Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Hayley Barker: The World as Ecstatic Mystery

In “The Grass is Blue,” a series of paintings by Hayley Barker that just closed at SHRINE gallery in New York, nature is captured in colors that never appear in nature. Ferns are cobalt blue, poplars are deep purple, rivers run blue, red and marigold. The effect is somewhat holy. You look at the paintings and understand how, in pre-industrial times, people stood in nature, and experienced God. The unreality of the paintings, which nonetheless clearly reference the Earth, also belie exploitation.

- Brienne Walsh, reviewing "The Grass is Blue" in Forbes. Read the rest here

The work is a refreshing, ravishing treat for the eye and spirit.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Painting the Woods with Deborah Paris

“We can paint any number of things. But finding the things we were meant to paint is what we are after. Each of us must find our own country.” Such is the painter’s calling, as worded by landscape painter and tonalist Deborah Paris. Her marvelous book, due out this month, Painting the Woods: Nature, Memory and Metaphor fits the common definition of “instant classic.” Paris’s book is not another how-to book about painting. Rather it is, as the jacket says, "a place-based meditation on nature, art, memory, and time, grounded in Paris’s experiences over the course of a year in Lennox Woods,” an old-growth forest not far from the Choctaw Nation in Paris’s adopted home of rural Texas. 

Most refreshing is Paris’s tacit assumption that painting is about something (even if the painter can’t articulate exactly what) – by which is meant about something more than re-presenting aspects of the visible world, however interesting in themselves. Although careful observation of nature (“the fleeting effects of light”) played a big role in Paris’s desire to paint to begin with, she soon came to see that fleeting effects weren’t what she was after.  “I came to understand,” she writes, “that in fact my intention was the exact opposite. I was not interested in “capturing the moment,” the worn-out Impressionist cliché of contemporary plein air painting gurus. Rather than momentary effects, I was looking for a way to create a Proustian experience, one that was outside time and yet fully comprehensive of it, one that existed in paint rather than words.” 

Deborah Paris, November Reflected, 24 x 36  (2019)

I believe all really good artists, especially landscapists, know this intuitively. Yet most, when pressed, resort to repeating something about “sense of place,” the “play of color,” or just “light,” all of which, whether they realize it or not, like human anatomy to a Lucien Freud or a Michelangelo, is, or should be, beside the point. (After all, even the Impressionists weren’t just interested in light. Theirs was a radical, exuberating liberation of subject matter from academic shackles, and their paintings are spectacular and joyful celebrations of the modern, everyday world as it appears to cleansed perception intertwined with poetic insight.)

Painting the Woods is an exquisite and masterful blending of deep reflections on art and art-making. However, painting’s potential to express meaning is just one of the threads that tie Paris’s book together. Paris interweaves self-reflection and ideas about art with lyrically rendered, observational nature writing and a philosophical feeling for “the connectedness of the natural world and human experience.” All these elements go playfully chasing each other in and out of Paris’s autobiographical narrative core: Paris discovers Lennox’s old growth pines while anticipating an exhibition of paintings of the site scheduled for the following year.

Deborah Paris, Whose Woods These Are. 52 x 72 (2013-14)

Along with all of this, Paris delivers, in her comfortable, compellingly readable style, a lucid mini-history of landscape painting in the Western tradition, particularly British and American, through masters like Claude, Rosa, Turner, Constable. Durand, Inness, the Tonalists, and the author of the true Bible of how-to landscape painting, John Carlson. And a host of congenial literary lights are invited to the seminar, including Gaston Bachelard, Marcel Proust, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, right down to contemporary poet Edward Hirsch.

Paris's book reminded me that we're under no obligation to consider the visual arts in a wholly different category from poetry, literature, philosophy, and even music. They’re all about waking us up from the stupor of habit and self-limitation. It may be tempting to imagine figurative painting lends itself readily to telling the story of humanity, while landscape painting doesn’t. Indeed, as Paris notes, landscape painting was held in far lower regard than painting's other genres because of a perceived lack of “elevating” content. But in fact, “for landscape painters the natural world and the metaphors it inspires provide a direct route to the richest vein of meaning," Paris writes, "a taproot that nourishes our work and helps us make that leap from the personal to the universal.”

Deborah Paris, Late November, Lennox Woods. 20 x 16, 2020

To help explain how feeling and meaning happen in representational landscape painting, Paris cites Emerson’s ideas about metaphor and language, particularly his notion that “words are symbols of natural facts” and that “natural facts are symbols of . . . spiritual facts.” Hermeticists know this concept as "As above, so below," the idea that the spiritual world is revealed to mystical vision through what Emanuel Swedenborg called (and as Inness and Emerson both knew) "correspondences." Thoreau too, Paris writes, came to think of trees as “the raw material of tropes and symbols,” as he wrote in his journal.

In practical terms, “finding one’s voice” in painting, as in literature, can mean more than simply developing a distinctive style. It can also mean discovering why one needs to create at all, not just in terms of oneself but a sense of tapping into something universal, beyond just "me." 

“How could a painting truly resonate in the mind of the viewer if it merely mirrored my mind?” Paris muses. “That might make it of passing interest, but inevitably it would be disconnected from the viewer’s experience of it.” What the passionate landscape painter is really after, she suggests, is “a textured landscape constructed of the memories, experiences, and associations of a lifetime.” 

Deborah Paris, Autumn Sunrise, Lennox Woods. 18 x 24 (2013)

It comes down to feeling in the end and an artist’s commitment to moving past the surfaces of things. “We dig deep,” she writes, “seeing in a way that encourages us to link the felt life of nature with the strong undercurrents of thought and emotion running through our lives.” Rather than a “sense of place,” this leads to landscape painting that makes its own space, one where “memory and experience come together with matter and spirit.” 

It’s a rare book about painting that teaches you something about the intermingled dynamics of art-making, perception, memory, and emotion. This Paris succeeds in doing beautifully, and I feel fortunate for being invited to join her adventures through the closely observed landscape of Lenox, the mythical landscape of nature, and the real landscape of the mind.

Deborah Paris, Early Spring, Lennox Woods. 20 x 16  (2020)

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Helen Booth: Life, Death, Memory, and Paint

I first fell in love with Helen Booth's very moody abstract landscapes - dark visions of stark lights, half-shadows, and void-black spaces devoid of landmark or structure.

Helen Booth, Winter Light

Helen Booth, Moonrise

And she's been making compelling, evocative abstract work alongside these for a while (her career spans 30 years). In Essence, I, II and III, below, the glowing lacework of looping lines sometimes allude to branches in a snowy landscape and other times to nothing but themselves, a bit like Cy Twombley's line-as-calligraphic-mark.

Helen Booth, Essence, 2008
Helen Booth, Essence II, 2008

What she's making now has me even more interested in her work, and her process of getting there is a great reminder to "trust thyself." In her paintings of the last two years, for which she has been awarded two prestigious grants, from the Pollock-Krasner and Adolph Gottlieb foundations, she concentrates on "the limitless variations of the single dot, and how the individual marks when placed side by side create a dialogue."

Helen Booth, Stardust, 145 cm x 145 cm, 2019

Helen Booth, Black on Black, 150 x 225cm, 2019

Helen Booth, Falling Water, 100 cm x 80 cm,  2019

This is really essential painting, yet for her (and I find for myself as well) it's full of meaning and suggestion. "The dot itself can be many things," she says, "a puncture wound, a beginning, an end, an existence or a loss. It can be the end of a sentence or a punctuation in a landscape. It can symbolize life and it can represent death - a full stop."

Her approach to the canvas seems at once more direct, more authentic, and more introspective and metaphysical, now that she's entering into the material in a way that the concrete references to the landscape didn't permit.

"Memory is also fundamental to my ideas," she says, "both personal memory and how it changes and morphs over a lifetime, and also the memory of Nature. How the magnitude of space and its incomprehensible meaning can also be found in the most micro of organisms." The "dot" in her work, then, can be a star or it can be a cell.

Helen Booth, Winter 1978, 150CM x 150CM, 2016

A trip to Iceland following a distressing period in hospital for complications from an abdominal procedure reinforced her personal belief that, "Nature is the most powerful force and that trying to capture the essence of nature in its purist form is what is important to me as an artist. The cycle of birth and rebirth, in life and in nature is key."

It took shaking the foundations (of her self and her career) for her to see it. "I felt that my landscape paintings had been exhausted," she told me in an email. "I was producing work that felt disconnected in so many ways. It was difficult, and still is to a certain extent, because my galleries expected me to produce the same work - and I did lose quite a few of my regular exhibition opportunities. When I was studying at Wimbledon School of Art, and when I was obviously 30 years younger, I spent a lot of my time experimenting with different ways to paint - and essentially just made work - without thinking too much about what it was that I was trying to achieve."

"After a particularly scary time health-wise (which thankfully wasn't too serious in the end), I realized that I had to make work that was truthful. I literally just started to work without thinking too much, losing myself in the beauty of paint again. A trip to Iceland earlier this year firmed up so many ideas. My advice would be to just stop, if you can, and just follow your instincts and allow yourself the time and space to make mistakes. If you are like me, you will eventually find that you are making work that feels right."

Helen Booth, Repetition, 40x30cm, 2019

Helen Booth, White, 144cmx144cm, 2019
These works can recall the intricate and hypnotic white-on-white paintings of Agnes Martin:

Agnes Martin, Morning, 1965

Booth finds in Martin's Beauty is the Mystery of Life essay, published in 1989, a sort of clarion call for meaningful, if minimal, abstraction: "It is commonly thought that everything that is, can be put into words. But there is a wide range of emotional response that we make that cannot be put into words. We are so used to making these emotional responses that we are not consciously aware of them till they are represented in art work.” 

Like Martin's, Booth’s paintings apply an elemental, monochromatic aesthetic that offers a contemplative visual experience. If Martin goes zen in the chant-like repetition of tiny grid-lines (to state it crudely), Booth taps into the wabi-sabi of the pared-down mark - the point - t and finds it gorgeous with the organic, weathered beauty of imperfection.

It's fascinating to see her imagination zooming in and out in this series as she fully explores the concept. The work feels primal, simple and ordered yet pregnant with chaotic energy. I can imagine her in her studio excitedly saying to herself, "what if..." and "Oh wait, what if..." That's the place of enthusiasm (from en-theos, literally inhabited by the god/muse), a place I think any artist really needs and wants to live in. I'm inspired by her evolution and her bravery in stepping into authenticity.

Finally, here's a cool, short video on the continuing importance of landscape, and Iceland in particular, to her work.