Saturday, March 31, 2012

Mystery and Poetic Painting

Emil Carlsen, Still Life with Brass and Oysters
A post on "Mystery" over at oil painter Stapleton Kearns' blog has me thinking about the importance of indeterminacy in my own work and its role in what's often called "poetic" painting.

As Stape points out, by the subtle use of soft edges and careful value adjustments a painter can suggest what's in the picture (and even what isn't!) without having to fully describe it. 

If "prosaic painting" describes, poetic painting evokes. A refreshing sense of control comes in simply realizing that one needn't (and probably shouldn't) delineate every part of a picture with equal clarity (a hallmark, by the way, of so-called primitive painting; selective detail is learned from the history of painting). 

George Inness, Georgia Pines
When it's done properly, "leaving something for the viewer's imagination" (the way George Inness does in the landscape above) invites a deeper engagement. Look how vague (or "suggestive," I should say) the details are throughout, even where the action is, in the middleground and at the horizon. On a surface level, the viewer must participate to "complete" the picture, filling in details where none are given. Such a painting discloses itself in stages, unfolding gradually as elements assemble before the viewer. The result is a vital, animated work of art that offers an experience full of freshness and life.

Taken a step further into metaphysics, however, the use of indeterminacy in painting can correlate with the unspoken, if not the unsayable - the ineffable in poetry and in human experience. 

George Inness, Green Marches
For me, indeterminacy functions in much of Inness's "visionary" work by evoking what I'd call the unknowable quality of felt experience. Hence: mystery. In Inness's "Green Marshes," the entire painting takes on the indistinct, shimmering quality of an emotion, a memory, or a dream.

The material world in Inness's later paintings often borders on insubstantial because for Inness, painting increasingly became a way to explore the dual nature of the world as simultaneously "material" and divine. The late works function as expressions of (or analogues for) spiritual experience. 

William James noted that one of the defining characteristics of mystical experience is that it cannot adequately be put into words. The painter interested in mystery paints that which "cannot be pictured," that is, things that can only be suggested and evoked yet never fully defined.

George Inness, In the Orchard, Milton
Innes's In the Orchard, Milton contains very little that is clearly delineated besides the sinuous tree trunk in the middle of the composition (which itself has the quality of semi-transparency). The rest is so suggested that at first I thought the lighter vertical element to the right of the curvy trunk was the sunlit trunk of a larger tree. Suddenly the figure of the woman coming toward us on the path vaporously emerged. The entire work comes to resemble a translucent tapestry, a lacy, gossamer veil swaying between one world and the next.

German philosopher Martin Heidegger described truth itself as aletheia, as an opening up, a "poetic revealing." In Being and Time, he describes meaning as a bringing-forth, rather than something we impose on the world. For Heidegger, meaning is a process of unconcealment, illuminating the essence of Being. By way of example, he writes about how Van Gogh's painting of a pair of old shoes conveys elements essential to humanity's relationship to the earth and, by extension, nature as a whole.

Vincent Van Gogh, A Pair of Shoes (1886)

By virtue of how suggestive these shoes are - not what the painting shows but what it alludes to, what such an image evokes about the life that has been lived in them - Heidegger  (and other philosophers, more or less) see an artist conceptualizing and presenting the essence of "shoeness."

For Heidegger, too, there's a "shining" quality to art's revelation of essential Being, something not unlike the "radiance" in Joyce's translation of Aquinas's model of beauty as wholeness, harmony, and radiance. Heidegger writes, "this shining (the "shining" of illuminated Being) joined in the work, is the beautiful. Beauty is one way in which truth essentially occurs as unconcealedness" (Heidegger, The Origin of the Work of Art). If any true work of art would have this quality of showing forth essence or Being, the indeterminacy and "mystery" in Inness functions both as a visual metaphor for, as well as the enactment of it.

But this is mere description, and utterly subjective. A painting just is. As my friend Dermot O'Brien recently reminded me, certain strangely emotive and vital works of art and literature magnificently and simply "refuse to permit reductive explication, much like life and love."

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Rewaking

William Nicholson, Flowers and Glass Jug

Sooner or later
we must come to the end
of striving

to re-establish
the image the image of
the rose

but not yet
you say extending the
time indefinitely

your love until a whole

the violet to the very

and so by
your love the very sun
itself is revived

-William Carlos Williams

Friday, March 23, 2012

Plein-Air Workshop in April

Pigeon Cove, 8x10, plein-air oil on linen, 2012
There are still several spaces left in my four-week plein-air painting class that will run four Sundays in a row, from April 15 through May 6. We'll be painting in southern Maine, New Hampshire (York, Newcastle, Rye) and Rockport, Mass.

Our approach will be about seeing - perception, feeling, and expression - more than it will be about accuracy in color or drawing, although these will be covered too. I will be emphasizing simplification, spontaneity, and “seeing big.” We’ll be making sincere records of fresh experiences that can function both as finished paintings in their own right and as studies for larger, more conceptual work in the studio.

These classes ARE appropriate for the absolute beginner as well as for the experienced painter looking to loosen up and stray a bit further into personal expression. I have two primary goals for everyone, including myself: to develop a unique, expressive painting style and to have a great time doing it. Tuition is $200.

If you're interested in more information, like the materials list and tentative locations, please give me a shout.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Spring at Maudslay

Spring is here and the time is right for painting in the streets, or at least amid the faded glory of former East India Trading Company estates in coastal Massachusetts.

I and two fellows of the fraternity of painters convened at Maudslay State Park in Newburyport yesterday to essay our impressions of nature. My small painting bears very little resemblance to the crystal-blue qualities of the day, but that is in keeping with my current practice of taking the subject as a starting point for however strong a painting the thing deigns to become.

Early Spring at Maudslay, Newburyport, MA 6x8
The grounds of this place are just full of beautiful views and endless motifs. The Merrimack River winds by it. In addition to the maintained grounds, one encounters old stone bridges and sealed wells, disused formal gardens and boarded-up outbuildings that attest to a formerly magnificent Old World empire, all beautiful with the earth still dormant in the tremulous light of spring.

Landscape painter Donald Jurney is offering a workshop at Maudslay in May. I highly recommend it.

I catch myself mentally saying "Maudslay" to myself over and over (like "Manderlay" I guess) and pronouncing it "MAW-dslee" in a ridiculously pompous British accent. I just can't help imagining it populated (sparsely, of course) with figures from an Edward Gorey drawing.