Lost Worlds, an exhibition of paintings by Joseph Holsapple, is currently on view in the Memphis College of Art’s Alumni Gallery (Cons and Pros, an exhibition of recent paintings by John Harlan Norris, runs concurrently in the Main Gallery).
Are you a good closer?
No, unfortunately. Finishing is definitely the most difficult part of the process for me. It takes many months to complete a painting, and they change a lot as they develop. “Finishing” a painting often feels like its own kind of sub-process that can take longer than I’d like. I imagine a good closer finishes in a kind of flurry of confident painting, or perhaps in a single ingenious swoop that ties the whole thing together. That’s never happened to me. I’m usually sitting and staring, wondering if this color sticks out too much, or if that Mason jar is under-worked.
My favorite aspect of painting is orchestrating—trying to get all of the elements, large and small, to work as a rhythmic whole. I’m always excited when I suspect I’m almost done with a painting, because the space and light are moving together in a way that doesn’t seem to need much more intervention from me to feel complete.
At this stage, a lot of the process of finishing involves trying to get the smaller elements to function within the larger movements of the composition. I like to play areas of detail against areas of ambiguity, creating a kind of catch-and-release of the viewer’s attention that contributes to the overall rhythm. Finding the right amount of detail requires making small adjustments, which puts me in danger of “noodling”, so I’ll often make a bigger change to open an area of the painting back up. This helps keep the painting alive, but moves the finish line further away.
I find deadlines to be incredibly helpful at this stage. Without them, I fear I would just endlessly change the same handful of paintings for the rest of my life, since my instinct is to just keep adding and repainting things. I also enlist the help of my wife and a couple of painter friends (via email) to help me determine what does or doesn’t need to be done. Seeing the painting through someone else’s eyes is a crucial part of the process of finishing for me.
Is it easy or difficult for you to be finished with a piece? Do you make a clean break or let it go kicking and screaming?
Once I’ve declared something “done” and have lived with it for a bit, I never open the painting back up, so it’s a clean break in that regard. Before I officially call it finished, though, I tend to linger on it for a while.
I’ve long been taken with Braque’s notion that “a painting isn’t finished until the original idea is destroyed.” So, the paintings change a lot from start to finish. Often what initially prompted the painting—a collection of objects, a particular color idea, etc.—gets completely painted out. I like to paint, and scrape, and repaint to build up a layered surface. Since everything is up for grabs in the painting, I’ll sometimes think something is much closer to being finished than it actually is, as one change will necessitate another, then another, etc. I like to work this way, to start with a mess and then to find its overall form and structure. It plays to my love of textured surfaces, while trying to turn my natural uncertainty into a strength.
When you call it done are you smiling? Is your relationship to finishing troubling to you at all?
When I finish a painting, it’s usually the result of a big push in which I focus on that painting to the near-exclusion of other ones I have going at the time. I’m often excited, even if there are still lingering things I would like to change. Usually there is an area of each painting that I am most proud of, and other areas I still have questions about. At some point, I have to just decide to live with them. It helps if I have an unfinished painting or two that I’m really excited about. It makes saying goodbye to the newly finished one easier.
How do you see yourself compared to your peers, in terms of how easily you call an artwork finished? How much does the idea of calling things finished affect the type of painting you make or how you define yourself as a painter?
It’s hard to know, but I suspect I’m a slow painter compared to others. I think my ideas about what counts as finished in my work greatly affect the kind of painter I am, though. While I am occasionally jealous of painters who seem to arrive at an image through a series of quick, bold decisions, I’m not built that way. The kind of painting I most like to make (and to look at) tends to be built-up over an extended period of time. The time and labor that went into its creation is evident in the finished work, and are essential to its visual effect. A layered surface tends to slow down the read of a painting for me, as my eyes trace the peaks and valleys and look into the layered strata of paint. My hope is that several elements work together to contribute to a slowing down of time (or at least vision) for the viewer: the surface, the attention to details of the objects, the slow movement of light through the space, the accretion of forms and shapes in the more abstract areas. The different areas can be seen at different speeds, but they work together to extend the act of looking. I want to be sure the meaning of a painting has to do not just with what you’re looking at, of course, but how you’re looking—the kind of looking the painting asks you to do.
Any other thoughts on finishing?
It’s difficult, and difficult to talk about. I imagine one’s relationship to finishing changes over the years, as experience clarifies one’s concerns and priorities. Perhaps I’ll check back in 10-20 years from now. In the meantime, I appreciate the opportunity to swap notes with other painters here.
Images: Cosmic Unfolding, 2015, oil on panel, 42″ x 48″; Mirror (Row Row Row), 2015, oil on paper, 20″ x 26″; Untitled, 2016, charcoal, pastel, collaged paper, 44″ x 46″; all courtesy of Joseph Holsapple