Gerard ter Borch: Lady Seated Holding a Wine Glass - 1665
Group 2 to 3 Transition
June, 2010 – January, 2011
Regardless of a program of study, consultants, tutors, teachers, mentors and what have you – an artist's education relies a great deal upon self-assurance. One's ability to move ahead in the learning process (or learn at all, for that matter) becomes greatly impacted by circumstance and daily life as it is lived. Clarity is often needed to gain insight, but such lucidity is routinely unattainable, a seeming luxury item. So it was for me this semester.
As predictable and cliché as it may seem, I spent a great deal of this second semester in what I felt was a sophomore slump. It may stand to reason that since I ended the first one on such a confident high that I had set myself up for a downturn. Sure enough, the first research paper showed my overeagerness up to a harsh light, as I delivered an over-reaching, near-incoherent pastiche of ideas that never meshed. I received a proper upbraiding over this, which was no doubt necessary. However, I never fully recovered my self-belief regarding my research and writing. A good case in point is in how the following essay came together – that is – the Rackstraw Downes show review. It goes without saying that I have become a huge admirer of the man and his work (more on this later), and one would think that a rigorous study of his oeuvre would yield a fluid, gratifying writing experience. Instead, a hyper-awareness of my predisposition to over-write kept any flow at bay. I wrote insecurely, with a huge degree of self-skepticism. It didn't matter that that piece turned out “acceptable” (as it was deemed), I had lost confidence, and frankly, I felt rather crestfallen about the whole thing. A sense of detachment from the program began to seep into my state of mind.
How do you learn in this situation? How can you process new input and make sense of it when you are already riddled with looming doubt? And, for me, as a painter, how could I create anything feeling like this? Well, the first thing I found out was how not to handle the situation. Better judgment in fetters, I allowed this situation to place undo strain on personal and professional relationships. This only served to splice my problems together, forming a tragic loop. This may seem self-evident, but it is slow in coming when you are inside these predicaments: When you become so sure of weaknesses, you begin to concretize failure into inexorability. It dawned upon me that I was placing an overbalanced import on the academic side of things and losing sight of my primary goal – making paintings. So then, I needed to set the scales aright by directing my focus towards my painting goals.
I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate to have had Emily Eveleth as my mentor this past semester. Her quiet, thoughtful approach was much appreciated and very much needed. As her oil paintings involve not only large imagery, but definitive impasted passages of mark-making, she fully supported my foray into this technique. As I'd stated in my last residency summary, the most common observation of my work was that the surface was too even. Some felt that it did not engage their vision with tactility, while others noted that my sleight-of-hand style of neoclassical manipulation failed to acknowledge the medium's natural properties. As much as Emily could reveal to me in her studio, and as much as I understood the information – coming back to my workspace and applying proper technique was something else entirely. It very much felt like experimenting. I wasn't afraid of failure in this case, oddly enough. Perhaps my mastery of “clean” technique in a medium that is inherently messy (try putting your coat or bag down in a BFA painting studio, and you'll see what I mean), allowed me to understand that in order to get a definitive mark, all I had to do was leave it alone. But, would my eyes accept it?
One difficulty that became rather evident was scale. I began a 48” x 60” canvas in order to break new ground in this area. This is not necessarily “big” in the world of painting, but it's not exactly small, either – and honestly, it was big to me. The subject matter lent itself to a greater scale and, in hindsight, could have been executed even larger, promoting greater visual impact. However, the technical challenge of engineering this size painting consumed a great deal of time. I was truly in a “learning-as-you-go” mode. As the painting neared completion, I was very concerned about the time frame.* It was unacceptable to take this long, as it was eating into the time needed to complete other works. My intention to use other media (enamel, to be exact) on this large work had to be set aside. I would have to experiment with materials and facture on a more reasonable scale.
The notion of experimenting with new media was still very strong, and an earlier attempt using roofing tar and rustproofing enamel was fairly successful. While wearing chemical-resistant gloves I applied broad applications of tar. By thinning it right on the canvas with mineral spirits, I found that I could control this unwieldy-looking medium with my fingers. The addition of enamel required speed and good planning. Designated areas had to be free and clear of the tar for the enamel to not only stick, but also, the drying time is so fast with enamel, with tar forever workable, the two needed complete segregation. It took weeks for the tar to really set up, and any contact with mineral/petroleum spirits would re-activate it easily. Varnishing was dicey. And my last piece for the semester was a full digression from this: charcoal on Mylar. Dry and delicate, the black dust skated across the surface, held only by the frosted veneer on the polyester sheet. The surface is eminently re-workable, as the 3 millimeter Mylar can be erased over and over without textural compromise. In fact, the oils from my hands and fingers left more telling marks. But even these could be effaced with no trace.
My push into new techniques in traditional oil came about in three medium-sized works. Two of these pieces play off the contrast of impasto and the “licked finish” of illusionistic painting. The third is an exercise in directional brushwork throughout, using visual reference material that would generally call for smooth, blended paint. Something interesting happened in terms of my vision: When the heavy marks were applied, it became difficult to “see,” and I had to not only back far away from the work with each mark, I had to take pictures with my cell phone every so often in order to “unsee” the marks and make sure something was taking shape. Truly, it was something that I had to get used to.
None of this formal technique, however, would take hold properly if I didn't make a point of applying reading, research and theory together in the conceptual execution of the imagery. The suggested motifs of concepting had been proposed at the end of the last residency. One was figurative, specifically – nude self-portraiture. The other was the exploration of quotidian objects along more ambiguous, yet dynamic directions. Despite all the attention paid to the nude self-portrait I'd shown in the June residency, Atelier 2010, I didn't feel like the theme for its own sake was a realm that I could really sink my teeth into. Plus, it seemed too weighted with sociopolitical concerns, which, for good or ill, is something upon which contemporary viewers can get really hung up. This seemed a bit stifling in the face of needing to experiment. Topically, I realized that non-figurative concepts would better serve my needs at this time. I tried to pull a little more from the vernacular in terms of iconography, playing with composition, palette and point-of-view. Also, as mentioned earlier, paint facture, unusual media, and mark-making played a significant factor. The ideas themselves range quite a bit – from a contemporary prod at the Sublime to visual metaphors of painting itself. However, I have found that presenting a visual “straight reading,” especially after exploring the bald specificity of much of Mark Tansey's art, is detrimental to the work. I believe I have made some gains into new and open ground in this respect, as I am trying to allow for multifacteted interpretations of the work according to the viewer's discretion. Sure, there is intentionality, but it is not meant to be fully cogent nor empirically understood. If the latter ideas were my primary purpose, then the "vectors would meet.”**
Interestingly, Rackstraw Downes seemed almost omnipresent in the periphery of everything I did this semester. He factored in conventionally as the Parrish Museum show was the direct subject of my second research essay, as stated. However, this traveling show ended up in my local museum not a week ago, and I had been counting the days of its arrival since I had learned of its winter destination. In the interim, I visited the Aldrich Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut and found a room dedicated to a specific triptych of Downes', replete with cases full of preparatory sketches and journal entries. Needless to say, this man's work ethic, technical prowess, willingness to improve, and persistence of vision (pun apropos) is something to which I should truly aspire. He sets the bar high in many respects. It would serve me well to hold onto this aspiration and inspiration not just for the duration of the MFA program, but deep into the future of my artistic life.
* The notion of time and effort came up in a more concrete fashion when I read a recent article by James Elkins, “Are Artists Bored By Their Work?” (posted December 15th, 2010 on the Huffington Post website, huffingtonpost.com). Elkins explores the marked difference in the time it took to create representational works (citing many Baroque pieces) versus works in the Modernist era. The slant of the essay moves towards the hypothesis that artists who work/had worked in realistic styles became bored by the amount of time and effort required. This is interesting, but I found this passage to be far more engaging: “The relatively short amount of time modern and contemporary artists spend on individual artworks cannot be explained by the fact that we're no longer interested in realistic depictions...” Perhaps in a time when consumption and processing of information is faster and more disposable than it's ever been, I feel that, as an artist, I might want to reflect that notion back to the contemporary and perhaps turn it on its head. Elkins tells that Arthur Danto warned of Elkins' near-fetishizing of “slow looking” in reference to a previous essay. I contend that perhaps there is no greater gift to give than “slow looking” in this age of micro-instant gratification. And this could be engendered by engaging in and embracing “slow painting.”
** This term is co-opted from a segment (13:00 – 15:00) of Vincent Desiderio's presentation at the Art Institute Boston's Art Talks, January, 2010. Desiderio offers a comparative look at the work of Johannes Vermeer versus that of Gerard ter Borch. Their paintings use similar iconography indicating similar thematics, however, Desiderio feels that there is a markedly different result due to the execution of Vermeer's technical narrative. In ter Borch, Desiderio describes the intent of the painter as “vectors of visual thought” moving into the “vortex” (or thematic center) of the work, but ending at a specific, predetermined meaning. A Vermeer, on the other hand, starts with seemingly comparable intentions (using equivalent Dutch iconography), but “the vectors miss” as they come to the thematic center. Desiderio submits that this action serves to amplify different and varied associations regarding definitive meaning in the work. In his estimation, this is what makes for great painting.