A Poetic Approach to Landscape
A(essay for the 2015 Arden Gallery exhibit)
When I look at my native landscape, I see beloved mountains, rivers, ponds, forests, and the great Atlantic. I also see layered elements: geology, weather and temperature, air and movement, seasonal changes, flora, the effects of gravity and time. I try to look at these elements with a naturalist’s sensitivity to detail, and with a heart primed to find the spirit of the place – the poetics at the heart of what makes home in New England special.
It doesn’t really matter if I’m looking from a distance or focusing on what’s at my feet, the reality of details built into patterns is at the core of each painting. Naturalistic detail forms the vocabulary, while juxtaposition determines the degree of abstraction or realism in each painting. The more closely I look at a pile of stones, the more abstract the patterns become. Similarly, swirls of pollen and duckweed on a pond’s surface can feel abstract, even when the sun is casting clearly defined shadows across the surface, and the surrounding woods can be inferred in the leafy, dancing shapes in the shadows. I see realism and abstraction as points on the axis of proximity.
Through decades of sketching and photographing nature I’m beginning to visually understand of how things work – how the parts interact with each other. As an artist, I work to master the accidents that are possible when techniques collide. My early study of printmaking, then watercolor, and finally oil painting opened me to new ways of seeing and recording what I saw. I like to let the medium inform the approach and final results. I know it is at the intersection of these three mediums that my best impulses reveal themselves.
The landscape is a layered event, and so are my paintings. The first layer, based on monoprint techniques, utilizes a soft rubber roller and thinned oil paint to establish a value pattern and textures evocative of my subject. At this stage, I am interested in strong contrasts and bold “accidents.” I push the wet paint around with scraps of plastic bags, spritz with solvents, blot, blur, re-roll, wipe and scrape in defining lines. I use anything at hand to create an interesting abstract pattern, a pattern that is sympathetic to my subject.
When the underpainting is dry, I glaze to modulate the color, then bring into focus the major shapes using soft watercolor brushes and primarily transparent or semi-transparent pigments. Again, I’m looking at the patterns in nature and seeking to interweave that information with the abstract gestures found in the first layer of paint. It’s a question of balance – letting the underpainting integrate with facts in a respectful way. Successive days, weeks, or months of painting, drying, glazing, and more drying yield a painting.
I know the painting is finished when the unique spirit of the place is evident, when the viewer’s sense of touch, smell, and sound is piqued, and when every square inch yields little surprises, be whether about paint application or about the world inferred beyond the boundaries and planes of the painting. If the subject is a pond, I want the pond’s depths and surroundings to feel physically present. If it’s a forest, I want the viewer to feel they can enter (though it might not be an easy foray). If a crashing wave, I want the viewer to feel splashed. I want the stone paintings to evoke the pleasures I felt as a child when I collected stones, fingering them and rolling them in my pockets, wondering if they could be crushed to make paint.