Saturday, May 2, 2009

New Images: "The Joke" and grid row 3

Last weekend my wife went out of town for the weekend to attend a bridal shower and took the kids too- It was a real gift. I spent the entire weekend in the basement making the most of the time (in all about 25 hours). I finished a new larger painting I'm calling the joke, and also finished under painting a third row on my grid series (five 8"x8" paintings). I'm floating all kinds of ideas on how to finish off the grid, but at this point I'm leaning towards bringing it in it's incomplete state to the next residency in June and finishing it for the thesis show in January. I'll be starting a 4th row this week. Comments appreciated-


May Paper

Artistic Lineage: Influential Artists

As I further develop my ideas and continue to create new work, I find great importance in researching artists who have already explored and continue to explore common artistic ground. My aim is not to find my artistic identity in the work of other artists, but to bring together those ideas that I resonate with the most in hopes of further defining what I wish to accomplish in my own work. For the purpose of this paper,

 I’ve managed to narrow this list down to four painters among many that I identify with visually and theoretically: Edward Hopper, Gerhard Richter, Wayne Thiebaud and Robert Bechtle. This odd grouping of artists will provide a framework for discussing ideas and concepts critical to my work: The use of the photograph as reference, the use of light, shape and color (or lack there-of), and the common theme of isolation and detachment.

Edward Hopper’s work and concepts have been very influential in my work. He remains today among America’s most popular artists, which speaks not only to his skill as a painter but also to the way his images connect with the viewer. Hopper used strong light and shadows to illuminate his spaces and freeze them in time. Hopper used the strong formal qualities of his paintings to imply a sense of narrative, while at the same time leaving them free of commentary.  A lifelong fan of theater and cinema, Hopper treated his subjects with cinematic lighting, framing, and angles of view.


The ability of painting to show reality was something that Hopper constantly wrestled with: “I was never able to paint what I set out to paint”, he once wrote. Instead, he altered his scenes by removing the unnecessary details and people, and simplified forms to shapes of color and light. “Among Hopper’s strategies, then, simplification looms large. It characterizes most of his paintings. More than any other quality, these simplifications foster that emotionally charged silence within which Hopper’s suspended visual narratives become so compelling” (Wells 13).  Many of his scenes are quite awkward, especially those with figures- and somehow the way they are painted makes their strangeness acceptable and appealing.  Through all of his work, there is a sense of timelessness and an appreciative eye for the simple beauty of surroundings that contributes to an overall feeling of isolation and detachment.

Another artist whose work evokes feelings of isolation and detachment is Gerhard Richter. Though very different from Hopper and still very active in the art world, Richter’s approach to images, particularly his use of photography, is essential to what I’m trying to do. Gerhard Richter has been and continues to be hard to define. His body of work is extensive and broad across many themes and media. He has never been content to repeat himself. Despite the scope of his work, Richter’s paintings (according to the artist) consistently reinforce a common dual theme: “That images (and ideas and ideals) are static, superficial, unachievable and are to be doubted; and reality is a process of imagination, material creation and revision. Richter’s subject is the range of relationships between illusion and this reality, his painting” (Adriani 8).


Richter has stated that the use of photographic imagery as a starting point for his early paintings resulted from “an attempt to escape the complicated process of deciding what to paint, along with the critical and theoretical implications accompanying such decisions within the context of a modernist discourse” ( To achieve this, Richter began amassing photos from magazines, books, etc. Beyond using photos as reference to escape meaning, he simplified his painting style to loose brushstrokes and his palette to neutral gray. Most of his works from the 60s were made this way. On using gray he remarked, “‘there is no other color so suitable for illustrating nothing’. He especially liked images from the media because they were available in profusion and, he said, liberated him from personal experience.” (Fineberg 364).

Before I was aware of Richter’s use of photography, I had gravitated towards using 50s photos as reference for the exact same reason- mainly because I wanted subject matter that was distant from personal experience and fun to paint. Richter has rejected those who read into the content of his images as personal, which has also been a challenge of mine. He views photography as the modern sketchbook for artists, and has often discussed the inherent qualities to photography that he finds most appealing: “There are only pictures, which have value to many people or to very few, which remain interesting for a very long time or only for a few seconds, and for which very little or a very great deal is paid” (Obrist 772).  This duality of response in photographs is absolutely a draw for me.

While I certainly resonate with Richter’s approach to photos and find his gray paintings fascinating, I would have difficulty in scaling back my paintings in such a way. That’s because I love the formal qualities of painting, particularly the use of shape, line and color, and I see in detached images- particularly from 1950s color photos- a highly desirable aesthetic. For me, no artist embodies the joy of pure painting like Wayne Thiebaud. “The real motives behind Thiebaud’s work are the direct pleasures of looking at things, of analyzing them into patterns, and of handling paint” (Fineberg 212). In his writings and interviews, Thiebaud has often stated that painting is more important than art, a view he formed early in his career after viewing the works of Willem DeKooning.

The influence of Edward Hopper is evident in Thiebaud’s paintings; particularly in the way he depicts painted objects with strong shapes of solid color and cast shadows. Like Hopper, who rejected many modernist ideas and stayed true to his own unique vision, one could also say that Thiebaud is a movement unto himself. People are quick to consider him a Pop artist, mainly for his use of color and depiction of common American objects, but Thiebaud’s work doesn’t have any of the irony present in Pop art and as a west coast artist, he was removed from the New York scene. 


Instead, he just painted, and few American observational painters have so wide a range. Even in his old age, he continues to paint storefronts, as well as exaggerated San Francisco landscapes. Much has been written about the meaning of the work to Thiebaud beyond the formal aspects of creating. Thiebaud himself has warned against reading too much into their symbolism. “The symbolic aspect of my work is always confusing to me- it’s never been clear in my mind… I tend to view the subject matter without trying to be too opaque with respect to its symbolic reference, mostly from the standpoint of problematic attractions- what certain aspects of form offer.” (Nash 17).

I have always resonated with Thiebaud’s approach to painting things. Before I ever looked intently at his work, I was far more interested in the process of composing an image than in speaking to an issue. In painting from still photos, I found frustration in the way that objects painted realistically could easily look flat and uninteresting. I began to under-paint my canvases with bright colors, leaving little bits of intense color to show through in the outlining of objects. The result was an infused vibrancy to the still image. I was feeling pretty proud of myself for the discovery, until I realized that Wayne Thiebaud had been doing the same thing much better for fifty years.

One artist whose paintings address both the photographical concerns of artists like Gerhard Richter and the formal/thematic style of Hopper and Thiebaud is bay area photorealist Robert Bechtle. I have only recently become aware with Bechtle’s work, and I see in it a culmination of the previously discussed artists. His paintings center on wide, empty spaces and the urban landscape of San Fransisco. “Bechtle’s flat, sun-bleached palette and his detached mode of recording random details impart a singular sense of alienation to his subjects. His deadpan paintings capture the essence of the postwar American experience” (Auping 3).

 Considered a pioneer in photorealism, Bechtle began painting in California in the early 60s and was immediately caught up in the Bay Area figurative movement. A growing number of Bay Area artists, including Wayne Thiebaud, viewed representational painting as an enticing challenge to the dominant, New York-based current of Abstract Expressionism. Bechtle began creating scenes of cars and the streets of San Francisco by implementing a grid and using small random photographs. These photos were amateur at best, taken by other people and often blurry and strangely composed. Betchle discovered in them a way to look at the ordinary in a way that was striking and unique. In time, he gravitated towards taking his own images and projecting them onto canvas for tracing. He continues to work this way.


There is much in Bechtle’s work that I relate to. While I certainly do not view my work as photorealistic, I do share Bechtle’s approach to the snapshot- a photograph taken by an everyday individual to document everyday life- as a viable type of source material. Until the 60s, Bechtle didn’t really see himself as a realist, but rather he was “striving to paint without affection, in a kind of style-less style” (Auping 11). Working from snapshots led me to purge style and meaning from my work, though I found that the actual act of doing this gave the work style and meaning! Robert Bechtle’s work eventually became closer to that of Edward Hopper, in that his street and car scenes were largely void of people and centered on the shapes of shadow and light. I differ most with Bechtle in his process. I have always been apposed to using a projector, in that I tend to manipulate my images in important compositional ways through the process of planning and drawing them. For me, the snapshot is reference, but the goal is not a photorealistic copy.

Researching this group of artists has helped in understanding the scope of concepts I’ve been exploring. In seeing the way other artists use of the photograph as reference, I’ve become more aware of how my source imagery functions, and more deliberate in my choosing and manipulation of images. On a formal level, artists like Thiebaud and Hopper have shown me how color, lighting and emphasis on shape contribute to an overall feeling of sensory observation.  These artists all have found different ways to infuse their work with themes of isolation and detachment. Ultimately, I would like that my images would connect with viewers on such a level- to at the same time seem comfortable and disquieting.