30” x 24”
“Landscape on Plywood”
30″ x 15″
What you paint on is more than just a matter of materials. It also has a big influence on the very message. A painting on Masonite is going to become a different kind of painting than one done on canvas. The nature of the material affects the process of painting and even what one chooses to paint in the first place. The texture of the material is a big part of that. But there is also the more subtle essence of the material that either inspires the process or deflates it.
For example, there is a product available in every art supply store called canvas board. It is a thin canvas like material stretched over cardboard. It has been around for over 100 years. It’s very stable and inexpensive and also gives the artist the feeling of painting on canvas, generally considered a fancy material to paint on. However, there is something hard to define about canvas board that just doesn’t work for me. I have never once painted a decent painting on it. It feels too mechanical or machine made to me.
Plywood, on the other hand, has been a material that always feels right and with which I get great results. The wood itself is an inspiration and a pleasure to work with, but the effect of the wood grain showing through the paint is also something that just seems to be in harmony with my approach to painting.
This piece was created with brushes and rollers. It’s a small painting and has been on the wall of my spa for many years. I still enjoy it every time I see it. The smaller images below are actually much bigger paintings. They were created around 1990 when I was flat broke. I often cruised around the back alleys of Seattle in my old pickup truck looking for pieces of plywood to paint on. These happen to be 2 of my favorite pieces. And in both cases the grain of the wood not only influenced how I created the pieces but also plays a roll in how they look as finished pieces.
“Black Abstract With Fist”
36” x 24”
The word “trope” is generally associated with literary artists. It means a literary device or particular way of using language that is often invented by a writer but often used by his or her imitators. One such example of this would be using a play within a play as a device for telling a story or communicating complex ideas about the layers of meaning or the relationship between fantasy and reality. This would be a literary trope.
Well, painters have their tropes too. And to give an example that is similar to the one I gave above for writers, I would use the example of a painting within a painting. I often use this trope in my work. But tropes are often more subtle than this device.
Another trope I have used over an over again to communicate my artistic ideas is what I call obfuscation. I don’t know of any other artist who has taken the art of obfuscation to such a high level as myself. In fact, I have developed more ways of obfuscating something than I could even count. Maybe that would be a good theme for an exhibition one day: “Obfuscation in the art of Jeff Hengst and other masters of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.”
In the case of this painting I have used rollers to apply thin layers of paint over a fairly developed figure painting featuring a man’s arm with clenched fist. Even in this digital image you can catch a glimpse of the fist and make out various other parts of the anatomy. But you have to work at it. Unlike “aha” paintings, though, the point of obfuscating the painting isn’t to engage the viewer in a simple game of hide and seek. Instead, the idea is to engage the viewers imagination and thereby expand and deepen the experience of viewing the painting.
If the arm was not obfuscated it would be just an arm in a painting. Perhaps a beautiful arm and one well painted. But with the layers of dark it has a chance to become the clenched fist of a jealous lover, or someone preparing to defend themselves in an underground nightclub. Maybe it’s a farmer who has spent the day tilling the land and has rolled up his sleeves to wash up as darkness falls across his fields. Who knows.
The hope is that this obfuscation allows the attention grabbing aspect of any recognizable human form in a painting to be muted to various degrees allowing for other aspects of the work to have a more even hand (pun intended, of course) in shaping the experience of the painting.
In this case I used rollers, varying thicknesses of paint and black to create the obfuscations. But often I use other means such as spray paint or solvents to dissolve the original image or white paint. In fact, I have so many paintings obfuscated with white paint that I created a deliberate category of my work that I call my “white out” paintings. This is also a nod to my love of snow and experiencing the various levels of obfuscation created by falling snow, fog or other aspects of weather and nature.
I’m not the only artist to use obfuscation as a trope. After all, any landscape artist worth his salt has had to develop ways to capture and communicate the ways in which weather obfuscates objects and defines distance and space. But this is different than a direct and deliberate use of obfuscation as the central mechanism of communication.
Finally, in some hard to define way, obfuscation is related to memory and the way in which memory constructs or deconstructs time and ultimately consciousness itself. The clarity or lack thereof shapes our sense of time, either deepening and lengthening it in bizarre twists and reversals. The clearer something is in our memory the more recent it seems even when we know this is not the case. The older I get, the more certain I am of the value and majesty of the tension between clarity and obfuscation; the role that tension plays in shaping my memories, in addition to my sense of time as a line and my consciousness itself.