“Drive-By Landscape No. 1″
Oil on Board, 12 x 12”
This all started in January of 2008, when Anna and I went to see the Edward Hopper show at the National Gallery of Art in DC. Anna and I were both Hopper fans, so we were happy to have made the show before it closed. Then something unsettling happened…
Walking through the exhibit–piece after piece–showed an artist struggling with the medium (oil paint)…and mostly not coming out the winner. I actually started to feel a bit sorry for old Ed, like I caught him with his Art Pants down. In terms of his paint application (or, mark-making) the work “amateurish” kept surfacing in my head. I’m sure my face was a strange thing to behold, because I was shocked.
To keep from Poisoning the Well, I kept my mouth shut and said nothing to Anna. (BTW, on top of zillions of reproductions, she and I have both seen a good number of Hoppers “live”.) When I told her my take on the show, she said that she’d been thinking the same thing. We went back to the beginning and looked at everything again. Same thing.
Now, there are no two ways about it: Hopper knew how to compose stunning images that, on their own merits (of light, color, and mood) are aesthetically pleasing and historically significant. But his mark-making was simply Godawful. I’d always found his figures to be weak points in any paintings that incorporated them, but up close, that same uncomfortably-integrated aspect intruded upon so much beyond that.
Needless to say, there were some strong passages. But more often than not, he just seemed to find himself needing to cover an area while he happened to be holding a brush loaded with oil paint.
Now I have a whole bunch of questions: Is it because he was a graphic artist for so (or–too) long? Is it because his paintings are actually better viewed as reduced-scale reproductions? Why are his watercolors generally more fluid and immensely more tuned-in to the medium–when watercolor is a harder medium to employ and “let go” with?
(Incidentally, Hopper’s etchings exhibit what I call “Diebenkorn-y Drawing Funk”–a sort of stiffness-of-draftsmanship that becomes a stylistic/translational success in spite of itself.) Example:
How is it that Hopper shows a clear understanding of “marks and gesture adding up to form” with a pointy medium (etching)…
…yet it doesn’t translate into his oil painting brushwork? It’s like he had an impenetrable wall between media.
I don’t know, but it was the start of my noticing all kinds of Dicey Oil Painting Marks Made by Masters in subsequent museum visits. More on this later, in Part II…
My freshly painted white, textured studio table. I’ll use it to set still lifes on.
While working on the surface (to give it some interesting character that I’ll include while I’m painting whatever’s on it) I noticed it was looking a lot like an outtake from Richard Diebenkorn‘s Ocean Park Series.
So…why allow (or more precisely: include) random marks on the Still Life Substrate? Here’s why:
In my observational paintings, I’ve always included nominally subtle elements–like drywall seams, paint inconsistencies, etc–when appropriate. Not only are those elements compositionally interesting, but they’re often an integral part of what I’m looking at; my amputation of them would mean altering the scene in such a way as to make the translational process (of perceiving, processing, and painting) suffer.
Having these marks on the tabletop will provide some hard-wired Interesting Possibilities when setting up…beyond a cloth, or what have you. (Plus, the way I did it provides varying “neighborhoods of complexity”, so I have my Options.)
A “Painting in Progress” image time line: To keep my sensibilities freshy-fresh (and to explore the medium), I keep a couple of small paintings in ongoing States of Becoming. They’ll let me know when I’ve had enough–if ever.
These represent a sort of external “painting id” to balance out the constantly preening (and suffocating) “painting superego”: I allow myself to try anything that comes to mind, I allow myself to unapologetically suck, and I *force* myself to sacrifice passages that I like, in the service of learning to Let Go. Honest to God, they’re tough on me–even knowing I’m not supposed to “produce” with these, I still get angry when nothing works.
This one got so thick with paint that I sanded it down several sessions ago (after which, of course, the surface became a glassy nightmare of paint non-adhesion). A half-dry coat of retouch varnish made it paintable again, and it’s odd little challenges like that that often pay dividends.