"A portrait is not an identificative paper but rather the curve of an emotion" -James Joyce

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Thesis Exhibit

I was thinking about a lot of things while making these two paintings.  Like their installation in ideal circumstances being opposite from one another and facing each other.  I thought looking at one while knowing the other was behind you, and with the faint memory of each while looking at the other, may forgive the fact that they look nothing like the same place.  I thought of pictures of Mars, and the long poem by Hart Crane titled "The Bridge" (about Brooklyn not rural Southeastern Massachusetts.) Nonetheless these were my attempt at a long poem.  I worked hard to remove them as much I could but at the same time keep them partially referential to an actual place and time.  Being 74" x 62",  my aim was to bring the kind of musculature to them that was natural and even easy in a small painting.  This required many handmade tools, and techniques like "painting into the couch" that were new to me.  Hard time limits and reminders of the entire painting being more important than all of the nervous activity at the surface were of constant concern.  Emotional scapes that held feeling and arrest in viewing was my aim.  I painted both a
different orange on the top half and flipped one, telling myself to make it work at all costs.  I fought using green, as it was everywhere.  These would be some of the few binding components beyond size.  I tried to be less deceptive with the amount of aggression with which I like to work, and more generous with material.  A variety of surface gloss and texture, and a constant supplement of visual punctuation was on my mind.  As a diptych (due to curatorial limitations) they had a compelling visual paradox.  Two views opposite one another, now next to each other; formed a third view, one of imagination.  I made them next to each other.  The consistency of the vanishing points between them was true, and asked only that you turn your head.  A curious change in visual focus due to a difference in scrutiny of detail, and an intentional reversal of values in part gave a level of abstraction that could only be achieved through observation.  A good friend said "It makes perfect sense that these are in oil." Thanks Andrew.  This comment stays with me today.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Unknowing Cloud

"The combination of an extreme apparent freedom with a great inner strictness corresponds to the necessities of his temperament."

"A formal garden is an admirable symbol for a man's attempt to impose pattern on his experience and to discipline nature."

"The anonymous English mystic called his book The Cloud of Unknowing.  He taught that the soul in this life must be always between two clouds.  A cloud of forgetting beneath, which hides all creatures and works, and a cloud of unknowing above, upon which it must 'smite with a sharp dart of longing love.'"

"In the final movement, the feeling that every moment is a new moment and a beginning, but that the past is alive in the present, modifying it and being modified by it also, is at first applied to the poet and the problems of expression and finally to the life of the individual.  The poem ends with the injunction to be 'still and still moving.'"

-Helen Gardner on T.S Eliot's Four Quartets

Friday, August 30, 2013

A Break from People

  After rolling up my canvases and having them inspected routinely by TSA agents in customs, and despite the many small bugs in the crevices of the brushwork, I got these three large paintings (4 x 5 feet) home and now I am currently re-stretching them.  Normally they would be complete by the standards that I often use, but I hope to work into them a bit more, hopefully deconstructing them a little bit and opening them up slightly.  Maybe destroying parts of them matching the way I remember the places themselves.  I was slightly restrained with regard to the level of impasto or type of medium I could use in anticipation of them surviving the travel.
     They are clearly landscapes, and I tried hard to explore the place in which these trees existed, and how they visually reacted to and described an area, a time, and a mood.  I have always attempted to fully import emotion via brushwork and tempo into my work.  In some portraiture lately I focused heavily on the psychological aspect of portrait disregarding the location or place and concerning myself mostly with a pure and singular approach to the person.
     Trying to capture a moment in time in the life of a sitting person can encompass a level of honesty as people at times can sit still, even though my response to them is in flux over time.  But a landscape has an aspect of the ridiculous in this format, as it is changing constantly.  Working from observation is somewhat important to me as it provides the problem-solving activity that I find challenging.  I am going however to include my more recent experience with a studio practice methodology and hopefully bring some less literal elements into the three of them.
     A moment in time is something I have been thinking about a lot as it relates to what Roland Barthes calls the filmic, as in a still shot from a movie.  It offers a pregnant moment that is fairly open to interpretation and loaded with action that has yet to happen.  The effect can be true to the way an artist sees something before work is even started.  In this spirit, these paintings are in a way portraits.  Of trees, of my mental state, of my struggle with painting.  One positive that I hope to gain from them as I re-enter my work in portraiture is fairly technical.  I have been challenged to use more color and more paint, to widen my repertoire of mark making and to push backgrounds and paintings in general further. I feel i have accomplished some of that.   Basically an added amount of struggle felt kind of good. Thematically fitting these paintings into the general body of my most recent work is my next step.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

What Kind of Tree?

Loveliest of Trees

LOVELIEST of trees,
the cherry now 
Is hung with bloom along the bough, 
And stands about the woodland ride 
Wearing white for Eastertide.  

Now, of my threescore years and ten,         
Twenty will not come again, 
And take from seventy springs a score, 
It only leaves me fifty more.  

And since to look at things in bloom
 Fifty springs are little room,  
About the woodlands I will go
 To see the cherry hung with snow. 

-A.E. Houseman

     I have had this poem memorized since grammar school.  I grew up in a house where whole chairs were designated to house books, and poetry was something that was always available.  This poem has had different meanings for me throughout my life.  Recently I asked myself what it may mean now, and what it could mean with regards to my work.  At first, it seems like an old man lamenting the passage of time.  Why then would I care at a young age?  As a young man the hanging cherry took on an even more simplistic meaning, perfect for any adolescent.  Recently while jogging the words were scrolling before me as a means of keeping my mind off of my poor breathing.  The meaning became much more evasive as I thought about it.  Could it have merely been aesthetic, that it sounded good?  Was the meaning more to do with it's simplicity and my ability to memorize it?  Could the cherry hung with snow simply be a recognition of old age and possibly a form of self memorialization?
     I used to want to paint everything.  The landscape, big ideas, things the whole world would understand and admire in a familiar way.  I wanted to be Max Beckmann and make grandiose statements about freedom and life.  These are the Springs, and they bloom with incomprehensible companionship.  They are a collective part of a large system of beings that seem at first daunting and limitless in their relationship to each other and to the world.
     Moving forward, I know what I am capable of painting, how much I am available emotionally to witness, how much time it takes and that I have.  I only want to paint what is in front of me.  There is but one idea that I have, and I have no idea what it really is, other than that it is singular in feel.  It is a concentration or focus on a thing, the cherry hung with snow.  It is understandable, the opposite of symbolic, yet symbolizing so much about where I am at this point of my career and life.  The open narrative that poetry allows is something that I hope to achieve in my work.  How lovely it would be for a painting of mine to have more than one meaning at different points of one's life?  This is the opposite of universalism.  Why would the truth of my life mean anything to you?  What if though truth were the meaning?  What the hell is a woodland ride?  Why does this guy think he will live to one hundred and twenty as the poem implies?  What if all of this meaning is manufactured by me?  What a beautiful tree indeed.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Washing Over Me

     The jet lag has worn off, neighbors have been greeted, studio cleaned, inventory done.  I started stretching today.  The heat was rough and the onions ripe.  Two 44 x 52" canvases and a coat of gesso each, hopefully two more coats and two more builds tomorrow.  I plan on getting some plein air work done this summer so I will build a contraption that will fit the back of the family truck.  My goal is to use the landscape to answer some questions about my work, and then get back to portraiture with some freshness.  I spent the first half of my painting career in the open air, and I lost interest in simply illustrating a place.  This is even more true today, and I am hoping to explore the landscape as a sort of self portrait.  If painting is a language, I must force myself to say more.  If materials can imply narrative, then my genre of telling will be poetry.  Every mark must say.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Go Time

     Well, I am here.  Here I am.  My studio abroad will need a thorough cleaning, but I am lucky to have space at all.  My easel and the stretchers that I made last year are all in place and ready to be re-used.  Every year I refine the process of getting supplies back and forth.  This year I brought that tube on the plane, full of rolled raw linen and duct.  I had a gallon of gesso and some oil primer, as well as some white and a couple tools delivered from Utrecht's fabulous international shipping department.  It was here waiting for me upon arrival.  I brought some Meo Gelip, a toxic material that although checked by TSA, was not taken.  I also brought some Williamsburg  paints that I have fallen in love with, specifically the Italian Earthen set.  Latex gloves, staples, and a few very large brushes also adorned my suitcase this trip, a trip in which I bring less every year as I stockpile my painting arsenal.  Good notes at the end of every trip with regard to inventory have become invaluable.  I will need to grab some spatulas and cake decorating scrapers at the local hardware store, but I have plenty of stuff to get going.
     I often think during this process about my old professor George Nick painting trains in Bulgaria and wonder what his process of transporting stuff was like.  Of course, with money anything is possible and he has reached a well deserved level of success.  What the hell did someone like Gauguin do in the most remote islands of the South Pacific?  Those huge burlap canvases and that famous signature high key color that must have been fairly archival judging by their current state seem like a logistical nightmare.  Like painting in general, this all takes practice, routine, and serious commitment.  I think the artlessness of the activity is a welcomed component of my process.  It is all so technical, but not in the way that applying paint often feels.
     The thing in the foreground that looks like a weed-wacker with a saw blade on the end is a typical grass cutting tool in this region.  I use it every year to help cut the weeds from the steep hill that form a plateau required for the rice fields that belong to my family.  Unlike painting, you don't want to make a mistake with that thing.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Residence Number 3

She Only Wore Black Tights

Rob and Angela 1

Rob and Angela 2

Each in Their Own Space

Asami in Two Movements

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Go West

"Any definition of portraiture needs to take account of the unique inter-relationship of artists, sitters, patrons, and viewers that characterizes this genre. The methods by which portraits are produced, the variables of the relationships between artist and sitter, and the way portraits seem to refer to a specific moment of production are all significant for portraiture as an art form."   
                                                                                                    -Shearer West

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Boston Blue

     It happened again, half way through the first day of a school vacation, a day that began like many that I have spent over the years on Patriot's day.  Signs of something that I have become familiar with started to manifest themselves. Texts and emails from friends and family who know of my enthusiasm for marathon day started trickling in.  Many colleagues know that I live in the general area, or that I am a runner myself.  Growing up, the marathon was the start of spring, it just seemed more accurate than the calendar with regards to feel.  I knew without knowing much that this one would be different.
     I kept thinking about the vernacular that has been recently created when checking in with someone after a tragedy such as this.  I recognized all of the words, the general well wishes aimed at a region, the moments of lucidity and remembrance coupled with a very eerie concern for the present.  I kept wondering if the news channels would use the word "massacre" simply because it was Boston, and although I knew that something had happened from the precarious nature of many tweets and calls, I wasn't quite ready to hear about it.
     I turned everything off and listened to music, a Herbie Hancock album that I love from when he was quite young.  It sounds a lot like the background to a mission impossible episode or maybe Scooby-Doo.  I thought immediately about how many casualties it would take to really shock me, or what age those people would have to be for me to even feel anything.  I thought about Kafka's Hunger Artist, about a man who starved himself as a form of providing entertainment, only to later find that with each performance, it would take more days of hunger to impress a somewhat desensitized audience.  I thought more about Herbie Hancock, and Kafka, and the marathon. I decided after a while to start up the crazy machine.
     The television went on, and my mouth opened.  Creative alliterations, tactfully phrased statements, and individual or eyewitness accounts poured into my living room.  I was actually slightly relieved that I could feel shock, that I had not yet been completely disabled, that another's hunger could still alarm me.  This was going to be a studio day for me.  This is going to be a studio day for me.  I made sure that my television was pointed to a benign cartoon about a red dog so that when it is turned on by my kids they may wake more slowly to the world that they will surely inherit but that I can only imagine.  For today, I am thinking Thelonius Monk.  God bless us.

Monday, March 25, 2013


     I met with Hannah Barrett for the second time,  on a Sunday afternoon in the AIB studios which were completely empty.  I brought the four paintings above with me.  We discussed scale and size, the diptychs are actually a slightly different size from each other.  I remember reading Motherwell say that "amounts are important to painters."  Without fully understanding this comment I understood it.  We talked about the grouping of the work, and it's striking first impression in comparison to the more subdued stuff we viewed together last time. Hannah pointed out the increased tension in the painting that may be visually due to the black and the higher amount of contrast between the heavily painted areas and those seemingly left. This was an area that we agreed could be exploited further.
     In discussing the the features of the sitters, or the lack thereof in some cases, Hannah brought up some interesting points.  That this black line creates this premise, as does the missing features.  One that becomes less noticeable once the premise is excepted.  It reminded me of Delacroix's comments about drawing specifically about  contour being absent in nature.  I liked this idea of built visual expectations, and the fulfillment of them. There seems to be room to play with this idea more as well.
     We discussed the austerity of the figures, the generic airiness of them, and the relationship that they have with the more obviously abstract elements of the work.  Abstraction as a topic was kicked around, it's support of the image, and the relationship between the paint and the idea of the painting.  It is quite a balancing act and a fragile one at that.  Things never seem abstract while I am painting.
     Overall I felt that Hannah was very good at recognizing what things about my work were central to who I am, the non-negotiables if you will.  She was equally as good at getting me to thing about what things I am willing to change, allow, or abandon.  Lastly we discussed the triple portrait that I see happening in this work, as it relates directly to the plasticity of the paint.  What attracted me to the idea of these paintings was the relationship between the two people, and mine to them.  There is a very underhanded crisis, or tempered frenzy as I see it.  A psychological negotiation, or posturing.  Those are the people I am painting.  Up close, the subject takes on a less literal face.  It is the story of me, the making of these things, my own personal crisis.  The third portrait is that of the material itself.  A portrait of paint.  The action should match the feeling in my view, like color.  Touch and color are so intuitive.  When asked how I choose color, I am usually at a loss for words.  I try not to choose it when possible.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Strunk & White Painting

     I have several books from which I draw inspiration, and none more than Strunk and White's The Elements of Style.  Many of the suggestions, definitions, or editorializing sound to me like plain good advice for the visual artist.  The book has a mimetic quality as it shows good writing first, and describes it second.  Like many books worth reading it is worth keeping.  It was a classic when I was young and I am not even sure how widely used it is today.  The relationship between White and Strunk is well illustrated and there is a subtle layer of biography amidst what seems like a manual.
     As a painter, it is important to learn from good painters.  It is equally important to learn from good teachers, and from the pages of The Elements of Style I will offer some small excerpts that I think are more relevant to my work than words of most painters, Delacroix and Motherwell aside.  I would call these rules or declarations "meaningful" if Strunk hadn't defined the word as a "bankrupt expression."  The cover has gone through many classic phases itself, this cover on the left is one of my favorites.  I can only imagine what the version that I buy for my children will look like.  Known for a while as "the little book" it was one dude's thoughts, recorded by a former student, on the principles of composition and "a few matters of form."

"Omit needless words!"

"Vigorous writing is concise.  A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary parts.  This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."

"If you don't know how to say a word, say it loud!  Why compound ignorance with inaudibility?"

"Allude.  Do not confuse with elude.  You allude to a book.  you elude a pursuer.  Note, too, that allude is not synonymous with refer.  An allusion is an indirect mention, a reference is a specific one."

"Allusion.  Easily confused with illusion.  The first means indirect reference, the second means an unreal image or a false impression."

"Divided into.  Not to be misused for composed of.  The line is sometimes difficult to draw;  doubtless plays are divided into acts, but poems are composed of stanzas."

"Fix.  Colloquial in America for arrange, prepare, mend.  The usage is well established.  But bear in mind that this verb is from Figere: 'to make firm,' 'to place definitely.'"

"Partially.  Not always interchangeable with partly.  Best use in the sense of 'to a certain degree,' when speaking of a condition or state: 'I'm partially resigned to it.'  Partly carries the idea of a part as distinct from the whole- usually a physical object."

"Style has no such separate entity;  It is nondetachable, unfilterable."

"The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity."

"Do not overstate."

Friday, March 15, 2013

On Black Nights

     A couple of long nights in the studio, and long hours between nights.  My studio is cold and the days have been short.  For the first time ever....what you are seeing in these pictures IS actually underpainting, not something that I am preserving that is ambiguous as such, but a flexible and changing template for the structure of the picture.  I am remembering something Matt Saunders said at our last residence, that painters basically make a support, build their structure, make a drawing, and color it.  This is a terrible explanation of what the process entails, but it is nonetheless difficult to argue any part of it.  
     I have been really trying to be hyper aware of what the differences are between the blacks that I am using as I move away from umbers for the time being.  The lamp and mars act quite differently from one another.  The Mars is very permanent compared to the lamp, which has the perishable nature of a charcoal drawing.  It lacks tactile or tonal potential in comparison.  This has both it's use and it's drawbacks.  I intend to try ivory next.  I like to spend a considerable amount of time destroying the drawing, which only works if it has some durability.  I noticed that Rob Sullivan used ivory in his underpainting, and he mentioned lots of rags and large brushes, something that I have been reading is very common in this phase of the painting.  I have never enjoyed pictures of myself but in documenting my work I noticed a similarity between the way in which I would allow my photo to be taken and it's parallel with the way that I see the subjects of my paintings.  Until I see other paintings or even the real world, I believe that people look this way.  It is mostly how I feel that they look.  "The things that are most real to me are the illusions which I create with my painting.  Everything else is a quicksand." (Delacroix)

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Rob and Angela

     "The first of all principles is the need to make sacrifices.  Isolated portraits, however perfect, cannot form a picture.  Personal feeling alone can give unity, and the one way of achieving this is to show only what deserves to be seen."

     This was a quote from the journals of Eugene Delacroix, a book that has been providing me with much to consider.  "What is a black and white drawing but a convention to which the beholder has become so accustomed that with his mind's eye he sees a complete equivalent in the translation from nature."  The concept of a picture that lives between the painted and drawn world is one that appeals to me.  It is such an artificial world because as Delacroix reminds us "contour and touch are equally absent in nature."  His description of what he calls "touch" is definitely a component in painting that Delacroix recognizes second only to the imagination as critical for good work.

     I have been spending some time revisiting Doerner's book on materials particularly the analysis of specific master techniques, or in most of the cases, mixed techniques.  The amount of tempura used by the Dutch for example in underpainting was a surprise to me.  Doerner's description of El Greco's techniques are shockingly simplified, and it seems that all my favorite painters used something called venetian turpentine, which judging from the descriptions had some kind of flex gel or resin components I am guessing.

     Theses two books make great tandem reading especially as they relate to both of the author's favorite subject, Rubens.  Delacroix's intimation that the "idea" should be of paramount concern to the painter was a relief coming from such a technician.

     In these ditychs or this diptych, these double portraits or this double portrait; I am thinking about the triangle made between two people painted, especially when split into separate but connected canvases, and the artist/viewer.  The amount of time elapsed between the seemingly divergent events in the two sets of paintings, the time spent painting vs. viewing, as well as the curious nature of the implied simultaneity of this moment or these moments are all parts of the soup.  When I look at these, I wonder am I this good, or this bad.  "Experience ought to teach us two things; first, that we should do a great deal of correcting; secondly, that we must not correct too much." (Delacroix)

     All this has me remembering a quote from Lucian Freud.  "One thing I have never got used to, is not feeling the same from one day to the next, although I try to control it as much as possible by working absolutely all the time.  I just feel so different every day that it is a wonder that any of my pictures ever work out at all." (Man with a Blue Scarf)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Meeting Hannah

     I met last week with my new mentor, Hannah Barrett.  I had plenty of time to think about the process as I drove from Boston to Brooklyn to meet with her.  I specifically brought three paintings that were fairly microcosmic of how I work but were in an early or green state.  I am holding off on adding color to them for longer than usual, I hope to remove even more from them and get even more reductive. I wanted to have something post-residence that took into consideration all that I had taken from those many hours of introspection.  This triptych is titled Koko in Black Leggings.  The meeting was well worth the drive.
     Some highlights of the discussion were the idea of simultaneity when portraying another yet trying to project oneself, the differences between a portrait and a domestic scene, and the survival of portraiture in England as a genre in contrast to its fifty year disappearance in America.  We discussed concepts like economy and illusion, and the illusion of virtuosity or what Stuart called a code of mastery.  We discussed the ever-popular topic of finish in my work, why evocations of under-painting are always referenced.  For once, it wasn't the thinness of the paint but the umber accused as the culprit. The idea of a painting that is between a drawing and a painting was thrown around as something we both appreciated, and the overall calligraphic nature of my drawing style was analyzed for content.  We discussed my interest in the fragility of an image, both as it exists on the canvas, and the cavalier or passive nature with which a contemporary audience views painting.  We talked about the effects and the possible misinterpretations of the erasure or subtractive components in the work.  For the first time ever she brought up what misinterpretations I may be willing to allow, something that before the critique I had not thought of.  Hannah also pointed out some parameters or set of constraints or conventions that I work within, and she really tried to thematically tie together the pieces that I brought with the ones that I had in digital format.
     Hannah thought that it was obvious that the clearest and most successful decision that I have made is the consistent use of economy, which she quickly linked to mortality.  This relationship was discussed as it pertains both to the fleeing moment such as childhood and also the moving target that is the portrait including the paradox of the singular moment or the true present.  After admitting to Hannah’s delight that my life is pretty boring, and that authenticity requires me to include this component into my work, she commented on an obvious interest of mine in the information in a painting which is absolutely essential, and a resistance to any information which is extraneous.  She brought up Whistler, like she wanted to make my day.
     Partial story, incomplete idea of perfection, open narrative, bad drawing and honesty…it is all there. Going forward, Hannah challenged me to think about other conventions such as the erasure that I am willing to part with.  Ironically, she thought I could be mindful of scale and work bigger (I went smaller just for this trip and brought some knee-highs which made my work a bit more sentimental I think.)  She recommended some good books, some of which I already purchased.  In general, I am completely thrilled about my new mentor.  I learned a lot, but felt like I was talking to a friend.  Feels good when something works out.  Hannah emailed me yesterday to wish me luck. She ended the message, “stay boring.”

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Winter Preparation

     My winter studio has less glamorous lighting, but it is forty degrees warmer.  I work in the basement when my studio shack gets too nippy.  You have seen this part of the show before if you have been on my blog.  This is where I think, avoid work, plan, and dream.  I am stretching two of the standard sizes I have been working in for a while, 44 x 52s and 22 x 34s, and several of each.  I have a few series in mind.  Linen, oil primer...etc.

Moving Pictures

     The first thing that I have to do now that residency two is over, is move a lot of work around.  Shuffle the deck chairs.  Many paintings that still need a brushmark here or a glaze there, even from the first residency, and I plan on getting to them.  Stacks of paintings now rotate between a couple places in the back of my studio and in the corner of my son's room.  I remember a great documentary on Alice Neel I recently saw where her sons recalled the stacks leaning all over the place, and how regular it was.  My studio is only 10 x 15 feet, and Brit Snyder is the only person who has been in it in the ten years since it has been built. I am spending some time taking notes on my own work, doing inventory of my paintings and painting materials, and estimating what I may need for my next wave of work.