journal

Excerpt from an essay in progress

This summer, I’ve been working on collecting my thoughts around landscape painting into a new essay. Here’s an excerpt:

Colin Woodard’s 2011 book American Nations interprets the United States as a precarious coalition of eleven warring regions. Woodard tells U.S. history through the lens of tracking each region’s evolution and migrations within the country over time, from the first arrivals of European settlers to the present. The book was a revelation to me, in that it theorized a truth that I’d sensed, inarticulately, about my home country.

 I’ve always been fascinated by how, in the United States, different worldviews center around distinct, geographic regions. When I was three, my parents, sick of the cold in their bones, uprooted their lives from Michigan and set off for sunny central Florida. For the first few years of my life, I drank “pop” and called my parents’ friends by their first names, but in Florida I was raised amidst Southern, conservative culture. Our household somehow managed to embrace it all while maintaining pride in our Northern roots, while nurturing my sister and I’s sense of Jewish heritage and our secular, science-oriented worldview. Looking back, it seems miraculous that I never knew a bee sting of prejudice until I left for college.

 I recently took a road trip from Philadelphia to Orlando. In North Carolina, I was struck by bright yellow billboards punctuating the walls of foliage lining I-95, reading “Jesus is Savior,” or more concisely, “REPENT.” In South Carolina, a roadside field had been cleared for an enormous confederate flag. From the car, the landscape seemed to back up Woodard’s thesis of America’s cultural pluralism. The views from my window also seemed the perfect illustration of how landscape is more than land shaped by practical human needs; landscape is branded by the ideology of its inhabitants.

 Trump country is beautiful. There’s tension in the thought because the landscape’s formal and political reality are at odds (for me, at least). There’s an awkwardness to feeling moved by a landscape that’s intimately tied to a culture far from one’s own. Every time I visit extended family in central Pennsylvania, I grapple to square my love of the landscape with certain Appalachian ways that I reject. I think the discomfort is telling; it suggests some reciprocity between a place and its people, it implies landscape’s animacy. Another way to think of it might be that landscape is steeped, ontologically, in its human history.

Winter Studio Notes

  • How do you communicate the sense of humans’ meaningful relationship to landscape, instead of just talking about your own, private relationships to specific places (central Florida, grandparents’ farm, Pennsylvania, etc.)? The latter flirts with inaccessibility and sentimentality.

  • "What you’re making, it's not an abstract painting, and it's not a landscape. It's a cerebral construction." (Dona Nelson)

  • "You must have the illusion of space in the painting, for the signage of space to be activated." (also Dona)

  • Integrate the abstract and representational parts, make them need each other.

  • Why landscape imagery at all?

  • I’m not interested in painting as an illustration of the idea.

  • Why am I so allergic to physical terrain in the painting, or to using actual collage? I want a singular place, a singular illusion. There's something about the entire painting having the same skin that goes to this, to holding all those disparate parts together the way I want.

  • Ways that the work may be problematic (just a few):

    • aestheticizing, showing as beautiful the modern-industrial world

    • suggesting some sort of symbiosis between modernity and nature

    • underpinned by the romanticization of nature/landscape

What’s on the wall:

Evan Fugazzi at Gross McCleaf

Taken within the context of contemporary art, Evan Fugazzi's paintings are unabashedly, emphatically, confrontationally beautiful. They're minimal in a way that speaks to a distillation of knowledge, though at times they read like experiments with limited variables. Throughout, the incidental and accidental take on a lead role.

I imagine Fugazzi troweling the paint over white-primed canvas. The luminous stains hearken to a history of glazing with oil paint, but the undiluted Flashe has its own, highly pigmented game. Even when opaque, the paint can flatten, make itself immaterial. "Pure color" plays against the thicker drips, slops, and carving that make the paint a physical thing. 

Evan Fugazzi,  Loom , acrylic on linen, 43.25 x 70.875 inches, image:  http://www.grossmccleaf.com/

Evan Fugazzi, Loom, acrylic on linen, 43.25 x 70.875 inches, image: http://www.grossmccleaf.com/


Jasper Johns at Matthew Marks

A painting can act simultaneously as a collection of parts (i.e. "the left part," "the top part"), and as a singular entity that transcends the sum of its parts. Some paintings really totter on the brink of being a whole. Use the minimum of skin to hold together. With Johns, the feat feels generous. Here are a variety  of parts that we can play with, take in different sequences, in the flow of perception. Johns's repetition of the face/vase motif re-affirms his interest in this active style of viewership that requires time. Physiologically, one can't perceive the faces and the vase simultaneously; the only way to see both is in different moments, and by focusing one’s attention on different parts. 

Johns engages us in the construction of his images.

Within a series, paintings repeat a single composition, each version bringing out and camouflaging different parts. It’s almost a game; each version offers different clues which the viewer can piece together to get the whole story. The versions present different realities of a set of objects--the interior of a room, a bed, a figure--like Monet’s haystacks or cathedrals. But overall, Johns’s paintings feel too rooted in the pleasure of invention to be simply about different optical experiences of a thing.