30” x 24”
About 150 years ago artists began making paintings of landscapes that looked less and less like what a landscape looked like and more and more about what it made them think and or feel. First there were the impressionists with their impressions of the landscape. Then there were the post impressionists with their use of the landscape to make statements about the singular power of color or the fauves with their use of landscape to communicate strong emotions. Then the cubists with ideas about multiple ways of seeing or conceiving in a singular moment and how empty space and solids were interchangeable. Then came conceptual art followed by abstract art which wasn’t landscape even as an idea. It was just paint on a canvas. If it happened to look a bit like a landscape that was certainly not the artist’s intention.
Most of these “styles” also came to have a distinct look. And it was this “look” that eventually landed us with post modernism where the style itself is the subject. Landscape as a style.
Up until this part it can be said that the works of art all have an earnestness about them. They all seem sincere in what they have to say. To be sure, there are stronger and weaker works within any given period. But once it became about style itself, the sincerity seems to have leaked out leaving only a dry ironic cynicism.
I have had this feeling about post modern work for awhile now. And I have often wondered if it had to be that way. Could the work be about style itself and still have qualities of sincerity.
I have also wondered if this is the modern equivalent of the mannerist art that overtook Europe for awhile after the Renaissance artists too much detachment from nature. One would even be tempted to say that perhaps it was a result of too much privilege. It wasn’t until artists returned to a direct confrontation with nature that art was revitalized in what we now call the Baroque era. Interestingly this vital period was followed by another seemingly superficial period called the Rococco, the era that gave is the decorated birthday cake….but also gave us Mozart.
In this painting, inspired by my stay in a part of northern Thailand called Isaan, I have incorporated many of the approaches or styles I refer to earlier. But I did them from the standpoint of wanting to communicate as much as I could about the way this fascinating place looked to me visually but also culturally and with respect to my memories of other places both in Thailand and abroad.
Memory, whatever that is, is perhaps the thing that drives the sincerity. I really want my memory to be at play in the present moment. Not just a dusty dead box in the back of my mind where it secretly goes on coloring what I see in secrecy. No, I want it up front in the open adding gorgeous layers of intrigue to what I experience right here, right now.
30” x 24”
This is one of those pieces where I stopped at just the right time. It barely works. But it is that tenuousness that’s makes it worth looking at. Yes, there is the conceptual layering of different views and aspects of the land. Yes, there is the energetic vibration of the land in the loose and gestural application of paint. And the colors….wow….so spot on with the vibrant green rice paddies and bold blue Sky. I can almost feel the 95 degree heat and 98% humidity. Those are the hallmarks of my abstract art these last 10 years or so.
But here, for whatever reason, I trusted the process and left it raw. You just barely see the mountains. And it’s barely discernible that you are mostly looking at rice paddies. You only barely get a feeling for anything beyond the visual. And yet….you do. And it does cohere as a painting. But more importantly, I can’t stop looking at it. And so, here it is.
20” x 14”
Isaan is a region of Thailand in the northeast. It is a rising plane that is largely given over to vast rice patties and other agricultural farming. Culturally it is a blend of Thai and Laotian language and customs. And it is a cross roads of modernization and feudal like farming traditions. It is poor but full of hope and potential.
I spent some time there recently exploring a world heritage site known as Ban Chiang which is famous for its centuries old ceramics. In addition to the rough beauty of the traditional pottery I was struck by the landscape and how it envelopes the eye and the culture. In addition to a virtual endless parade of romantic scenes of weathered farmers hewing their ancient tools and livestock, there was the sea of green and layers of poverty, ambition, fatigue and confusion literally baked in by the relentless tropical heat and humidity.
There was also the heavy sky which sometimes dumped several inches of water in a matter of hours and distant mountains shrouded in haze or sheets of rain.
This painting was done in my studio in Seattle just days after returning from Thailand. I don’t think I could have done a more realistic painting of the feeling of Thailand than this even if I set up my easel in the middle of a rice paddy and set to work. It would have looked more like what I was looking at, but it would not have any of the things I felt and saw while moving among the endless miles of stunningly beautiful landscape but also sitting at humble makeshift diner tables sharing meals and beers and conversations that lingered long into the night, and strolling between the ramshackle markets outside the Western style supermarkets and Home Depot versions of do it yourself hardware and lumber stores. Even driving in Thailand is its own cultural experience where the rules of the road are more like the rules of the dance floor.
There is also the vivid vibrancy of nature in the tropics alongside the murk and gray of industrialized poverty and ecological degradation. How does one squeeze all of that into a painting? And how does one do that without seeming preachy or didactic? Or even without overshadowing the pervasive feeling of hope and possibility?
By not trying too hard I suppose. By working one’s craft in the blind hope that maybe it will work. But most of all…by being fully present while there. Eyes wide open. But more importantly…. mind wide open. And one’s heart too.