Let’s Be Real is a group exhibition of artists who work from observation or memory. The show investigates the act of examination of visual information in the world around us. Does an artist’s subject stand in for the self? Can an artist’s study of the visual world reveal a psychological and emotional state?
There are many examples of artists throughout history whose work reveals their inner self. Precedents include American painters Charles Sheeler, George Ault, and Neil Welliver. Perhaps due to their tragic lives, all three artists painted banal spaces with a strange charge. Sheeler shared a farmhouse with the artist Morton Schamberg, who died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. After Schamberg’s death, Sheeler painted and photographed their home’s pot-belly stove—which he called his “companion.”
Observational work also has the power to reveal happiness as in the work of Matisse or Bonnard.
The artists in Let’s Be Real each give their works an emotional charge based on their experiences and thought process. Some artists strive for complete concentration, while others can let their minds drift to think about personal aspects of their lives. “People today spend 47% of their day lost in thought.” † This show asks us to consider how the artist’s state of mind might subtly effect their work. The artists were asked to respond to the following:
What do you think about or do while painting? What’s an example of a thought you remember having while making a painting from observation that surprised you?
While I’m painting I think a lot about where the sun will be in the next few hours, and what do I need to do to get the structure of the painting ready for the moment when I have to really start chasing lights and shadows. I think about what’s the thing in the view I’m looking at that really defines it, and how can I turn that into a flat shape. In terms of doing, I’m usually pretty focused on keeping my brushes from bumping into the wrong color, about whether if I scrape a brushstroke off the color will stay right there, and seeing what’s the least information I can give the viewer to still have it feel like you’re there.
Years ago, when my friends had more time to chat at random times of the day, I was surprised at how well I painted when I was on my cell phone (with an earpiece).
In order for me to paint it requires to focus completely. When I am painting outside there are any number of distractions and challenges that I will have to deal with. These include but are not limited to the wind, the cold, the sun, insects, problems with equipment, being hungry, having to pee, strangers who want to talk or more and their pets. I have had my bag peed on by a dog once and just yesterday a dog kicked up sand on a completed painting. All these things give me plenty of things to contend with while trying to paint. While I am painting I may be thinking of what I might be planning on doing later, or something in the past. mostly I try my best to focus so I can complete the painting in one session. I often listen to music on headphones while painting, this helps with strangers when they want to talk. I usually play music on shuffle or pandora. I have had songs come that bring up things for me. I have cried while painting because a song brought up stuff. More often a song comes on that gets me excited and I may dance a little. Most of the time it is just in the background. I would prefer to think as little as possible. If I call comes in I take it but ask to call back later. I try my best to focus. Of course, I may think about my work and what I have done before and the kind of variation I am looking for or some painting reference that comes up but once I start the painting takes over and has a life of it’s own.I do go through a range of emotions while painting and their is usually(not always) a point where I just feel like “What have I gotten myself into?" I can identify with Matisse’s goal of removing struggle. While my paintings are observational I want them to work on a number of levels. I am not trying to make a 19C painting.
What I do while painting depends on the stage of the painting process - I talk on the phone in the studio, while cleaning brushes or mixing paint when the color has already been decided. But when thinking about what to paint and how the painting will proceed, I prefer silence. Often I snack and drink coffee, and I like to sit on the floor and draw, or step out into the hallway, or hang a painting on a different wall. My favorite part of the painting process is putting paint down and reacting, making decisions - and then I like to listen to albums so that the mood isn’t interrupted. After the painting is finished, I might remember the music I was listening to while making it.
I find the example of a thought question very hard to answer! So many things float through my consciousness while painting... but I like the Philip Guston quote about how when he starts painting, everyone is in the room with him - other artists, former teachers, etc. And as he keeps going, one by one they all leave. And then he himself leaves... that is the state I try to get to while painting.
These objects are part of a larger project whose impetus is a film my grandfather started making during WWII as an army psychiatrist. Sometime after landing on the shore of Normandy in the fall of 1944, he traded a P38 pistol for a 16mm camera and subsequently documented not only the immediate aftermath of the war as he traveled in its wake, but also his furloughs in Paris and Switzerland and the post-war period after he returned home. In 2011, I traveled through Europe and retraced my grandfather’s path using the film as my guide. The sculptures included in Obsolete Objects from the Golden Mile and the Golden Arrow are based on objects I found at historically significant sites over the course of my travel. As I’m sculpting and painting these objects, I think about their unknown origins and use. The Golden Mile simultaneously refers to the fertile region along the Rhine and the name of a prisoner-of-war camp established by the U.S. Army near Remagen, Germany towards the end of the war. The Golden Arrow refers to a location on the coast of Normandy where temporary harbors, (also known as Mulberry harbors) were created to facilitate beach landings. Golden Arrow was a code name for a section of one of the harbors built on Gold Beach in Arromanches, France.
I have to be honest and say that one of the things I like about painting is that I’m not really thinking too much while it’s happening, at least not in the way I think you mean it. Plenty of thoughts before, after, and around—but during it’s pretty much auto pilot. I listen to music, even books on tape, and both supply a level of distraction that I find helpful, maybe essential, to actually painting. Following a narrative especially seems to occupy that part of the brain which would otherwise be too eager to critique, second guess, or start worrying about taxes, and thus spoil the painting. The thinking is primarily manual, I believe. I’m pretty sure I mutter to myself a lot while working but there’s no one there to verify this for me.
When I’m in my studio I always listen to music, usually on cassette. I often sing along and sometimes drum along with my paintbrushes (I’m a rock drummer). It’s nice to keep my hands moving while I’m stopping to look at the painting. When I’m painting directly from life, I usually paint without stopping at all because the light changes so quickly.
When I paint from life I’m often not in my studio but am wherever the subject matter is: maybe on the street or sitting on the living room couch. When painting from observation, I’m able to notice details about a place that I might otherwise overlook but that influence its visual significance. For example, the rust on a roof top vent, the color of interior lighting in windows, a plant on a fire escape.
When I’m really involved in painting, my thoughts flow easily and I’m able to draw new connections between ideas.
A visual artist must constantly reimagine the meanings associated with visual information. When teaching observational drawing, I often tell young students to imagine that they have never seen their subject matter before and have no idea what it is. Perception is colored by existing knowledge and previous experience. The objective of my teaching prompt is to discourage students from drawing imagined pictographs of what’s before them, and to cause them to truly look, in a non-judgmental manner, at the visual information that’s available to them.
In a society where so much of our daily experiences are mediated by technology, mass produced goods, and artificial environments, painting offers a voice to the individual, interior truth of one’s own sensory perceptions. Only the paintbrush separates my body from the created image. I must use my own eyes and hands to bring the world of the painting into being.
Image: Roger White. Courtesy the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery