Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Poetic Landscape: Maurice Sapiro

Born in 1932, Maurice Sapiro could be considered one of the elder statesmen of contemporary tonalist landscape painting. He adopts the tonalist practice of severely limiting his color range and linear delineation in favor of atmosphere and subtle (and occasionally dramatic) modulations of value and hue. 

Sapiro has a wide range of subject matter. He paints more or less traditional tonalist landscapes tinged with abstraction, semi-abstract sky scapes, still lifes, and portraits, as well as entirely abstract poured paintings. Where he really shines, in my opinion, is in his deeply atmospheric skies and "dreamscapes" as he calls them. 

His practice has evolved from a traditional approach to a far more intuitive one. As he always has, he starts with gessoed hardware-store hardboard which he stains with a semitransparent imprimatura underpainting (he usually uses burnt sienna thinned with liquid). He then "stipples" the underpainting with the rough tip of a brush to create an underlying texture in the densest areas of the composition, such as trees or rocks, bringing life to a surface that would otherwise be flat. Here's a link to a step-by-step text demo of his earlier, more methodical process, in which he explains his technique including color mixing. 

Light in the Forest, 16x20. I like the mystery in this. It's a good example, too, of the underlying texture he creates with stippling.
These days when he paints, Sapiro begins with a general image in mind of what he's trying to accomplish, he told me in an email interview. "But I have to rules or formulas," he said. "I simply push paint around until the image I imagine appears. I've learned to sometimes follow the direction the painting is taking me."

"Painting is a lot like giving CPR," he says, "I keep working until the painting is breathing on its own!"

His palette is a traditional one (see below). One of the keys to how he works is surely that he mixes three different grays (using different proportions of alizarin crimson, viridian, and white) that he uses to modify out-of-the-tube mixes.

As with all images, click for a larger, higher resolution version.

Sapiro began his creative life as a music student, in which, he says, he was "miscast." After some restless years as a soldier and later a teacher, he finally found his role as a painter. He taught himself largely by visiting world class museums, and he advises students who want to paint to "look at paintings. Not on an electronic screen, but in person, up close. Look at the edges," he says, "that's where the secrets of how they were painted are revealed."

His development wound its way through the history of Western art. He "hero-worshipped certain painters and styles," starting with Rembrandt and Sargent, for their bravura brushwork, and discovering the possibilities in landscape painting through Cezanne and "the beauty in cool colors," he said. "The Luminists challenged me to paint light and glare."

But for him the real game changer came in 2002 when he saw "Gerhard Richter: 40 Years of Painting" at the Museum of Modern Art.

Gerhard Richter
"His blurring and blending of pigment showed the possibility of using pigment in a different way," he said.
Gerhard Richter
  "I then embarked on trying to represent the intangibles in a tangible presentation. Light, clouds, mist, fog, glare, haze, were now possible to paint."

Gerhard Richter
Sapiro considers himself a studio painter. "I always have, next to the easel, an old photo, or a color chart, or a print of one of my earlier paintings to use as a template," he says, "a reference for color and contrast."

A Sapiro skycape

Somewhat abstract tonalist landscapes...

Still life.


Abstraction. Discovering that oils with different viscosity move across the surface and each other at different speeds, he pours the paint then turns and manipulates the pigment flows.
I recorded a podcast on Sapiro for the "Painters on Painters" series hosted by "Artists of New England," which you can access here.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Lucy Dodd - Painting as a Poetics of Earth, Water, Air

Nothing here but an excerpt and a link to uber-critic Jerry Saltz's review of Lucy Dodd's 2013 show Cake4Catfish at David Lewis Gallery (NYC) along with some images of subsequent work. He says it better than anyone else I've read, so I'll just post this nugget from a NYTimes review to get you to keep reading:

Lucy Dodd's paintings' "amber depths and jet-black clouds are achieved not with conventional paint but with flower essences, Tetley tea, cuttlefish ink, and yew berries among other substances. With titles like "the Flight of Aunt Goose" and "Slowly Snail ... Time is Creation's Bubble," the artist seems to invite viewers to read her radiant works like Rorschach tests for pagan rites."

Two Doors, one Tomb - Coming Through the Back Side of Death, entrance to  Dodd's 2013 show.

These works are cosmic in scope and humbly, elementally of the earth - and playful! - all at once.

Saltz nails and unpacks it perfectly with a piece that doubles as a mini-history of a vital branch of contemporary art and a fun read to boot.

Dodd's 2018 show May Flower at David Lewis, with Prince Porcupine on the right.
Detail of Prince Porcupine Cuttlefish ink, black lichen, hematite, Tetley tea, tulip flower extract, yew berries, wild walnut, and pigments on canvas, 45 3/4 x 59 1/2 inches.

Two Doors, One Tomb - Coming Through the Back Side of Death (left)

AKA Butterfly

Thursday, November 1, 2018

The Poetic Landscape: Douglas Fryer

Douglas Fryer paints pensive contemporary realist landscapes inspired by the agricultural valley where he lives with his family in Utah. His work avoids the formulaic by drawing not only upon what he actually sees but also upon strong underlying abstract design as well as what he thinks and feels about the land and the people who live and work on it.

Nearly all of his paintings balance hard-edged ("hand-hewn" might be a better word) marks and lush, atmospheric passages. 

He uses photo references when he paints, but seemingly only to supply a basic armature which he modifies in the design phase and ultimately abandons to allow the painting to emerge on its own terms. He builds up his surfaces with layers of loose, diluted paint alternating with thicker, later-stage impasto passages (very often found in his expansive foregrounds) often applied with a large putty knife or hand scraper. The paintings display significant contrast, between light and dark, soft and hard edges, atmosphere and texture, neutrals and chroma.

Although he claims he's mostly interested in abstract design, content is clearly important to him as well. He isn't interested in making "pretty pictures," he says, which he defines as paintings that are beautiful because they're of beautiful things or paintings with only sentimental value. In place of the obligatory sun- or shadow-washed barn, he gets something of the reality of rural life into his pictures. It's as if his work is a way of entering into a conversation with time, mindful of the generations past and present who've farmed America's isolating plains and valleys.

"What I strive for in painting," he says, "is what I suppose a poet strives for in the arrangement of words. My role is to arrange elements in ways that inspire contemplation and healing. I hope my work is a concrete statement about my sense of beauty and meaning."

How does he accomplish this? He evidently has a feel for the rough-edged rural life of farming families and ranchers and translates that into his paintings through stark contrasts, an earthy palette, and deliberately rough paint handling - he untethers conventionally separate elements, like foreground features and shadows or the branches and foliage of trees against the sky, rendering them as literally rough-edged forms.

Yet, I'd say his paintings aren't really about "place" so much as they're an intuition about a certain relationship between humans and the natural world.

The elements of civilization, nearly always present, often blur into elements of the landscape such as trees or grass, sky or snow. They're usually ramshackle, possibly abandoned yet persistent in their presence, both merging into and at odds with their surroundings.

As a result, his paintings gain emotional energy from what he puts into them via color (an earthy, limited palette high on contrast and soaked in atmosphere), paint handling (loose, scratchy rendering that channels the grittiness of the scenes themselves), and composition (his narrow formats and wide, abstractly designed foregrounds suggest a beautiful barrenness, and his barns and ranches, with their sometimes meagre, yet tenacious presence, often seem like ramshackle matchbox settlements in a land indifferent if not hostile to them).

And yet, all the “actors” in his paintings, whether it’s buildings, trees, mountains, busted fences or domesticated animals, hold each other in a precarious interrelationship; he doesn't paint "humanity in harmony with nature," nor does he paint humanity humbled by the sublime or the impersonal forces of nature - he paints a moment in the wrestling match between them.

A closer look at one of his paintings reveals that his trees, roads, barns, meadows, clouds, silos, grasses, and animals all depart from what the eye's lens alone would register, all with the intent of painting, as he puts it, what the camera can't capture.

There's a schmaltzy gallery video that shows him painting here, and his main gallery, with lots of fairly high res pictures of current work, is here. The below paintings blow up nicely for a closer look if you click on them.

Framed version of the above. Nice (connected) darks.

Finally, for more images and a deeper dive into how Fryer works - his palette, design approach, working methods, and color theory (hint: as in  our last artist, Corot, the foundation is values over colors, with healthy doses of the wonderful neutrals in nature), visit this link to an interview here.

To hear a podcast in which Laura Cassinari King interviews me on my thoughts about Fryer, visit the "Artists of New England" website and click the podcast link right here: