Saturday, August 31, 2013

more on Diebenkorn

I have been thinking more about Diebenkorn's work, thanks in large part to the excellent essays in Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966, published to accompany the DeYoung exhibit. One writer remarked on Diebenkorn's "long and thoughtful evolution" of a painting, working on it until it was right. I do this, too, but not necessarily consciously or systematically. My criteria have tended to be visual and surface-related. Yet the process offers an opportunity to have my ideas "worked on, changed, altered" by the figurative/natural side of things, by what is out there, rather than by going more deeply into my own mind/imagination. To finalize a work by rechecking it against the real world and my reaction to it, rather than a somewhat arbitrary aesthetic finish, would be a different practice that would bring more depth to the work. As the same author said, Diebenkorn resolved the abstract values of pure painting in tension with nature/reality. The materiality of his abstract work is in tension with the “presentness” of natural form, so that imagination and observation somehow merge.

How do I interpret natural forms in relation to my own feelings? The horizon is important to me: It offers stability and a sense of distance, of objectivity, of calm. The Colorado Plateau, in its flatness, offers these qualities. These are things that I seek to render, emotionally, in my paintings. But there are so many other emotions to explore. How can I pursue them through landscape, since that is what I am drawn to? I could use my list of emotions/concepts to seek in the actual reality around me things that "say" that emotion, and paint them (abstractly, of course). Or, coming from a different direction, I could look at a landscape that attracts me and ask my self why it does so before turning to paint. In both cases, to find a landscape or still life "thing" that speaks to me of an emotion, then go beyond the specific forms and colors and transform them so that they disappear and leave the mood/emotion, the way a physical page disappears when you read a book.

This means reacting to the local earth forms and atmospheric conditions such as I find them at a certain moment, noting their emotional resonance, then using that actual landscape as both a source of inspiration and a point of departure. In Diebenkorn a sense of place is merged into the use of the actual moment and/or environment to provide a source for the projection and expression of thoughts and emotions. This takes the sense of place to a psychological or imagined level, where abstraction makes sense. Over time, a vocabulary develops, of subjects, themes, motifs, that are not specific to any given moment but are still grounded in an environment that is physical, specific, and real and that is reflected in the painting through light, color, composition, and other painterly qualities.

Another thought from the essays: If reworking a canvas, as Diebenkorn did, can be seen as a process of externalizing ideas and feelings, then leaving visible the evidence of that process in pentimenti gives extra meaning to the work. This reinforces my practice of leaving hints of lower layers visible, but it also refines it and gives it more meaning and purpose: that of externalizing the internal. It also justifies my tendency to slow down, even in sketching, to rework, take time, revise. I will do so with a greater and more conscious sense of purpose than I have before.

Diebenkorn himself emphasized that "all paintings start out of a mood, out of a relationship with things or people. This refers to another type of reality, beyond the figurative, that is external but also subjective. This seems like a good starting point for a painting, and returns me to the idea that I should think about the mood/relationship with the landscape or object that I am addressing before I start to paint it.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

revisiting Diebenkorn

The work of painter Richard Diebenkorn has held meaning for me since before I ever picked up a paintbrush. His work has continued to inspire me as I develop my own painting career (see, for example my post of May 3, 2010).  During our recent trip to the Bay Area, we had the chance to see an exhibit of his work at the DeYoung museum in San Francisco. The exhibit focused on his years in Berkeley, CA, when he developed a strong abstract expressionist style (for example, Berkeley #19, 1954, at left), before turning to figurative painting. Later, living in southern CA, he returned to abstraction and produced his remarkable Ocean Park series.

What is it that draws me so to Diebenkorn's work? In part it is because there is a figurative reality beneath his abstraction, as this exhibition emphasized. Diebenkorn himself said that figuration gave him "something to come up against." This is like a clarion call to me, especially after my summer of study with David Dornan, when he forced me to ground myself in the reality of bricks even as I explored abstraction (September 24, 2010 post). Another aspect of Diebenkorn's work that speaks to me is that each painting, even the most abstract, tells a story. Storytelling as a part of abstraction seems almost an oxymoron, and yet, and yet, I think that the emptiness I have perceived in some of my own paintings is exactly the lack of a story. David Dornan also talked about telling stories, including about making the story one of an emotion, such as the tenderness of a mother and child referenced by a single rock at the bottom of a cliff. Diebenkorn said that working from a base of figuration not only provides external constraints compositionally, but also provides something to push against in terms of an emotional response.

I would like to incorporate more storytelling, which conveys emotion, in my work. In Diebenkorn there is a sense of tension between the two aspects of figuration/representation and emotion/intuition that I can sense but not articulate. In my own work, I have addressed the representational side, in terms of its abstraction, far more than I have the emotional, storytelling side. How to represent emotion, must less make it abstract? Or maybe abstraction is the vehicle to expressing emotion. Or maybe one begins with the story, then considers its emotion, and in making the story abstract, portrays its emotion.

How to approach this? I have an impulse to return to drawing (figuration) for a while, for inspiration, relaxation, and encouragement. It would be a welcome break from, as well as a complement to, working abstractly. Rendering the correct angles of a mountainside is a piece of cake compared to interpreting the mountain abstractly, yet it may also provide a doorway into how to portray that mountain on an emotional/intuitive level. Similarly, I think that for me still life could be a doorway into exploring the interior, personal world on a more accessible level than through the grandeur of a desert sunset. Still life can emphasize emotional states and intuitive perceptions (among many other things) in a close-up, careful way that invites compositional invention such as cropping, or skewing traditional linear perspective (i.e., abstraction) while still dealing with figuration. One quest is to find objects that resonate for me, as bottles did for Morandi.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

studio space

Summer schedules are made for interruptions, and although I've managed to put in regular studio time this month, it has been one to two hours a day rather than the three to four that I love. As is evident, blog posts have gone out the window.

I have been able to play some cello, though I am still strengthening my wrist. Out-of-town visitors have come and gone, a seriously ill friend needed help (she is better), gallery duty took up a week, and music festivals, barbecues, and a cycling race for which I volunteered all interrupted the daily flow. It has been a busy August.  Most recently, Jerome and I took a ten-day trip to northern California to see family and friends. It is all welcome as we celebrate high summer, but I am ready for quieter times.

Among the many activities of our time in California -- days filled to the brim with good socializing, good food, good wine, and general fun -- was a visit to my brother and sister-in-law's home on the north coast. There I visited Meg's new studio space for the first time, and was immediately taken with its roominess. She can have two or three work areas set up at once, and still have storage shelves, desk, and room to breathe. The ceiling is high, which adds to the sense of spaciousness.

I have always loved my little 12'x16' studio, and it has been more than adequate for my needs. Perhaps I should say, until now. It is beginning to feel cramped, especially since I usually work on three or four pieces at a time. As I also move to larger pieces, it is hard to have everything out at once, never mind with room to look and contemplate. And I have a feeling that I will want to continue exploring acrylic paints in addition to my oil and cold wax. It would be nice to be able to have both media easily at hand.

So I am actually thinking of looking for a space to rent where I will have some elbow room. There are two or three possibilities locally that I am aware of, and I haven't begun to ask around. I will see how I feel when I return from the residency in Spain. But the whole idea is contributing to my sense of new horizons, new possibilities. The photo above of the Pacific Ocean near my brother's home, and Meg's studio, alludes to that sense of expansiveness.