When I began my first residency, I knew that I wanted to use vintage imagery from the 50s. I was also aware that those images contained a power to speak in a variety of ways to different people. My biggest challenge in starting a new body of work was to clarify that idea, both with the subject matter and the method of painting. I’ve learned important lessons, and I’m still very much trying to figure things out.
When I began, I had a large pile of reference imagery. I had too many painting ideas, and I had to consider a practical way of working that would allow me to discover new ways of realizing them without taking too much time. I knew at the outset that working exclusively with oil on canvas would be time consuming and keep me from experimenting. I decided to start with smaller study paintings on paper. These were intended to be quick and somewhat spontaneous. I felt confident in my color palette from previous work, so I used the studies mainly as a way to explore composition and shape.
I started each with the random application of acrylic yellow ochre. I worked quick and scraped the surface with a putty knife, leaving subtle streaks. This idea came from analysis of discolored old photos, which often are due to poor film. After sketching the main shapes, I used a dark neutralized violet for areas of darkest contrast. I also used light washes of rusty red to balance the color scheme. From there, I used undiluted oils to fill out the picture. I would consider the result to be quick and sketchy. Usually my work would be much more refined, and these studies helped me to work through compositional challenges.
In April I began a series of 24” x 20” oil paintings. About the time I started working on canvas, my mentor suggested I try my hand with a wet on wet technique. I tried it and it was a real disaster. It proved to be very frustrating and a total failure. However, failing at wet on wet led me to experiment with more viscosity to my paint. In the past, I worked primarily with thick undiluted paint, which meant smaller brushstrokes and a greater attention to minute detail. Adding more oil to loosen the paint has allowed me to work quick and with bigger brushes while concentrating on shape and composition. I’ve been very deliberate in treating the negative shapes around figures with ochre and tan.
A common suggestion from the first residency concerned the infusion of greater meaning into the paintings. I received a lot of feedback about using allegory to tell more of a story or make a statement through the work. I’ve long been resistant to this, because I can sense that the work could easily become trite. I enjoy the distance between the viewer and my subject matter, and I like the way vintage images can seem unresolved or vague. However, I have looked for subtle ways to say more, and my painting “the New Pastime” is the farthest I pushed the idea. In the picture, a family sits staring at the television, while above the TV a clichéd painting of a praying man on the wall is all but ignored. The painting, TV and family create a triangle of movement. As a 50’s image, the family has shifted their collective gaze from each other and their faith to unnatural green glow of the TV, which is not so much a statement about TV being evil as it is a statement about family life today. Kids are raised in front of the TV and people plan their lives around their shows. It’s changed everything. I’m pleased with the way the image turned out and am anxious to see if people can pick up on the meaning at the residency. I would be thrilled if people don’t notice it.
Another major development has been the use of violet lines to define the picture. The bright line can make the picture very vibrant, and it also can flatten the image and make it feel a little like a coloring book. Part of me likes the artificial flatness and plasticy feel of the finished works with the violet line, but I anticipate that this is an aspect to my work I will be wrestling with for a while. I do not want to achieve realism, and at the same time I do not want to draw cartoons. Somewhere in between lies the level of stylization I am after. For now, I am embracing the flatness and considering ways to minimize it in the future with deeper shadows and brighter areas of light.
My mentor Michael Carson has been a great help to me. He is very good at implying information with simple brushstrokes instead of adding unnecessary detail. His figures are fleshy and elegant and exist in another time. He had some great suggestions about minimizing detail and picking reference imagery (He turned me onto the Library of Congress photography source, which is vast and free). He has shown great interest in my current work on canvas, and I feel like one semester is not enough time to learn what I can from him.
Viewing the work of other artists this semester has been helpful in understanding my place. Edward Hopper has been a huge influence for his use of light and composition. His palette is bright and his figures often awkward, but they occupy a space where light is coming from somewhere else and the context of the image is unknown. In this way, he turns buildings, landscapes, and people into fascinating shapes. I went to Chicago to see his show at the Art Institute. His images explode when first seen walking into a room, but upon closer look appear quick and sometimes messy in the application of paint. This was surprising and a reminder that I need to be conscious of how my works read at a distance as well as up close.
In researching working artists I discovered painters who make the idea of reproducing source imagery their idea and their art. This was something I hadn’t considered. Of these artists, Micheal Borremans was most impressive to me, his paintings haunting and beautiful. He manages to reproduce an image with alterations that change the way the viewer perceives. Since viewing his work I have looked for subtle ways to alter my reference imagery.
Reading Mary Caputi’s “A Kinder, Gentler America: Melancholia and the Mythical 50s” opened my eyes to all that 50s imagery can mean and say. I realized that my work cannot help but be political, no matter how much I resist it. I also learned that in dealing with nostalgic imagery, what is left out of the picture can say just as much as what is included. To get a real flavor for the period and further understand the look, I used the semester to view 14 classic films from the 50s. It was a real treat to watch these films and analyze them for their artistic content, camera placement and directorial brilliance.
Films like “The Searchers” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” perfectly captured the American identity of the time, one of subtle paranoia that outside forces might destroy all that is good in life. The best of these movies, “Rear Window”, “Ace in the Hole” and “A Face in the Crowd” used the artistry of film to speak on issues way ahead of their time. These directors understood the ways television and consumerism where changing American culture, and it’s impossible to watch the films and deny their prophetic nature. I hope to watch many more period films in the coming semester.
Maintaining a working blog and a studio schedule has been very helpful. I have regularly posted images and thoughts on the web and the feedback of other graduate students has been great. Working throughout the week and often late into the night has been a challenge with all of my other responsibilities, but it has changed the way I view my work. I am constantly thinking about my work and what I want to do next, and this has been huge. The pressure of getting this work done and writing about it has ultimately been great. I am working and developing my ideas and have learned so much. I cannot wait to be bombarded with ideas and feedback once again at the next residency.