"The true painter strives to paint what can only be seen through his world." ~André Malraux

After a year of intermittant "painter's block"  I am working again in my studio, and feeling in a tentative positive state. Painting is a solitary activity, and as artists, we are often working in a vacuum. Unless we have a show hanging, reaction to the work is minimal. With several pieces underway, I decided that perhaps if I write about what I am doing or am attempting to do, it might act somewhat as a muse for me as well as give me some feedback on the work I am creating -- hence the establishment of this blog. 

As for the blog title, traditional, representational painting is a language for expressing what’s visible. But I feel my work is the most successful, and most interesting, when focused on things not entirely visible. I paint what I see but also what I sense and feel by utilizing my interior and unseen world --- in other words, the invisible world. Plein air work or  studio work from photographs are only touchstones or landmarks which guide me to other inner spaces. By so doing, I find that I am pushing the boundaries between representational and abstract work.

You can enlarge the images in this blog by clicking on them.

Mar 25, 2011

Your Voice Might Change

As I find myself finally evolving into another painting style, I have been thinking a lot about consistency. There is this notion of the “consistent body of work” that artists are supposed to produce – gallery owners and critics pigeon-hole artists and sing the praises of  great consistency in the work of one artist, and dismiss another artist for being “all over the place.” They want you to establish a voice that embodies your unique artistic vision, and then  build a body of recognizable work. I have worried about this in the past when I was one of those all over the place artists, and have been talking to some friends about this. Some of them ask  “Why do we have to be consistent as an artist? Why do we have to present a unified body of work, each piece easily identifiable as one’s own? “ And after thinking it over, I feel that there are some ready answers. 

For artists struggling for recognition: You will definitely find that if you are interested in getting into commercial galleries, you will probably need to create a body of work at least to present to the galleries that shows a consistent, identifiable style that the gallery (and thus collectors) can recognize as your work. They would like to see that all of your work appears to be done by the same person, utilizing the same technique or combination of techniques and color palette that makes your “body” of work cohesive. Think of Rothko’s instantly recognizable color field paintings!! Think Renoir, Modigliani, Turner, Constable, Van Gogh, de Hooch! Think of Jim Dine’s bathrobes! Look at any one of these artist’s works, and you know immediately who painted it, at least in a certain time of their lives. And I think of my artist friends Henry Isaacs, Ashley Bryan, Michael Moore, Micki Colbeck, and Catherine Kinkade who have done this so successfully: (You can find examples for most of them of their work in the blog listings to the right on my blog.) So yes, you will need to present a portfolio of your work to a gallery, probably about 20 pieces, with a consistency. If you work in several media and a variety of styles, then make several different portfolios for different galleries/ purposes. And if you frame your work ( a lot of the edgier galleries today do not require frames) by all means use similar frames for paintings to keep the work from looking disjointed.

For established and successful artists: It is often just easier just to keep turning out your work in a certain way, knowing that it will continue to be praised and bought. A lot of artists do this. But I think of Eric Aho who developed a very distinctive style painting plein air landscape as well as larger studio works that drew inspiration, mostly from direct observation. His spectacularly sky-heavy, windblown landscapes done in bold, minimal strokes full of mood and heightened detail are expressed so simply, a glint of light here, a slash of color , a perfect little detail there. They captivated me. I become breathless when I stand in front of his work. This work catapulted him to the being one of the top landscape artists in the country. He could have continued to turn out that wonderful work forever, and amass a fortune, with galleries selling his work for many thousands of dollars.
Earlier style: "Late Squall"  by Eric Aho 
Current work :"Occurrence" by Eric Aho
But then he GREW and changed his focus, turning away from his expressive narrative works!  He said in an interview “I’m not looking at grand vistas, anymore, and more pastoral landscapes, like I had done in these views over the river. I’m actually looking down, more at my feet, into the river – The Saxton’s River, which I’ve been watching freeze and thaw in successive winters now for the past few years.” As well as his expressive oils, he does prints (his original medium actually) these days, and has become more and more abstract, irritating some of his past collectors. His new works are often wild and chaotic but they beautifully capture light, air, fire, ice  and land. A critic of one of his recent shows said  “Aho’s abstract paintings are evolving right in front of us.”I remember the shock of seeing this new body of work, and how long it took for me and other viewers to accept it. I can imagine him just being tired of making those beautiful paintings, and wanting to shake things up a bit-- a lot! But most likely, his VISION --  HIS VOICE -- JUST CHANGED!
 The same with my old college friend Lucretia Robbins who has through her career moved from one stage to another with ease--- most recently from exquisite jewel like abstracts with luscious brushwork (see below) 

to a recent large series of painstaking, elegant drawings of birds’ nests! 

Artists such as these have had the courage to persevere, and hope that the their “new” work will gain its own followers.  And I believe that even when you do grow, or change your focus, you can continue to present a unified look to your work, even if it is a NEW look, even if temporary. Creating a consistent body of work does not mean that you have to always paint the same things in the same ways in the same palette, forever! For most artists, that would simply be impossible anyway, and would make the creation of art a burden and a bore. If you do not grow, you become a hack. Exploring new and differing ways of expression is a constant and a necessity for the artist. Or so I believe.

Sadly, the need for consistency rules the all too commerce-centered art world. There is this perhaps erroneous feeling that gallery owners, and often art school admissions folks, have that if you present a “wide range of styles”, you are showing them that you have not yet settled on a style you can call your own. This does probably mean that when I present twenty pieces to a gallery for consideration, I must make sure that those twenty pieces are consistent, make the same statement, and set the same mood. (For example, if you work mainly in gentle earth toned colors on small canvasses but include one or two huge pieces in bright primary colors in the portfolio, this will not look cohesive. But if you want to do a series in the primary colors for another place to consider, by all means go ahead.)  And I should probably edit my website to convey this consistency, somehow.  

But a forever consistency can kill creativity. Consistency can cripple. What’s wrong with experimentation? With GROWTH? Rothko, recognizable as his work is, went through a long process to get to his final step, which involved only his shimmering, emotion-laden large colored shapes. Would you ever recognize these as Rothko's work?? 
  The older he got, the more simplicity he sought. Since he is one of my favorite artists, I am VERY glad that he evolved, VERY glad that his vision and painting style changed to this--- (but you really need to see his work in person, it CANNOT be well produced.)

Picasso did not stay in his Blue Period forever  -- he marched right into Cubism, and beyond. And what about Phillip Guston's abstractions? His career was filled with evolution! Starting out in the 1930s as a social realist painter of murals, he ducked into a sort of cartoon realism, and finally rose to the top as one of the key Abstract Expressionists. Ya' gotta  follow your muse, and paint what you want to paint, and not worry too much about where you end up. Finding your voice only happens after MUCH experimentation: it is not a quick and easy activity, it can take a long time, even many years and involves much thrown away or painted over work. And anyway, like an adolescent boy about to have a huge growth spurt, your voice might change! Twice maybe, three times, or more! And each time, with a struggle, but a GOOD one.

I am in the process of doing just that right now. I cannot paint as I did three, four let alone 30 years ago. Jackson Pollack once said “My opinion is that new needs need new techniques." I continue to evolve, to change as a person and as an artist, and I know that this makes me a happier artist. Hopefully it also makes me a better artist as well.
Here is another example of the new technique I have been using over the past year or so. I still find myself wanting to slip back into my old dripping and glazing style, but I am resisting. I am looking for simplicity. It is definitely still in progress, and not going quite as well as the last one. In real life, the sky in the painting is not turquoise as it shows here, and the other colors are brighter, especially some of the greens which look so dull here. I will get a better shot of it when I finished with it. It needs focus, and some value work, as well as the suggestion of a few houses upper right.

Wauwinet Road 

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