes it off until it feels right. In the case of Red Branch, there was another painting that I didn’t like so I covered it with white. Because of the original painting, there was a ghost image in the white and I began to pull it out until the shape in the current painting emerged and the piece grew from there. That sort of intestinal shape goes way back to work I did in the 70’s but when it pops up in recent work, where other more recent shapes do as well, it always surprises and pleases me, because the thread of who I am is always there.
PT: Although your work as a whole has been categorized as expressionist, you’ve engaged with a surprising and inspiring range of stylistic approaches, as well as the entire abstract/figurative continuum. Can you talk about how your approach to a painting or a new group of paintings evolves?
BG: My work almost always comes out of something that is going on in my life. In the 70’s I used symbols to express myself—they were usually abstracted shapes that represented someone or something to me and I would create a narrative around the symbols. I did that for many years but then wanted to let the work break open and not be as controlled so for the next several years I did large abstract paintings that I couldn’t fully explain but were very freeing. But then, after a while, I longed for that more personal emotional connection and in 1994 I began a series of self-portraits that expressed a negative feeling I had about my body. What was good is that some of the abstract elements of the previous work carried into the new self-portraits. This began my serious interest in combining abstraction and figuration. In 1995 I did a series called “A Song for My Mother,” where I finally felt I’d successfully integrated the figure and the abstract in my work. Then in 2004 I had a need to paint myself more naturalistically. Being very over weight, I found beauty in the forms but also I felt quite exposed and vulnerable. I also found a way to incorporate the canvases and stretchers in my studio as abstract elements in these paintings.
PT: Your previous group of paintings portrayed the figure inhabiting an interior space - often a self-portrait in the studio. Discussing those works in a 2007 interview, you talked about wanting your work to be very open about how personal experience and emotional content were presented. Your new vocabulary of forms is more abstract – bodies are now represented by parts of bodies – in many works the body is presented as an integrated image/action. What prompted this shift back towards abstraction and how did the experience of making overtly figurative works in recent years affect these new paintings?
BG: The new work is pushing the abstract and geometric more—suggesting the body rather than representing it. It’s all a continuum. I haven’t let go of anything. I’ve just added more elements, more challenges.
PT: Can you say a bit about scale? Some of the paintings in your current show at John Davis are very small - 6 x 8 inches. Are these examples of studies or are they conceived of as standalone works?
BG: Scale. I love playing with scale. Scale of elements within the paintings and scale of the individual paintings. Ever since I was a young artist I went back and forth between small, medium, and large paintings. And because I have done this for so long, the shift in scale is not hard. After finishing the large paintings for the show at John Davis, I began a series of small oil on paper pieces from 6 x 8 inches to 10 x 10 inches. A teacher told me a long time ago that there should be power in a small painting and intimacy in a large one. That was great advice.
PT: Painterly is a term most often associated with a general “love of paint” and primarily addresses painting as a positive force. Clearly your work is painterly and there’s an evident pleasure in the process of painting. Yet, it seems to me that your paintings don’t shy away from another aspect of painterly feeling - that painting can be a difficult, exhausting process for both body and mind. In your works this emotional duality feels present in the paint itself.
BG: It is certainly true that my work is painterly, in the sense of loving and exploring materiality of paint itself. But as I said before, I have always used this materiality as a way of expressing emotion, both personal and emotion related the reality of being human. My work often walks the line between humor and horror. Duality exists in almost all my work, even these newest paintings that are more upbeat than some of my earlier work—there is still that dark element lurking, Sometimes that dark element fills the whole painting and IS the painting which was the case 4 years ago when there was a tragic death in our family. But I needed to paint those feelings. It wasn’t hard or exhausting—it was sad and necessary to communicate. The only time painting is difficult and exhausting is when my will and ego are holding onto something in the painting that is blocking its completion. Then I have to let go and surrender, and once I do, the painting finishes itself. But that abyss is very dark until the letting go begins.
PT: Every artist faces the challenge of what to paint and how, but many also concern themselves with how their work engages the "narrative" of contemporary art. You don't seem distracted by this, rather, you have things and experiences to paint and you concentrate on the many ways you can understand them and know them better by painting them. There’s a richness that comes from the self-granted freedom to pay close, sustained attention to what is personal. Ultimately, do you think that by scrutinizing the immediate, universal issues can be addressed more authentically?
BG: I think you describe how I feel quite well, Brett. I am always aware of what’s happening around me in the art world but from day one my work has been about my own personal journey, though they are never just about me and my story. I don’t set out to address universal issues but I recognize that my issues are not just my own but are shared. All the experiences I paint such as loneliness, rejection, love, death, relationships, the body—and even humor and joy—come straight from my heart and people feel that in my work. There is no wall between me and my paintings. That makes them authentic and I am very proud of that.
Stephanie Pierce: Wake at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, New York, on view from May 28 – June 29, 2014.
Painting communicates most completely when its visual presentation also awakens our other senses. The unseen sensation in painting is most often touch, but can also include sound, as in the works of painter Stephanie Pierce, currently on view at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects. In her paintings, thousands of highly varied marks rise into place, each notation of light rustling gently against the next.
Although the mass of Pierce’s subjects is often consumed by light, her accumulated attention to the sights and sounds of her surroundings creates its own density.
In reproduction, Pierce appears to repeat similar shard-like marks. In person, however, no two marks are the same. Her touch ranges from brushy and barely washed to scraped and masked; often many subtle touches contribute to each discernable shape. Extreme painterliness that doesn’t call attention to itself is rare, but in these paintings physical effect, not painterly incident, grabs our attention.
The duration and intensity of observation in Pierce’s work recalls Giacometti, except there isn’t a hint of absurdity present here, nor is there any obvious urgency. Instead, she approaches the ‘impossible’ task of capturing nature with lucid patience – a consistent, unhurried focus.
The bending of space in Pierce’s series of window paintings initially recalls the sweeping, curved perspective of Rackstraw Downes’ extreme horizontal views, yet Pierce operates within a more standard and often vertical rectangle. Rather than a slow, sweeping vista, here the result is a light-spilling shimmer. Pierce’s awareness of contemporary and historical models never impinges on her own sensibility, she simply adapts techniques and approaches, present and past, to her own ends.
Though Pierce’s paintings result from many months of careful observation, the overall effect is a complete sensation of place at a particular moment. The viewer experiences the buzzing, informed quietude of her pictures directly. That, in and of itself, is a refreshing accomplishment.
Ying Li: Foreign Terrain is on view at the Gallery of the College of Staten Island from April 9 -May 14, 2014.
Ying Li’s paintings fuse natural phenomena and the act of painting. In them, the manipulation of paint and the act of seeing are simultaneous, distinct yet inseparable.
In her recent paintings, completed during a residency at Centro Incontri Umani Ascona in Switzerland, Li painted for the first time at high altitude, a plein-air extreme well suited to her strengths as a painter. The high vantage points offered by the mountain village alter the spatial organization of the landscape. Rather than seeing through space, Li engaged with a dynamic top-down space that plunges even as it recedes creating a natural, vertiginous abstraction. At altitude Li was also closer to the light, closer to the weather, closer to the environmental changes that have informed her work for many years.
The pace of visual change in the mountains is matched in Li’s paintings, their insistent, rippling materiality - paint as brilliantly “colored mud” – morphs rapidly into a vivid realized scenes; transporting the viewer to dizzying heights where brilliant light might be quickly extinguished by settling fog.
Just as quickly, painterly incident returns the viewer’s attention to the painting’s surface; the painting once again revealing itself as a made thing. This back-and-forth experience is rhythmic rather than disruptive - there is a visual beating or, more accurately, a visual breathing. Like Soutine, Li is able to keep the shifting effect in motion.
In the last century, perception and abstract construction were so convincingly severed by modernism that a natural integration of the two now feels nearly beyond reach. Language and ideas have replaced seeing as the primary impetus for much of today’s abstract painting, while many of today’s figurative canvases too eagerly declare their abstract formal achievements.
Through her simultaneous sensitivity to material and motif, Li unites the tradition of perceptual painting with the language of Abstract Expressionism, perhaps better than any painter working today. Her paintings return a fullness to the art, reconnecting to a painterly lineage that includes Pissarro, de Staël, Soutine, Van Gogh, and Monticelli - a tradition of painters for whom physical and visual sensation are one and the same.
Milton Resnick (1917-2004): Paintings and Works on Paper from the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation, a major survey exhibition will be on view at Mana Contemporary, Jersey City, New Jersey from May 10 - August 1, 2014.
On the occasion of the exhibition Geoffrey Dorfman, painter, author of the book Out of The Picture: Milton Resnick and the New York School (Midmarch Arts Press), and Trustee of the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation, generously agreed to discuss Resnick's life and work with Painters' Table.
Painters' Table (PT): There hasn’t been a major retrospective of Resnick’s work since the one in Houston in 1985, a show which pre-dated his later, more figurative work. In curating this exhibition, what was the most surprising thing about juxtaposing works from all phases of his career?
Geoffrey Dorfman (GD): I’ve known both Resnick and his work since 1972 so nothing was likely to take me completely by surprise. On the deepest possible level certain things reoccur over the decades that, small as they seem, hold significance. For instance, at the Foundation I’ve found two small works made a half century apart that both feature several primitive marks – no corners or twists — which somehow freeze the surrounding field in an uncanny way, as if the painting were holding its breath. This idea of a something transitory, momentarily held in suspension — arrested — is something that was important to him. He’d talk about flinging playing cards into the sky and having them stick. He suggested it to David Smith, who was also showing with him at Howard Wise Gallery, as an idea for a sculpture. Even in Milton’s late Genesis paintings, the snake is often pasted in the sky.
Resnick was a poet, so he could make this idea vivid in words:
Like straws the wind obeys your feelings.
It also has resolution.
It collects all that passes for nature and waits.
That hesitation makes your eyes shine.
Then it blows away.
Milton was not alone with these thoughts. You see others with similar ideas. For instance William Gass in his, ‘On Reading Rilke’ writes, “
…a stone set in motion or a motion held like a pose: that every accident should be made necessary, and every necessity look like a towel thrown over the back of a chair.”
It reflects a certain aspect of Modernist sensibility that is not understood too well, but it’s one thing to be aware of it and entirely another to be able to achieve it. Anyway, it serves as a touchstone throughout Milton’s career. It’s at the root of his aesthetic.
PT: Although Resnick is best known for his large abstract paintings, there’s a great variety of imagery throughout his late work: couples, the serpent, the tree, grave stones, windows etc. How does Resnick’s late iconography connect to his earlier work? Does his introduction of imagery late in his career deepen or alter the reading/experience of the earlier work?
GD: Resnick called figuration, “beating a dead horse,” and he was openly derisive about it. So it was surprising when he took it up, himself. But in my book, “Out Of the Picture,” we talk about that, “You always come around to what you hate.” In other words, you try the opposite tack. In the late 1960’s he told the kids at the Studio School to cut off all their hair, just to find out what it would feel like to be painfully exposed; to de-culturate themselves. Milton himself experimented with how he would appear to people: crew cut serviceman, poet-maudit, convict, Jazzman, prospector, magus: by the time he died he looked pretty rabbinical, like Pissarro’s twin brother.
So although Milton had very strong beliefs, he was not a typical ideologue. He would assume the contrary, just to test himself. I’m sort of avoiding your question: I’m cautious about answering it simplistically. The figuration of the 1990’s wasn’t by any means a rejection of his earlier paintings. Nor was it a return to something earlier. He was always abstract, unless you go back to his student years in the 1930’s. Yet any time you start to have shapes in a picture, there is ‘implication’ present. People can read into just about any shape; their imagination is fertile. You’re not avoiding that by embracing geometry either. Recognizing a stripe or grid is functionally the same as recognizing a waterfall, a crucifix, or a pile of laundry. ‘Meaning’ is a refuge from the sort of confrontation a painting ideally ought to provide. Why? Because the belief that one understands —can identify — what one is looking at, ineluctably domesticates feeling. It leaves the audience feeling comfortable, and that’s not the artist’s business. Museums feel that if they don’t tell the public what it is they see, they won’t come. So they’re in the acculturation business. Art is actually something else entirely.
By 1985 he was exhausted, physically and emotionally. He felt that he was able to take “the blank” to where he couldn’t go further. He was getting old, experiencing a lot of pain, but he wasn’t dead yet. What to do with the time left to him? Painters don’t retire, you know. So he got a hold of some used Victoria Secret catalogs, cut out images and painted from them; then he re-interpreted Rubens, Poussin, Renoir and what-not, and finally hired models to sit for him. That’s how it got started, and with that, the themes of Genesis and the Judgement of Paris, which he lifted from Classical art and integrated into his overall aesthetic vision. By doing so he found himself back in the world of composition. This was inevitable because Milton embraced the tyranny of the rectangle. He thought it an a priori condition of painting, as he understood it; sort of like having foul lines on a field of play; without them you don’t have a game at all. Or if you do, it’s another game pretending to be yours. He didn’t talk about it, but he didn’t have to. It was very evident. But all the other conventions of figuration: gravity, volume, room, near and far, light and dark; they don’t enter into it except as epiphenomenon, the flotsam and jetsam cast off from his paint handling. The man and the tree are just versions of the same thing, a ‘Y” shape or a cruciform. Later, they become crosses an X’s. The paint itself was supposed to be the vehicle of feeling; not the iconography. The latter was just a way to keep going, ie. to put gas in the tank. Resnick may have lived to paint, but towards the end he painted to live.
PT: The New York School painters were a particularly diverse group of artists which is remarkable given that they lived and worked in a much smaller, closer community than is imaginable today. A number of formidable and unique sensibilities emerged from this community - Resnick among them. Where does his work fit in the story of Abstract Expressionism?
GD: For Resnick, AE dovetailed with the rebirth of his life as an artist. In 1945 he was busy resuming painting, acquiring a studio. His work from the 1930’s had been entrusted to his friend, de Kooning for safekeeping, but over the intervening five years of his military service, Bill lost it. Milton was therefore starting anew. He looked at what Bill was doing and picked it up immediately and ran with it. There’s a Resnick painting at the Metropolitan Museum from 1945 that precedes de Kooning’s Judgement Day. It’s not as resolved as the latter but you can see Milton had ‘acquired’ it in advance. Yet, in truth he had barely taken off his uniform. A few months later they collaborated and blew up Judgement Day to serve as the backdrop of a dance performance; I think they painted it overnight. Bill scaled up his composition, mixed the pigments and Milton painted it. That was Labyrinth, right at the start. When the Abstract Expressionist period ended about 17 years later, (which is to say when the public’s attention was directed elsewhere,) Milton was only forty five years old. Motherwell was forty six; Reinhardt, forty-nine. Pollock, (were he alive in ‘62,) would only have been fifty; Kline fifty-two. None of them old men. Several of these men died in that period, and most of the rest not long after, but Milton painted until 2004. So Abstract Expressionism began the journey. And of all of them, I would say that he took it further, cultivated that ethos over decades, a vision of art that he bought into completely, and developed and enriched by placing increasing demands upon himself. Paintings like New Bride at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, or Saturn at the National Gallery in Ottawa, or Elephant, which we have at the Foundation and is now on display at Mana Contemporary, are landmarks of abstract art of the last century. The Whitney also has a superb vintage Resnick to go with the much earlier Lowgate, (1957) and Genie, (1959.) The fact that these institutions don’t show this art, and are sort of oblivious to what they’ve got, is unfortunate but changes nothing.
When attention shifted to artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein, many of Resnick’s associates wrung their hands. Rothko was, for one, nearly apoplectic. All the attention was creating a mad dash towards manufactured originality and notoriety; in other words, public relations. Milton basically took the attitude that he could accomplish more with the spotlight turned away. I would opine that’s the only position to take and keep your sanity. And he was proved right. The proof is in the pudding, as they say.
PT: Resnick’s best paintings (for me the Elephants and other paintings of that era) seem to separate themselves from the intentions of the painter. They are painting personified; they become autonomous, awesome, even terrible beings. In the presence of those paintings I’ve experienced what I can only call “looming” – the feeling that a powerful, bodily life-force is encroaching on my space. They literally backed me up. These works are not pictures, they’re Paintings, and Resnick is their creator - he gives them life and sets them free.
GD: I’ve got to agree with you. They are not personal paintings except tangentially so; they’re personal only in the sense that they are produced by an individual consciousness. If you and I try to paint the same thing, it will nevertheless look different. That’s the nature of art, and we prefer that it be so. That’s much more interesting than people deliberately trying to be different. That gets old real quick. Anyway, Milton aimed for the universal, not the personal. He was very clear about this. One of his best lines — he spun it out in a debate without thinking — was, “You’re not very original if you want to be an individual.” He’s right; it’s the most commonplace idea imaginable. So your intuition is correct, I think. In the great Resnicks, there is a spell cast, a presence but not a personality; something more stand-offish; inexorable but impartial. The fact that many of those paintings are dark doesn’t hurt, but that sense of the sublime is also present in New Bride, 1962, which is nearly white. You know, I’ve just reminded myself that Melville has a whole chapter on the color white in Moby Dick. White for him was the color of death. But Milton had no dread of death. World War II cured him of that. When you see so much of it, it just becomes another moment.
The other aspect of it is that it is that oblivion — the sense of the blank — can be very powerful. The paint remains paint; it doesn’t look like anything but itself. It resists the word. It doesn’t describe, but it also resists its own description. It’s meant to do that. That it can evoke these somewhat mystical feelings in susceptible people is hard to account for. And lets face it; it’s not for everyone. An executive of Pace Gallery called it shit on a shingle, but his idea of a great artist is Eric Fischl. It takes all kinds to make a world.
There have been many ‘blank’ painters over the years. There still are. I could name names. Nobody I know of though, creates these sensations. For example, when Color Field painting becomes materials and techniques, it diminishes your experience. You find yourself in the kitchen with those artists. With Resnick there is no technique. There is no apparatus; there’s no squeegees, no airguns, no additives or gels. Nor is there any virtuoso element to speak of. It is actually close to nothing. But at the same time it so obviously isn’t.
PT: The more one looks at Resnick’s paintings, the more unique his body of work seems - yet no art is conceived of in a vacuum. What is Resnick’s artistic lineage?
GD: First I should mention the artists Resnick talked about; Soutine and Cézanne. Referred to those two more than other artists. Monet did not excite him nearly as much, although he thought him a very great artist. There would be more talk of Rubens and Delacroix than Monet. Milton thought Rubens more important than Rembrandt. Milton favored those turbulent interlocking forms of Rubens that prefigure the abstract art that interested him, and he talked of Ruben’s high space — aspirational space — which I took to mean the sense of ascendancy, the forms moving up and out; a feature of much Baroque painting, but not really present in Rembrandt. It’s something that meant a lot to de Kooning, I’m sure. Early De Koonings; Dark Pond, Attic and Excavation, were recognized by Milton as surpassing art. It could not be otherwise, especially as Resnick’s wife, the painter Pat Passlof, had been de Kooning’s private student. But the personal history between the two artists was so complex and painful — very much recalling the relations between Braque and Picasso I might add— that discussing de Kooning with Resnick was always a loaded proposition.
In my opinion embracing Soutine represents a break from the art of the 1940’s. The immediate postwar period emits the odor of Surrealism, which means drawing and the imagination, and that includes significant aspects of Picasso. De Kooning was quite influenced by Soutine of course, but underneath it was Picasso and Synthetic Cubism, newly minted as it was. Milton was not nearly as oriented towards Picasso, but Picasso, Miro and Mondrian meant Modern art. Embracing Soutine meant embracing the not-really-modern. Yet Soutine didn’t draw, and neither did Milton. You see? Picasso and Matisse drew all the time. Try and imagine Matisse without the black line. Gorky and de Kooning drew all the time. And Pollock’s energies are all linear; exclusively so. It’s impossible to imagine their work without the function of line. Milton was heading somewhere else, so the turn towards Soutine was natural.
In 1946 Gorky told Milton and Bill, that at the last possible moment, before making a mark, he always put it in a spot that was different from his intention. How much did that mean to Gorky? Who knows? But to Milton it meant a great deal. Because removing the intention from the gesture renders one an observer rather than a doer. For Milton that posture was more artistic. The brain is limited; so is the imagination. It repeats; it seeks patterns; it can’t help but construct syllogisms. That propensity is sewn into our DNA, It’s something you see in animal behavior too; it protects us, extends our lives, but doesn’t serve well in art. This leads us into the last question you have.
PT: Resnick directly addressed the crux and the burden of abstract painting when he said: “I don’t think many people understand what it takes to paint a picture, say sixteen feet long, where there are no little people in it, no houses, no mountains. How do you paint a picture without all these things that make a picture?” Implicit in his question is an acknowledgement that the absence of something nameable to lean on creates an even stronger burden on the artist – an imperative to put something else, something unknown but of equal value into the painting – a fullness must be maintained.
GD: Why does the model for art have to be us? How many times do we have to make illustrations of our bodies and faces? It’s all such a bore. The turn towards abstraction is for good reason, and terrific artists have always been excited by abstract values, by relational values. But abstract art needed to be developed, and that required time. It required silence. Trying to put it together in a decade — I’m talking about the 1950’s now — was impossible, especially with all the hoopla, and the money flowing in, and the liquor being consumed. The studio became peripheral, and you end up with a lot of second-rate art. Of course there’s always been a lot of second-rate art. Nothing new there. We artists are human; we all have our weaknesses, and I’ve come to the conclusion that we all in the end do what we’re capable of, because so much comes into it besides ability, talent and intelligence. There’s capacity for feeling, patience, keenness of intuition, and most of all the ability to place demands on yourself that no outside person or institution will. To get that all in one package is problematic.
You talk about putting something of equal value into a painting to take the place of what used to be there. OK, fine. But how do you do it? By will power? By learnedness? By ingenuity? By being innovative? By mastering technology? I think instinctively we artists know that it’s not really those things. So what is it? It requires some sort of self-transformation; turning yourself into someone who can do that. For Milton that meant keeping things very basic, a daily confrontation between the artist and the medium — spreading color and oil — wetting it, scraping it, piercing it, flipping it, splaying it, moving it around on a surface, and always looking for where it would lock together. (As Delacroix says, “All of a piece, like the works of nature.”) Doing it again over years, over decades. Paint is always complex so it’s always different but it’s also recurrent, and gradually the mind is worn down, refashioned in such a way so that it becomes utterly responsive to what is happening in front of the eye.
There’s a fanatical edge to it. I don’t know of other artists that went at it like this. I’m not saying there aren’t. I don’t know them. It separates you from a normal existence; it’s a good way to vanish, really, because you’re involved in an activity that does not invite sympathy except for those who interested in that sort of thing.
Milton never cultivated a retinue. He had a talent for unnerving people, even those who wanted to help him. He had sympathy for Balzac’s Frenhoffer; the great artist who nobody’s heard of. I’m not even sure Milton would have understood or approved of the Resnick and Passlof Foundation. Like Kafka, he might have been content to let his artistic legacy vanish or burn. The foundation was Pat’s idea, it’s in her will. I have a feeling Milton would have said, “Oh Pat, it’s enough to have done it; Just let it go.”
Right now we’re all in a pickle. Devices are destroying our ability to think. Our mental stamina is shot to hell. Our embrasure of technical innovation is becoming increasingly desperate; we hope it will save us; save our fish, our bees, our water and our air. It’s so obvious we are moving towards catastrophe. People are turning back to religion and that’s because of fear. This idea of self-transformation, and then of transforming the culture, and I mean this in the widest possible sense, and finally the planet, is not so crazy. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do it. Just because we can have something doesn’t mean we should have it. So I think this kind of art, in its enigmatic ability to coax feeling from seemingly nothing at all, holds a sort of message for us, despite it all.
Observation and Invention: The Space of Desire is on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, through April 6, 2014. The show features paintings by Michael Ananian, Lennart Anderson, Victoria Barnes, David Campbell, Tim Conte, Edwin Dickinson, Frank Galuszka, Elizabeth Geiger, Philip Geiger, Mark Green, David Jewell, Ben Kamihira, Tim Kennedy, Matt Klos, John Lee, Aaron Lubrick, Eve Mansdorf, George Nick, Scott Noel, Andrew Patterson-Tutschaka, Carolyn Pyfrom, Erin Raedeke, Brian Rego, Neil Riley, Thomas Walton, and Peter Van Dyck.
In a new video, produced by John Thornton, painter/curator Scott Noel discusses a lineage of observational painting that spans four generations from Edwin Dickinson to recent graduates of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
In the video Noel remarks: "The hope is that the show makes a convincing case, that a space is preserved in contemporary art for just this practice - this search for poetry in a direct and unmediated experience of looking. This particular activity is getting more and more marginal, at least in critical debate. There are very few critics or thinkers about contemporary painting that are much invested in defending the idea that direct observational response could be an interesting premise for a life lived in art."
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Three artists exhibiting side-by-side at the Painting Center are presenting refreshingly straightforward abstractions. Each with her own distinct approach, Marianne Gagnier, Suzanne Kammin and Ro Lohin make well-crafted paintings that renew Ab-Ex innovations.
Marianne Gagnier’s canvases are pared down to the basics. Forgoing design ideas and compositional games, these plainspoken artworks are comprised solely of energetic strokes of richly pigmented, fluid paint. Made with thinned acrylic that splashes and puddles across the canvas, the nine pieces on display look like they were painted face-up on a tabletop - the worked, multi-layered surfaces smooth as ice.
Chanson, 2013, has a dark indigo background, with short strokes of orange, red and yellow evoking the lights of a city after hours. Across the top of this painting, a wobbly stroke of turquoise dangles like a ruffled ribbon. Night Window, 2013, also evokes a city after dark, but in this canvas the velocity of Gagnier’s strokes have the speed of highway traffic. In one corner of the wet-into-wet painting, scarlet red marbleizes with vermillion while tiny lemon-yellow dots sprayed across the canvas look like reflections on glass.
In Daphne Versus, 2013, light green strokes sweeping across dappled pale blue evokes trees against sky. In the catalog accompanying the exhibition Gagnier says these works are “inscapes,” studio creations that “evolved from years of painting landscape on site.”
In the adjoining gallery Suzanne Kammin’s oil-on-panel compositions are hard-edged arrangements of shapes in synthetic colors, paint squeegeed to a smooth finish. Crisp shapes seem to have been taped off, meandering lines the width of masking tape exposing layers of under-painting while guiding the eye around the pictures. Magenta, olive green and grey shapes push against each other in Many Happy Returns, 2012-2013, a painting that contrasts large expanses of color against scumbled paint, showing off Kammin’s feel for materials.
Ro Lohin’s paintings, exhibited in the Painting Center’s Project Room, were made outside during the winter of 2011. The all-over compositions here have strong calligraphic strokes reminiscent of Mark Tobey’s “white writing.” Lohin’s thinly painted drippy marks, inspired by bare trees and snow, convey crisp winter light. Subtle off-whites are contrasted against bright blue curlicues in Blue Passage. Ochre and red strokes here and there add complexity to this picture, a painting that serves as a welcome reminder of the beauty in snowfall.
In a December 2013 art review in the online magazine Hyperallergic titled Painting, Perception, and the Emphatically Handmade, Thomas Micchelli writes that a “recent resurgence of interest in contemporary painting has posited the unique object — especially the handcrafted, the slapped-together, and the aggressively tactile — as yin to neo-conceptualism’s yang, a raggedy-edged refutation of the factory-finished, the reproducible, and the overly cerebral.”
In line with this trend, Gagnier, Kammin and Lohin, though all handling paint differently, rely on a sense of touch to convey their unique sensibilities, though here high-level craftsmanship is maintained.
Alfredo Gisholt: Canto General is on view at the CUE Art Foundation from January 30 - March 8, 2014.
Alfredo Gisholt is a painter of “pictures,” a rarity in today's art world. Unabashed in his embrace of the history of painting, Gisholt paints timeless, poetic worlds where the everyday and the grand tradition of painting merge. Gisholt and I discussed his recent work via email on the occasion of his exhibition Canto General, currently on view at the CUE Art Foundation. -- Brett Baker
Painters’ Table (PT): You wear your influences on your sleeve, quoting forms from Picasso, Goya, and John Walker, to name a few. For instance, in several works a version of Goya’s Straw Mannequin is flung atop huddled masses of both gestural and appropriated forms. The mannequins, Picasso-like birds, and sheep skulls that appear in your work are very overt allusions. Their inclusion seems to mourn the disappearing tradition of imaginative picture-making while much painting today is heavily invested in theory and/or materials. Are your works critiques of contemporary painting?
AG: No, they are not a critique. I don't like to think of my painting in those terms. I have always felt that theory does not make for very good painting. In fact, it gets in the way of it. And neither does pushing material around. Painting has always felt inclusive to me - it does more than just address this one thing or this other thing. Rembrandt leaves nothing out.
All the painters you mention, and there are others, are very important to me. For years I have drawn in front of their paintings as a way of seeing them. These drawings, which I make on my sketchbook, find themselves becoming a part of the language of my paintings. After I draw them I feel I somehow own them. It is the same with a plant or a skull. Plus, I have never been afraid of influences. I also surround myself with the things I paint - a tipped over trash can, a leftover piece of steel, a lantern, etc. - and when you put all of it together there are going to be allusions. I like being a part of painting's history and welcome it in my studio.
PT: Your work made me think of the famous Guston quote about the studio being populated with all of the artist’s influences - “friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas.” The artist bids farewell to each, and to himself in the course of working. At the end only the painting remains. Your paintings, however, seem to have invited these influences back again, gathered them together in a heap on the studio floor. As a viewer I get the feeling these paintings are about what creates us; they suggest that the sources of our being are too meaningful to be discarded. That’s an important statement to make with a painting, yet it’s also one that risks sentimentality.
AG: I really like that description of them. I don't understand why sentiment has become a bad word in painting. It is important for me to feel something as I paint and somehow evidence that emotion. It is a great ambition to make paint do that - Goya does. Maybe that is where meaning comes from.
A few years ago I stood in front of a large Olmec head. It had a very powerful presence - not an illusion of something, it felt real. Not too long after, I came across a small Rembrandt painting of the Deposition of Christ - it reminded me of the head I saw. It was a cluster of figures. I came back to the studio and started painting a group of figures and wanted them to feel like the Olmec head. More recently De Kooning has been a powerful presence in my studio after the show at MOMA. He titled the painting "Attic" because it had everything one would find in the attic. I put as much stuff in a painting as I think is needed to say something bigger than the objects or forms in it. Diego, my oldest son, is always asking me why I paint the dump. I tell him that Guston did it too.
PT: Your smaller works read differently than the larger ones. The scale of the elements is similar, but they have a different character. The backgrounds are more saturated in color and several feature a landscape divided by a river. The forms heaped in the foreground are dark and more indistinct, and many of the small pictures feel like night paintings.
AG: I have always made both large and small paintings. Easel size paintings are very difficult for me.
The river paintings are the last ones I did. As I mentioned, De Kooning has loomed large recently. He paralyzed me for a bit. So much so that I painted like him for a few months. During this time, I had a large canvas and decided to paint a tribute painting to Matisse's "Turtle" painting which has long haunted me as an image - Matisse has some moments where paintings are totally unprecedented. I had Matisse on one wall and De Kooning on the other. I finished them and put them away.
In making the paintings for this show I wanted to somehow tie it all together. Neruda helped. The very early ones and smallest paintings served as a starting point. I never make studies. Most of my small paintings are made from the larger ones as a way to see possibilities. I have always felt that I need to see these possibilities and not just think of them. They also give me the chance to simplify and make some things clear. The paintings you describe are made from the last painting I finished. They opened things up again and at the same time they started to go in a different direction. Now I have to catch up to them.
PT: Yes, that's just it - valuing the history of painting as a present, generative force. I feel that in this work and it feels genuine and deeply embedded.
I understand the paintings aren't intentional critiques, but they do seem to inherently question the type of painting enjoying a lot of attention these days - paintings that come out of materials or theory and a modernist/postmodernist drive towards the "new," whatever that might be. I'm thinking of exhibitions like Painter Painter at the Walker Art Center last year. Co-curator Eric Crosby, in an interview about the show, stated specifically that the artists "go where the materials take them, not where the history of painting tells them to go."
That show also had a lot to do with bringing other mediums to bear in a painting context - painting as "a frame for contact" - as if painting needs extending beyond itself. For me, your work posits the opposite, that there's plenty to explore within painting and that, as painters, we should immerse ourselves in the mysterious achievements of the medium. There's plenty of positive critique in that.
AG: I want to feel that I am on the train - the train that goes back 5000 years to the art of Mesopotamia as De Kooning described it. At some point artists felt that they rather be off this train - not sure when or why it happened. There are so called artists to blame for this. Artists that felt that it was enough to point to things, to signal, to remind people of something else as opposed to make something that truly enhances life's experience. Van Gogh changed the way we look at things - the sky was orange and the grass was blue.
I protect myself from discourse. For years I argued about those mysterious achievements in painting with some who felt it was the stuff of the past. Not anymore - I just don't think about it. I saw the Emperor, and he is not wearing any clothes. So I make paintings with the ambition to contribute to its history. When I was a guard at the Guggenheim in Venice, I always asked to be sent to the Pollock room. I would spend eight hours in front of those paintings and draw. I would leave and go to San Rocco and see Tintoretto and they were the same thing. By the way, Pollock looks great in Venice. Theory has become the new academy - who remembers Puvis des Chavannes? I would rather be a 'fauve'.
PT: That Pollock's works hold their own in Venice is not surprising to me, but it's an important context in which to view his work. In New York it is impossible to see his paintings outside the context of New York School mythology, but in Venice they're just great paintings in the company of other great paintings.
It's interesting that you spent so much time with those particular Pollocks. The mid-40s Pollocks in Venice - I'm thinking of Circumcision (1946), Bird Effort (1946) and an Untitled painting from that same year. Forms tangle and wrestle in those works, struggling to release themselves into pure energy. Pollock, as he developed early on, felt this release of form as an imperative, but in his last works that energy begin to reassemble into figures. Those last paintings are useless to the story of Modernism but are perhaps his most significant statement about painting - that the artist must, at some point, return to the source.
AG: The forms were there to liberate his painting - to have a structure to pin things down. I drew Circumcision almost every day. You are right, Venice gave me the chance to see Pollock in a different light. I think Pollock at the end felt he had gone too far with the drip paintings, or as far as he could go. That last room at the show at MOMA - those last paintings were about starting again - going back to figuration, returning to the source. In those 1940's paintings I saw a way to paint like Titian and Tintoretto. Pollock showed me the way.
PT: Tintoretto's staging of figures, and combination of deep space and flat forms seems to have had a lasting affect on your work as well, except in your work they're flip-flopped. Your figurative piles are set against flattened fields that stand in for deep space.
Tintoretto was the person I discovered while in Venice. I knew the others. One day I walked into Scuola Grande di San Rocco where he painted like 20 large paintings. There was a restorer working on a small ceiling panel. The place smelled like paint! - because of the smell it seemed like the paintings had just been made. Something changed that day and I went back every day off I had.
Cézanne has me thinking of pictorial space - illusion and flatness. I do not want my paintings to be like windows, I want them to feel like a wall.
PT: Drawing from paintings seems key to gaining a deeper understanding of them. Drawing, used this way, asks vital questions - “How do these forms interact? Can I follow them? Why this way and not that way?" This kind of visual investigation is profitable to the artist and it's fundamentally different from theoretical questioning. It's about the artist's (both the original artist and the one making the study) active immersion in the moment. It’s very unlike theory which is more about positioning the work and soliciting a particular response in the viewer.
AG: Drawing is the only way I have found where I can see and think visually simultaneously. It also allows me to slow down, to move across and through an image, to follow someone's hand and internalize. I get to remake their paintings. There are so many discoveries, it answers so many questions. There are some images, I am thinking of Matisse's Red Studio or his Bathers that are almost impossible to draw. I have tried and the drawings seem so didactic, nothing like it. I do not know what that means.
Of course there are times when I do not draw. I just look and try to leave words out of it. Talking about the Guggenheim - being a guard really taught me how to look - the time one needs to do it. After a few hours all knowledge is exhausted and you are left with this thing on the wall.
The relationship between the verbal and visual language is something that I feel that in the end can not be reconciled. Words can be very useful - the way Adrian Stokes writes about Cézanne or Lawrence Gowing on Vermeer - but they are two different things. Theory in the end mediates an experience that should not be mediated. Auerbach in an interview talking about his painting says that ‘one should not demystify that which is inherently mysterious."
PT: Drawing seems not only fundamental to your work as a form of study, but also as a method of painting - you draw with color in your paintings. There's not a lot of massing or "filling in" areas of color. The surfaces are filled with a variety of animating marks.
I have no set ways to make things. I draw, paint and make prints and it fills my days in the studio. I do not see them as isolated activities and they all are part of one another. There is an immediacy in drawing that I really respond to. It always challenges the paintings or the paint. I love paint and I see it as a great building material, like a brick - if you add concrete you can build a wall.
What I am after is to make something that is animated - as in 'animas' or with a soul. I paint and touch the paintings until that happens. Sometimes it is quick and through simple means and other times it takes a long time. I think about the difference between images and paintings - as in fiction and fact. The challenge for my paintings is to become fact - for these imagined constructions feel as real as a mountain.
PT: In your artist statement you state, paradoxically, that you have "no words," and I noticed that when you sent me images you included their sizes to establish scale, but not their titles which I thought was interesting. Am I right to think that your paintings don't really need titles? That they really do exist outside of words for you?
AG: My artist statement is the pictures. Anything I have written in the past only approximated things - it seemed dishonest and distant. So I stopped writing and wrote that I have no words.
The images I sent you were the latest drawings and prints I made. The drawings are untitled. The prints are a suite of etchings titled "Canto General" that I made in conjunction with the paintings. All the paintings in the show are titled after poems from Neruda's book "Canto General" and that is important. These poems have served as a structure - they have a particular tone and I always have been moved by Neruda's poetry. Also, Mikis Theodorakis wrote music to some of them. I have listened to it for years and always wanted my paintings to sound like that. So the titles are descriptive, a description of what one is looking at - like Women of Algiers or The Third of May.
PT: One of the few things you have said about your work is that you want to “paint a picture, a marvelous large picture.” It does seem to me that that’s exactly what you do - your paintings are “pictures” in the sense that they don’t seem to need or want explanation. They are pictures because they don't dictate a message. I can’t think of very many artists who really paint “pictures” in the way I’m trying to describe. What does it mean to you to paint a “picture?”
AG: The first time I heard someone refer to these things on the wall as "pictures" was John Walker at BU. I had always called them paintings. I found it curious and for a while the distinction was just a curiosity. But there is a difference between images made with paint and paintings, or in this case, pictures. The difference between them is not a definition in the dictionary and I will not attempt to clarify it. One of my favorite quotes by Constable speaks of the difference "The great vice of the present day is bravura, an attempt to do something beyond the truth. In endeavouring to do something better than well, they do what in reality is good for nothing. Fashion always had, & will have, its day — but truth (in all things) only will last, and can only have just claims on posterity." That is what a picture has become in my mind.
A marvelous large picture is what turned me into a painter. El Greco's Burial of Count Orgaz was the one. Standing in front of it I wanted to do that - whatever that was. It seemed complete and I got very emotional. That is what the ambition is - I can't think of many artists who really paint with that ambition.
Eight Painters, organized by Paul Behnke is on view at Kathryn Markel Fine Arts, New York from January 4, 2014 - February 1, 2014. The show features paintings by Karen Baumeister, Paul Behnke, Karl Bielik, James Erikson, Matthew Neil Gehring, Dale McNeil, Brooke Moyse, and Julie Torres.
Paul Behnke’s curatorial criteria for the show Eight Painters are compellingly straightforward: “an individual, rigorous vision; a certain ambition without regard for scale or a specific way of making a painting; and an abiding belief in the ability of paint - and specifically, the genre of abstraction - to best communicate the artist’s appetite and inventiveness.”
In other words, the show features painters deeply engaged with the medium of paint. It’s a powerfully simple premise. Eschwing trends and labels, the tools of the art market, Behnke puts the focus where it should be - on the paintings themselves. He generously agreed to discuss the show with Painters’ Table. - Brett Baker
Painters' Table (PT): Your decision not to organize the show around a visual “theme” is uncommon these days - even somewhat radical. Can you expand a bit on how you came to believe that the commitment of each artist to the internal language of their work was the most worthy organizing principle?
Paul Benke (PB): I think as a painter I’ve always felt this.
Recently, the predominant way that paintings have been presented and viewed has been in the context of a curatorial theme. The more in depth statement of the one person exhibit is being pushed aside in favor of a “hook” that I think art spaces feel they need to draw in viewers. These curatorial themes start to seem necessary to make painting feel relevant. To submit a body of work to almost any art space’s open call you must have a “project”, a hook, and it’s even better if your idea involves some sort of play on Relational Esthetics or is community based. All of these approaches have their place but this type of exhibition has become prevalent at the expense of a deeper, more encompassing experience of the painter’s work.
Good painting is as varied and multi-layered as the person who made it. Thoughts, memories, visual associations – the sum of a painter’s daily life - personality and experiences feed into a work. And that’s just the conceptual content. To say nothing of the subtleties or boldness of a paintings formal qualities and the staggering number of decisions that go into realizing a piece. To reduce all of that to a fragment of its intent runs the risk of doing the medium and painter a disservice, especially if the viewer is easily swayed or lazy.
I did what I could to negate this approach in Eight Painters. I intentionally kept the number of exhibiting artists under ten and asked for one piece or a concise grouping of work from each. I wanted something closer in feel to a museum display rather than an over-hung, chaotic presentation. Within those parameters I felt I had the best chance of giving the work, the painter and the viewer the kind of experience they deserved.
PT: The title of your essay for the show catalogue is “The Ability of Paint.” It’s a beautiful thought in and of itself, suggesting painting possesses (and always will) an innate capacity for cultural accomplishment. What accomplishments remain for painting in your opinion?
PB: In a way I resent that painters and the medium are burdened with ideas of cultural accomplishment. It seems we lay this task at painting’s doorstep more so than any other medium or creative endeavor.
That being said, I’m not sure what else painting can accomplish or needs to. I’m not sure any medium will ever be able to change the way we look at the world around us the way paint did in the hands of Seurat, Cezanne, Braque, af Klint, or Pollock.
But paint can still be a means of deep connection between the painter and the viewer in the same way poetry forges a personal connection. It is a way to make the artist’s experience real and compelling, and when this is accomplished in partnership with a kindred audience that’s all the accomplishment that’s required. To do this, today, is more than enough.
PT: You also acknowledge in the essay the acceptance of a certain iconoclasm, a willingness on the part of the artists to make objects that risk obscurity by refusing to cater to a culture defined by technological advance. You even go as far as to suggest that viewers “must be susceptible” to appreciate the “full power and subtleties” of the work.
PB: Yes, painting isn’t for everyone. I see painting, today, as a radical act. And despite what we see, in our corner of the art world in Bushwick at the moment, the type of visual experience that abstract painting provides seems to be less in demand. But this is true with many good and important things. Poetry and Jazz are two. That doesn’t mean that these things aren’t vital or shouldn’t be valued. Of course they should.
Look, painting is difficult and it requires effort of the viewer. It requires work and enough interest and curiosity in what you are looking at to go out of your way and to invest something of yourself.
Luckily, there are viewers out there who are susceptible and open and hungry for the power, subtleties, and connection that abstract paintings offer. And even more importantly, there are many, many artists who are drawn to paint and feel that it best conveys their intention and vision.
PT: Although each artist in the show has been selected for the individuality of their approach, they all make abstract paintings. There is an implicit enthusiasm for abstract painting in your selections. Not everyone would agree that abstract painting merits the popularity it currently enjoys. Holland Cotter, for instance, was disparaging of abstract painting in a recent article, condemning it for the supposed ease with which it can be experienced online - one of the very reasons you champion it in this show.
PB: Holland Cotter is obviously not a painter. And that article makes me question his sensitivity and his ability to effectively write about painting. His view couldn’t be farther from my experience. I’m in daily contact with abstract painters who are deeply committed to their medium and to abstraction. We believe in paint and devote countless hours and money and mental energy to it, often with little or no return. But it gives our lives meaning.
I think critics like Cotter (in this instance) and Saltz (in many) spend too much time and ink bemoaning the vacuity of the art and artists presented in Blue Chip spaces and too little time outside the borough of Manhattan writing about artists and galleries that make and show sincere, good, and genuine work because they have to.
Thankfully, in Brooklyn, painters have been able to count on the support of champions like John Yau (Hyperallergic Weekend), James Panero (The New Criterion), and Michael David (painter and Director of Life on Mars Gallery) and some others.
I think the resurgence of abstract painting reflects dissatisfaction with our machine made, instant gratification culture. There will always be a segment of the population no matter how small that values the hand made and the slow.
Whether abstraction is in or out of favor has nothing to do with my work’s trajectory or the work of the others in Eight Painters. Worrying about trends or what the larger art world and market are doing or valuing is like obsessing about the events of a party that I was not invited to. What people do there has no bearing on my life or the kind of work I make.
Abstract painting is in the blood and luckily, so far, I’ve found no shortage of relatives.
Leon Kossoff: London Landscapes is on view at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York from November 5 - December 21, 2013.
In a new video produced on the occasion of his exhibition London Landscapes, painter Leon Kossoff discusses his work and approach to painting. The artist remarks that the experience of painting is:
"all about space and movement and light, and every time you look you see something different, you experience some thing different... In the end all the differences amount to a sort of presence. For me it's a process of going on drawing, just going on drawing until something happens, and then you realize that you can start painting... not being able to do it is part of being able to do it..."
Discussing the central importance of observation to his process he adds:
I can't help it, the visual, seeing things turns me on... I go out into the street in the morning and suddenly my mood has changed completely because I see just a few trees."
If the video does not appear please refresh the page or click here.
David Rhodes: Schwarzwälde at Hionas Gallery, New York, on view from September 8 - October 13, 2013.
David Rhodes’ exhibition Schwarzwälde at Hionas Gallery on the Lower East Side is a potent reminder that paintings are invitations to reflect and, at their best, transcend their own means.
At first glance, Rhodes’ paintings are darkly hermetic. Their minimalist clarity and completeness are forbidding, and the viewer cannot find a point of entry. Indeed, Rhodes’ canvases seem to shout Stella’s dictum “what you see is what you see.” Yet, after a few moments, they suddenly open outward.
Using a severely limited vocabulary - raw canvas, thinly stained black acrylic paint, and carefully taped edges - Rhodes creates an unbounded experience. His paintings are full of nuanced perception and keenly invoke of the legacy of modernism.
Rhodes’ paintings embody minimalism’s factuality, employ the techniques of color field painting, and evoke the existentialism of the New York School. The fractured unity of each composition recalls Cubism. All this Rhodes accomplishes without forgoing image - perceiving a forest, here, is a leap, but not a big one. The paintings’ kinetic effect is similar to that of moving through deeply wooded space - close, dark forms passing in and out of one’s field of focus.
Berlin-based Rhodes doesn’t reference just any forest, however, he chooses der Schwarzwald, the Black Forest. A place of legend, the Black Forest beckons to the intrepid, not the faint of heart. Within, unknown dangers lurk, but also untold treasures; it is a place of realized visions, of magic. Perhaps the most potent reading of Rhodes’ recent work is a symbolist one. In his hands, the language of late modernism does not celebrate a definitive aesthetic; rather, it suggests the possibilities of painting. With minimal means, Rhodes paints a total experience - both the forest and the trees lie in wait for the viewer.
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