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)