Still Life

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“Sunflower”
Oil/panel
12” x 12”
2017

Any artist who knows anything about art history must know who Van Gogh was. And while they may not understand how radical his paintings were at that time, they probably know he painted sunflowers… often. In fact, for those of us who do know a little more about art history we know that his sunflower paintings are often considered among his top couple of most seminal works.   

Those sunflower paintings confused and revolted his fellow Frenchmen way more than any of us can imagine these days because the other really radical thing that has changed a lot since then is that visual art just doesn’t matter as much to us now in the 21st century as it did to even the uneducated Frenchman in the mid 19th century.  

I did not say “art” doesn’t matter as much. It think it does. It’s just that “art” is now such a much broader term that includes everything from painting to urinating on public property and even making Youtube videos about it.  And that pithy little smart ass summery doesn’t even begin to capture it all. The fact is, the arts are thriving now in ways and in directions never imagined 150 years ago by even advanced creative thinkers like Van Gogh.   

Still, it was artists like Van Gogh who helped create a culture where creativity and individual expression would be elevated above other concerns like adherence to tradition and social propriety just to name a few things they upended. This process became faster and faster over the ensuing years but still remained largely within the confines of traditional art formats and disciplines. A painting was still a painting and a sculpture was still a sculpture and an artist was still somebody who at least knew enough about tradition to even know where he or she was breaking free from it… even a tradition that was only 10 years old.  

Well, in fact that is one thing that happened. Traditions became shorter and shorter until there simply wasn’t anymore tradition and moreover, almost no one even knew or cared anymore either. And of course that meant anyone and anything could be an artist and make something called art. Everyone was free to call themselves whatever they wanted and call their creations whatever they wanted.  There certainly was no more art academy as there was in Van Gogh’s day determining who could have access to art materials and who couldn’t, much less who could show their art in public spaces and who couldn’t.  It may be difficult for us to appreciate but in those days you couldn’t just waltz into Blick’s Art Supply and buy tubes of paint. They didn’t exist and you either had to make everything from scratch or work within the academy and guild system and earn the privilege of having access to materials. Pissing on concrete was not yet widely accepted as art.  

However, there was and is a downside to all that freedom. It meant that everyone would now potentially have the same challenge Van Gogh was facing which was how to find and maintain an understanding and appreciative audience who would also purchase the paintings. If everything is suitable to be considered art, why bother going out of your way to go see or spend extra time and money on art… especially when there are so many artists doing so many things.? It so confusing and overwhelming. 

Well, some people have answered that question for the rest of us who don’t have time or care to think about these things. The answer of course is because they say so, they being the newly evolving art world of gallerists, museum Trustees and auction houses who have found there is a lot of money to be made shaping the tastes of people with lots of money, no time or inclination about art and very much part of the “anything goes” culture of the moment. And not only that, a determined anti learning proclivity that makes one vulnerable to have other people do your thinking for you. And if there is one thing I have learned, it’s that when other people do your thinking for you it’s not usually in your best interests.  

Not only are these same folks eager to acquire that numinous thing called status which nothing quite provides like art enshrined with stratospheric price tags, but they are also interested in hiding their money in tax shelters or outright money laundering schemes where a can of soup is $3 in the grocery store but $3,000,000 in the art gallery. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll talk about art and money laundering another day.  

The point is, despite all that, some artists still see painting a sunflower as one of paintings highest challenges thanks to the breakthrough that Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings represent.   

So here they are… my own attempts to measure up. For my measuring stick I consider a variety of concerns: do they seem well constructed, do they have any painterly skill at all, do they add any fresh understanding about the beauty of flowers in general or sunflowers in particular and most of all… do they just seem authentic in some hard to define way?   

“Authenticity” is tricky to define. And I am not even going to start here. But I will say it’s a little like love in that it’s so hard to define but we almost all know it when we see or feel it… and usually it exists right there…in that hard to define space between seeing and feeling. 

The bold cadmium yellow orange and deep black seed heads also appealed to me. But it wasn’t until I walked among the rows of sunflowers on my uncle’s farm that were up to my eyes by over my mid July and reaching heights of 14’ by August did I appreciate just how magnificent and suited to my character these flowers actually were with their oversized excess and abundance.

Around this time I developed a body of work that grew out of my proclivity to do rituals of invocation and covered myself in mud. During these rituals I often held a sunflower and wielded it as part scepter part club. To me it was the manifestation of male and female energy. The thick stalk and crazy abundance of seeds was of course the male part. And the curling circular head with its ring of delicate flower petals was of course the female part.   

During this time in my life I would often chop the sunflowers down at harvest time and bring car loads of them back to my urban windowless studio in Seattle. I would hang them to dry and their heavy seedy smell would over power the oils and solvents that I used in my work for a while. These upside down hanging sunflowers were also so overpowering that even I forgot about Van Gogh and painted sunflowers in a way that made perfect sense to me: multiple views stacked one on top of the other more like a religious icon and inspired by the spiritual nuance of arrangement I had absorbed from Rothko’s work a decade earlier than the still genteel presentation of posies in a vase that the brute Van Gogh still used.  

I have an authentic way of painting sunflowers meant having a real relationship with them. It started with my visual and intellectual enjoyment of Van Gogh’s paintings of course. But that relationship developed further when I became involved with growing and harvesting them at my Uncle’s farm outside Portland Oregon. And then hanging them in my studio where I enjoyed them visually but got used to the musty earthy smell as they dried in the rafters of my studio. Up until them I always like sunflowers in a general sort of way thinking of them as a sturdy flower that would hold up longer in a vase than other cut flowers. But after seeing them grow from little seeds to towering giants in the course of one summer and then using them as powerful tools and props in my rituals gave me a feeling for them that yielded my own little fresh insight about how to paint them. If this gives someone a fresh way to think about sunflowers or even floral painting, well then so much the better.

“Brown Pumpkin”
Oil/panel
30 x22” Approximate
2019

This is painted over an older painting that I did not feel was worth keeping. Instead of re-priming the painting and starting over, I simply started the new painting right on top of the original painting. This is usually confusing and messy at first since the original painting is competing with the new painting. However, if I simply keep going the new painting eventually gains in strength making it easier and easier to keep going. The process is it’s own fun but what also happens is the marks, texture and colors of the original piece poke through in various degrees adding visual texture and interest that I simply could not think of or create with a fresh blank canvas.

“Grebe”
Oil/canvas
24” x18”
2015

 

“Flock of Grebes”
Oil/panel
24” x 48”
2015

I’m not one hundred percent certain these are grebes. I like birds and watch them more closely than the average guy. But I would not dane to call myself a birder. These birds, whatever they are called, are a mostly ground hugging bird that scurry around bodies of fresh and salt water and stand out as elegant black accents in the long gray winters of the Northwest.

I often take walks around a large lake in Seattle called Green Lake. The mud flats and sandy shallows often have small gaggles of these birds nervously moving about avoiding people and leashed dogs. So one day I sat and did some pencil sketches of them on one of my walks. Then, I went home and created this painting.

Like so many other pieces in my oeuvre I often wonder why I don’t do more pieces like this. I enjoyed painting it and I enjoy looking at it. Maybe it’s lingering shame.

When I was a serious young artist in my 20’s I was living like a rat in Manhattan. But I was doing serious art and I wanted to be taken seriously. Doing quasi-impressionist wildlife art was probably the least likely way to get taken seriously. I remember one day telling some of my friends I was having a show of my “serious” art at a gallery in Seattle. They laughed and asked me with only a hint of sarcasm, “ isn’t that close to Alaska?” The implication was that Seattle was backwater and well…worthless for an artist.

That was 1988. Most people had not heard of Starbucks. Microsoft was a little project in Bill Gate’s garage and Jeff Bezos was not even selling books out of the back of his truck yet.

Well, I went to the show. Fell in love with Seattle’s cheap rent, cool people and gorgeous skies.  Three months later I packed up what I could into an old Dodge Swinger and left the rest behind.

Still, I never became a wildlife painter. Instead, I let landscape infuse my ideas and aspirations and created some seriously gorgeous work. And, at the risk of sounding a touch immodest, a body of work that is actually quite serious. It took awhile, but eventually I discovered how to blend my love of landscape, weather and climate with thought, memory, perception and how those things work together to inform and even make consciousness.

I am writing this citation a week before my 60th birthday. And I enjoy a level of health and energy more or less the same since my mid 40’s. So I think I have lots of time left to do some wildlife landscape paintings just for the pure fun of it. Be a shame not to. And frankly, not enjoying that would be perhaps more of a shame than having never done the so-called serious stuff. Perhaps that is the new measure of how precious the simple joy of living is becoming with each passing year. I’m not quite ready to sink into the recliner with my feet up, but I can definitely see myself spending more time perched on a stool painting pictures of birds, or squirrels or even dog portraits if that’s what I feel like painting. I’ll certainly feel freer to enjoy that than I would have ever done in my earlier years.

“Various Still Life Paintings”
Oil on panel and found plywood
30″ x 12” and various sizes
2012 and other years
 
Some people like sketches more than “finished” pieces. A sketch often captures an idea or feeling in its first blush. There is something pure and unadulterated about that. For some, that is more enjoyable than an idea all dressed up in a polished and grandly finished work. I get that. And I feel the same way sometimes.  
 
The problem with sketches is a very practice one. They are hard to display. If you want to hang it on the wall you can simply pin it up like a notice announcing that the bathroom is out of order. A couple of thumbtacks or some tape and done! However, the work is not protected and risks being seen as little more than a service announcement. If you want to protect and dignify the work it needs to be framed under glass and that is expensive. Then, when you rotate your exhibition storing the glass framed art is tricky too.  
 
One can keep them in a folio. Looking at folio’s of drawings is a rewarding and elegant way to spend some time looking at art. But who does that? I do, but I long ago realized what a freak of nature I am. “Born into the wrong century,” was something my ex wife liked to say. I’m not sure it was a compliment.  
 
This piece attempts to resolve that problem. It is a sketch in that it is a loose idea not formally and completely worked out but with a certain something worth looking at. The French would say it has, “je n’est se qui.” That means “I don’t know what.” But it implies that while I may not know what, there is something worthwhile that I just haven’t figured out yet and maybe is in the realm of mysterious things that just don’t need to be worked out.   
 
So it’s a sketch… yes… but it’s not on paper. It’s on panel so it can be hung like a painting and it is sturdy like a painting.  Even if one simply nails it on the wall unframed it looks like art… not a notice. And if one gets tired of it, you can toss it in the back of the closet with the shoes you haven’t worn in years and it will be fine.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

“Gourd”
Oil on canvas
24” x 18”
2011

“Bryan’s Beach”
Oil on canvas
4’ x 7’
2010

These two paintings were commissioned by my friend Bryan. The third image featured here is what one of the paintings looked like shortly after I painted it. I put these paintings in this section of the website because I don’t have a landscape section. And, as of the time of this writing, I don’t have a section of the website devoted to commissioned work either.

I don’t have a landscape section because I don’t have very many paintings I consider to be landscape paintings. Instead, I think it’s fair to say that landscape, or more correctly, climate, is a meaningful part of almost all my painting.

On the other hand, even when I have a section for commissioned work I will leave these pieces here, in still life. The reason is that even though they were commissioned with some basic parameters such as size and that they have some element of the sea, Bryan gave me free reign to create whatever I wanted. The result is two very beautiful pieces that he continues to enjoy 12 years after I painted them.

The landscape that forms most of the paintings is inspired by the mountains and Puget Sound that you can see from his modern home perched on a hill overlooking the Sound and the Cascade mountains to the west. The beach and tide flats are a short walk down the hill from his home where he and I have been taking walks for years both before and after these pieces were created. We see these kinds of drift wood and kelp covered stones all the time.

The elements featured in the foreground are painted with the quiet love I have of nuanced colors of old weathered wood, stone and other such elements of nature. This pictorial solution allowed me to indulge that fancy for realistic detail while delving into the sumptuous and mysterious duplicity of landscape space and abstract expression.

The paintings are both large. And I love painting large. So these were absolutely a delight to create. Perhaps I’ll paint some more for my own beach front house that I will perhaps own one day. In the meantime, I plan to continue my occasional walks with my friend and enjoy the quiet way our friendship has added layers that merge, melt and redefine themselves like the bands of sky, sea, sand and paint in these pictures. It’s hard to say how, but I venture to guess that for Bryan these pieces quietly invite him to contemplate the way memory, perception and consciousness are intertwined in ways that can never quite be figured out or pinned down.

“Blue Pattypan”
24” x 16”
Oil/panel
2009
 
I have ways had a love of painting vegetables that have a strong volumetric presence. It’s even better if they are stark white like these squash because you can reveal their three dimensionality more easily if they are white. I have to admit I don’t particularly like eating them, but I love painting them. And someday I hope to have a garden where I can grow them along with other volumetric vegetables like pumpkins and gourds.
“Blue Onion Still Life”
Oil/Panel
36″ x 28” Approximate
2009
 
Below Left
“Pattypan With Marni”
Oil/Panel
48″ x 24”
1996
 
Below Right 
“Pattypan With Grace”
Oil/Panel
48″ x 24”
1996
“Dead Bird”
Oil/Panel
24” x 28”
2009
 
When I was a high school student I started painting watercolor paintings of dead birds. Since I lived in a rural setting I often found birds that were killed by cars or brought home by my cat. Back then I would carefully arrange them in my mother’s freezer to look like they were alive. Once they were frozen solid I would get them out and paint them for awhile and then put them back in the freezer.  
 
Later, when my identity as an artist was more developed, I began making paintings of dead animals the way I found them or the way they were presented to me. In this case, my friends brought me a sea gull they found somewhere wondering if I would paint it. They carefully placed it in a large black garbage bag and brought it to my studio. 
 
I was struck by the beauty and pathos of the poor creature as well as the rich contrast of its white plumage against the blood and shiny black plastic surrounding it. I immediately saw the black garbage bag as a kind of nest, a burial nest which struck me as an interesting analog to the life sustaining purpose and implication of nests in the way we typically think of them. 
“Gourd”
Oil on Canvas and Board
Many sizes
Almost every year
This citation does not apply to this piece in particular 
 
Almost every fall I paint my own versions of “still life“ paintings in homage to my love of nature in general and autumn in particular. I have always had a particular love of gourds. I love their unabashed firmness of volume and their rustic elegance. Additionally, I love that they don’t rot so they are both suggestive of life‘s brevity in that they look like vegetables which are transitory, but in fact, are more durable and suggest timelessness.
 
For a long period of time I would paint just one piece of fruit at a time, not an arrangement of fruits in the more conventional sense. I did this because I wanted to focus my adoration. Additionally, it seemed more authentic than an arbitrary and contrived arrangement in a typical still life way.  Finally, by just having one object I could concentrate on my experiments of relating the “object“ to the “background“ in a more singular way.
 
During these years, 2000 to 2004 or so, my paintings became more craftsman like, more realistic and the objects depicted became more distinct and separate from the background. In this and other paintings  at this time, I relied on the paint itself, it’s texture and brush marks to establish the numinous in between zones of stuff to create links between the thing painted, the painted background and the space in between. 
“Orange Pumpkin”
Oil/Panel
14″ x 11”
2005
“Yellow Pumpkin”
Oil/Panel
14″ x 11”
2004

“Dick on a Stick”
Oil/panel
36 x 24”
2003

This painting is not strictly speaking a still life painting. However, the Figure Painting section of this website is very large and the Still Life section is very short. Also, the figure in this painting is very small so I decided to put it here. Some paintings just defy classification.

This was a spin-off from a large commission piece. The commission was for a large cabinet piece called “portrait of Animal.” A sign that a commission is actually a true part of my artistic output rather than simply something I am doing for money is the fact that it inspires other spin off works. In other words, the commission piece is inspiring additional creativity.

In this case, the subject of the commission piece is himself an artist. He is a glass blower with a very active shop in Seattle. I was fortunate to see him at work in his shop and took some photos of him and his glass blowing tools. Among other things he had a little cart with tiny metal wheels and a steel post for holding the molten ball of glass in and out of the furnace.

Around this time I was also thinking about emasculation. Not long after I created this piece. I’m not sure what it is about but clearly the broken wheel and the table with white clothe are significant parts of the story. It’s also clear the man is skulking off holding his crotch. This piece also reminds me of all the Sisyphus paintings I did of him pushing the burden of his sexual desire up a hill each day. Here, there is no hill. Just a winding trail that meanders off into a vague distance. Could it be that this is Sisyphus after having castrated himself and offering his cock on an altar in some kind of rite of purification?

I honestly don’t know. I’m just suggesting a few things someone might think about when seeing this piece.

Another noteworthy thing for me is that this is the smallest human figure I ever painted… by far. That is not a very significant fact for anyone but me. But it is something that I marvel at every time I see this painting. For many years I thought this opened up new territory for me as an artist. But the fact is, now almost 20 years later, I’m still not doing paintings with tiny figures. And I probably never will.

“Pumpkin Oil Sketch”
Oil/canvas
28 x24”
2002

This is how my paintings often look when I start them. I use oil paint to sketch the basic idea and composition on to the canvas. I do not use pencil as many artists do. Pencil might feel more comfortable to an artist because they are more familiar with it than a brush. However, marks made by a brush with oil paint are much easier to change than pencil marks. Also, at my age I have now spent many more hours with a paint brush in my hand than a pencil so I am more comfortable holding and thinking with a brush than a pencil.

And in this case, everything was just so perfect I didn’t see the need to go any further. Had I painted more I would have only diminished the fresh “just right” quality that is so delicate in a work of art, especially at the very beginning.

“Yellow Gourd”
Oil/panel
8” x 8”
2002

“Yellow Onion”
Oil on panel
20” x 14”
2001

“Sunflower Whiteout”
Oil on panel
20” x 30”
2001

“The Onion”
Oil/Board
30″ x 20” Approximate
2000
 
By the time I painted this I had clearly established the practice of constructing a painting this way. It is overall somewhere between an abstract painting and a landscape. There is usually a horizon line of sorts and in cases like this that line can double as the suggestion of above ground and below ground. As in this piece, I will sometimes paint an onion or bulb in the underground part to suggest any number of things.
 
I don’t usually start out with the plan or idea to do an onion painting. Often it just pops into my head during the painting process and I either act on the intuition or not.  Sometimes I do act and it’s clearly not helping. So I move on. Paint over it or add something. This whole process is both exhilarating and agonizing.  Sometimes it’s both in the same painting. Sometimes it’s exhilarating in one piece and agonizing in the next. And the quality of feeling seems to have no bearing on whether the piece seems “good” or not when I look at it later.
 
The whole business of deciding if something is good or not is tricky. I try not to get involved in that polemic while painting. And yet one does need to make choices constantly.  I suppose one way to state it is that while I’m painting I give more room for impulse and intuition. And later, when I’m looking at the painting without brush and paint in hand I give more credence to judgement and evaluation. In fact, in my current studio, I have a separate room where I put art that I think is finished. Only in that room do I allow myself to be the judge. In the actual painting room the judge may enter but he may not speak.

“Raven”
Oil/canvas
24” x 24”
1999

“Elements of Nature”
Oil/Panel
18″ x 12”
1999
 
I don’t usually refer to Matisse as one of my influences. But it is clear I learned a lot from him. The way I use color and the white of the canvas showing through from underneath. This use of letting the white show through is common in water color painting which I did a lot of when I was still a teenager. And it’s also common in much of Chinese and Japanese painting, which I studied for years in my 20’s.  But the way I use it here and in many of my paintings is definitely something I learned from Matisse. 

“Pie Squash”
Oil/panel
24” X 24”
1998

“Gourd”
Oil/Panel
24” x 24”
1996-7

I used to think that every artist feels compelled to reinvent a traditional genre such as “still life.” I now realize that is not true. Most artists I have met over the years are for the most part oblivious to the idea of a tradition in any particular genre. They have heard of Van Gogh’s sunflowers and probably have even seen a reproduction of them, but they are for the most part unaware that Van Gogh’s flowers are part of a long tradition of something known as “still life” painting. And that his way of painting flowers was a big break from the traditional way that flowers were being painted by many others around him, including those making a good living at doing so. “Still life” refers to a type of painting where the artist selects some elements from life (usually nature but not always) and arranges them on a table or some kind of surface and then paints or photographs them. So much is expressed in the selection and the arrangement of the object before the artist even begins painting. What did the artist select? Why? What does it say about the life and times of the artist? Why did the artist arrange it that way? Somehow the restricted terms of the “still life” genre amplify and reveal so much of the inner life of the artist and his/her times.

Well… I love gourds. And I love the veneration that comes with selecting one item and effectively putting it on a pedestal for admiration and enjoyment. This notion of singular veneration comes from my enjoyment of such American masters as Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and Mark Rothko’s reductive abstract paintings. I also read a lot of Pablo Neruda’s “Celebration of Things.” I owe a debt of gratitude to Picasso as well. Through my artistic upbringing, “still life” was always considered a minor genre, secondary to history painting or “the nude” or simply abstract painting and all the heroic efforts to reinvent the very terms of painting that characterized “important” art since the dawn of the modern age. Ironically, the artist held as the most important of the 20th century was Picasso, an artist who achieved his principal artistic and intellectual breakthroughs working with the “still life” as his mechanism. 

“Pie Pumpkin and Zucchini”
Oil/panel
24 x 30”
1996

This painting is really like a painting of a couple or at least of two people. The way they are arranged and the way they appear to be leaning away and toward each other looks so much like the way people often arrange themselves with each other when they sit down together.

At the time of this writing the world is hunkered down to try to contain the spread of COVID 19 carona virus. Part of that effort is the necessity of social distancing and people staying apart from one another at least 6’. Well, it seems that the pumpkin likes the zucchini but for whatever reason it appears the pumpkin has pulled away and is leaning back. The zucchini would like to be closer but appears to be unwilling to violate the pumpkins private space. He yearns and leans in but he dare not come any closer. Behind him the curtains and brush strokes swirl around him and the pumpkin seeming to both draw them together and yet hold them apart. It is almost like a loose grid that expresses the invisible dynamics of their relationship that may be more real than a more realistic portrayal of both the background and the protagonists themselves.

“White Pumpkin”
Oil/canvas
20 x 14” approximately
1996

When I painted this piece white pumpkins were pretty new on the fall shelves of suburban grocery shelves. I fell in love with them right away. I’m surprised I haven’t painted more.

“Skull and Snake Cidual”
Oil on panel
48” x 33”
1996

As part of my spiritual practice I created ciduals. These are symbols imbued with personal meaning and function as reminders of “principles” or concerns during meditation. Looking at a painting can be a form of meditation. The cidual has been whited out with layers of white paint making it obfuscated in varying degrees. The combination of the snake and stone along with the skull are frequently used elements to convey the intertwined aspects of life and death in our imagination.

“Vase with Flowers”
Oil/canvas
18” x 12”
1988