Monday, November 8, 2010

What To Do When There's Nothing To Do

Dennis Miller Bunker, The Brook at Medfield, 1889

I once owned a children's book that turned any ordinary kitchen into a playground.

The unspoken premise was that boredom is learned; we get used to being involved in this or that pre-existing activity, so that, thrown back on our own resources, we miss the inborn creative ability to turn cooking utensils into airplanes, robot parts, and percussive musical instruments.

Approached with a liberated imagination, a fully "engaged" painting of the simplest and blandest stretch of ho-hum scenery can reinvent and renew the world.

I saw this painting by Dennis Miller Bunker at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston this weekend. In person, it's stunning; its sheer sense of energy recalls something by Vincent van Gogh. And yet, who else out scouting for something to paint, would have seen exactly that potential in a boggy field of weeds and wildflowers?

Bunker's painting has none of the traditional hallmarks of "great" landscape art. Its lines lead the eye into the painting, where the hills create interesting interlocking shapes, but it ignores so many of the other guidelines (think high contrast, rhythmic line, the "rule of threes"). It has no hidden symbolic messages to impart. It makes no grandiose claims for the relationship between God, humanity, and the universe. It's not a painting "of" anything in particular (a noble stand of old-growth trees, say, or a still lake radiant with reflections).

I pass dozens of little parcels like the one in The Brook at Medfield on my way to and from the colleges and studios where I teach. Such "backlot" scenes don't present themselves as ideal subjects; they lack a dialectic of dominant and sub-dominant forms and a strong single point of interest.

Works like this one remind me that the purpose of painting isn't to create imitations of beautiful Nature, but rather to make beautiful things - to reinvent the world by reinventing the subject, whatever it is, no matter how unglamorous (and in some cases the more unglamorous and "ordinary" the better).

After being blown away by this painting of "nothing," I think I'm going to find it harder to come up with valid reasons not to go out and just paint whatever's there to meet the eye. It's another reminder to me that art really isn't about what you paint but how you see.


  1. Thank you for sharing Dennis Miller Bunker's work - I greatly admire it and wasn't familiar with him. The message in your blog really hits a note with me- I love to paint the unremarkable around me too.

  2. Bunker is usually associated with the Boston School and considered an Impressionist, but you rarely see his landscapes. He gets grouped in with Tarbell and others who painted interiors and beautiful women in relaxed, opulent settings. I need to know more about him too!

  3. Christopher- again a wonderful post from you- very thoughtful and very wise! Thanks.