On Finishing: Anne Harris


Anne Harris, “Portrait (Snake Eyes)”, 2002, oil on canvas, 14″ x 12″

Susan Sontag highlights a certain part of artist’s experience, “Usually critics who want to praise a work of art feel compelled to demonstrate that each part is justified, that it could not be other than it is.  And every artist, when it comes to his own work, remembering the role of chance, fatigue, external distractions, knows what the critic says to be a lie, knows that it could well have been otherwise.  The sense of inevitability that a great work of art projects is not made up of the inevitability or necessity of its parts, but of the whole.”

Anyone who’s ever been responsible for making anything more ambitious and personal than an out-of-the-box Ikea bookshelf probably agrees, and probably has doubts about how absolute that “whole” really is.   When it comes to painting, the canon is full of folks who had a hard time calling works really, truly finished–from Michelangelo and Leonardo (“Tell me if anything was ever done.”), to Ingres and Degas (who famously asked a collector to return a particular painting, “Dancers at the Barre” 1877, so the dissatisfied artist could rework it; the collector refused).  And artists today deal with the same uncertainties.

That scariness of calling something finished can be a driving force, or it can drive a person crazy.  An artist has to learn to let his or work go out into the world–contingent as the idea that it is really and truly finished may be–or else devise elaborate strategies to avoid the whole question.

I decided it would be elucidating to ask some artists–painters mostly–about their personal experiences finishing artworks.  I sent a few questions to the artists who responded via email.  The first response came from Anne Harris who re-states the question with more clarity and makes a strong case for the idea that an artist just keeps working until it feels right, risky as that might be.  

Harris currently lives and works in Chicago.  Her most recent gallery show was Phantasmatical: Self Portraits in 2013 at Alexandre Gallery in New York.  A collaborative/curatorial project, titled The Mind’s I, was presented in Chicago in 2012, will be re-staged at Memphis College of Art this fall, and is, I believe, looking for other venues.  See her website for more of her work.

Are you a good closer?

No idea! You tell me. Using your sports metaphor: if you strike out that final batter, or make that winning basket (home run, goal, etc.), you’re a good closer. Everyone sees it and agrees. You see it too. But in painting there’s no winning shot. There isn’t even an agreed upon game. Each painting is a brand new playing field with its own rules, laws, its own mysterious conclusion. You’re inventing and discovering the game as you play it. How do you close? Who knows?  

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?

Depends on the piece. A few seem to paint themselves. Others are a real struggle. I have paintings I spend years on, working them off and on, thinking they’re dead, then seeing hope again. Sometimes they come together. Some I’m never satisfied with. Some I throw away. I should probably do that more often.

When you call it done are you smiling?

Sometimes, if I think I’ve really pulled something off, I get excited. I have all kinds of fantasies about my greatness. Often, the next morning, I realize it’s awful. Every now and then, I make a painting that I’m certain is good, and it stays good, each time I see it.

Is your relationship to finishing troubling to you at all?

I have problems with the word “finish.” It implies that there’s a foregone conclusion—something polished off. I prefer the word “resolved” or just “done.” For me a painting’s done when it exists as a living fact, like the nose on my face. This is it—my nose. Whether or not I like it, my face is done. Change my nose and I am undone.

There’s the Nelson Algren quote: “…like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”  

Basically, every part of the painting has to be essential, to contribute to the meaning and experience of the painting. Anything added or subtracted lessens the painting.

How do you see yourself compared to your peers, in terms of how easily you call an artwork finished?

I take a lot longer to finish paintings than most people I know. It’s really impractical.

How much does the idea of calling things finished affect the type of painting you make or how you define yourself as a painter?

I am romantic about painting. I believe painting can be felt, can hold emotion and contain presence, can function as a transformative experience. The length of time I spend is part of that. And the fact that the ending of a painting is unknown to me until I’m there—well, there’s no hiding it—I believe in that mystery. Painting is magic.

Any other thoughts on finishing?

My husband teases me, saying, if I were a better painter I’d finish faster. I actually think he’s right. My slowness compensates for a lack of true facility. That is, I can quickly arrive at something that looks slick and detailed, that is superficially facile, but it takes me a long time to get to a place that resonates. I get there awkwardly.

Thank you, Anne Harris!

Interview: Matthew Lopas

1 MillerhouseMatthew Lopas’s paintings issue from a deliberate rejection of traditional perspective systems and compositional aides like the viewfinder. In his teaching and online activities, he fosters awareness of and conversation about historical and contemporary methods of mapping space, particularly those that negotiate the entire visual field. An exhibition of his paintings, (Un)Distorted: Perceptual Paintings by Matthew Lopas, is on view at the Arts & Sciences center for Southeast Arkansas, Pine Bluff, AR, from August 27 to December 5. Also, Painting 360, a group exhibition curated by Lopas, runs from September 8 to October 30, 2015 at Hendrix College, with a reception (and lecture by Lopas) on Thursday, September 10. In 2013, Larry Groff of Painting Perceptions conducted a deep-delving interview with Lopas, which we definitely recommend. MWC has just a few questions to further the conversation.

Sam King: Matthew, your process demands a high degree of analytical rigor, so I find it pleasantly surprising that in many of the works, I feel something like whimsy. There is a playful freshness in your representations of space. I’m curious about that aspect of the work – the sense of levity and play – where does it come from? Do you seek it out, or is it a kind of by product of working?Arezzo Rooftop

Matthew Lopas: I choose locations to paint that give me painting opportunities which will produce surprises. As a location and an image reveal themselves, the unexpected can feel whimsical. Perhaps the sunlight is one place at 9am, and another place at 4pm. I often paint it both ways within the same image. That fills me with joy.

SK: You grew up in Evanston, IL, but as an Associate Professor at Hendrix College, you’ve come to know Arkansas as home. What effects have your day-to-day surroundings had on your painting over the years?

ML: Discovering the Historic District in Little Rock gave me a subject that I can relate to as well as a way to reach out into the world as an artist. I go there and paint houses that inspire me. For many years I painted the places I lived. That is a much different experience logistically and emotionally.  Going to other people’s homes helps me complicate the work and enables me to tap into the experiences of others.

SK: It’s as if the motif itself is sprawling outward, too—not just the view of it. It begins with the immediate (the personal), and then you trace connections in the wider world: houses of a certain period, houses that yield particular, resonant sensations. Do you feel that kind of powerful draw to specific periods of painting, as well? What about those periods resonates?

ML: I have heroes in every period of Art History. There is a great deal of painting that I love, have looked at, and learned from. But resonance is something different from that. For a painting to resonate it should be with you when you paint. It should guide you when you make decisions. It should occur to you in moments of reverie.  For me those are individual artists or specific paintings, rather than periods.  That’s because I think all works of art that exist are in some sense contemporary. If you can stand in front of it now, you can experience it totally on your own terms, regardless of its place in history.

300px-Vermeer_young_women_sleepingSo I’ll start with Vermeer’s A Girl Asleep. I love all Vermeer, but this one feels much more relevant. The light is less uplifting than in his other works. In many of his paintings a holy light comes through a window to illuminate a female figure. In A Girl Asleep the light is about a specific human mood, rather than a beatific quality. The composition is so complicated and full. The shapes move into each other in such a surprising way. The space is very compressed and then opens up into another room. The light is so soft and dim. It captures a dreamy moment of quietness and introversion. I can immediately feel the stirring presence of her in that room. My paintings are much more ecstatic and in motion than Vermeer’s. But I do paint the profound presence of the people who inhabit them.

I love Vilhelm Hammershoi for all the reasons I love Vermeer. But his light is more modern. His light has a tenuous softness, a cold quality that moves me. My paintings are much warmer than his, but I want my light to imbue my paintings with a similar sense of catharsis.

SK: Who or what would you say is your least-likely-to-be-predicted influence—for instance, an artist (or writer, scientist, etc.) whose sensibility might at first seem very far away from your own, but to whom you feel a meaningful connection; or an experience (art or otherwise) that was formative, but perhaps not readily detected on the surface of your work?

ML: There is a character in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ book One Hundred Years of Solitude, the old Colonel [Aureliano Buendía], who spent years making small, delicate, bejeweled fish. If I remember the story correctly, he would make and unmake, and then remake them. It struck me at the time as incredibly strange and insane. But I realized later that the quiet patience, the focused intensity, needed to do what he did is a state of mind that I seek in my paintings. It’s a state of mind that calls me back again and again. Much of making a large painting is vigorous and physically challenging work. But doing that leads to moments of the finest, slowest, work. The moment before the brush touches the canvas is filled with an almost dizzying sense of expectation. As the brush gently moves over the surface, the entire space I am in, and every stroke made previously, is with me in a rush of sensation. I am in many places at once.

SK: Both the Garcia Marquez analogy and your personal anecdote seem to me to point to something essential about painting, or art in general. Some people can’t justify it. It’s frivolous to them. Unless they are initiated into that experience, or a similar one, they’ll never understand why it absolutely has to happen for artists. Because there’s always that gap of understanding, there’s a real risk you could be staking your claim on something absurd, but to make great work, you have to risk the absurd. Who do you see as big risk-takers, for whom the risk was/is worth it?

ML: Art is hard to justify in this world of stark contrasts in wealth and education. We seem to think of so many things in strictly utilitarian terms. And most Art is basically useless. So it is a risk for people to dedicate themselves to something that is basically useless. You risk derision. You risk wasting your time. You risk financial ruin. And why put out all that effort? I can see why so many sensible people will never understand. But what are they missing? Just imagine what our world would be like without art or creativity! The creative spark knows no limits of medium, nationality, or utility. It is who we are as humans. It renews us and makes our short lives interesting. It may not always be as profitable as selling shoes, but it is a whole lot more compelling.

But I also think that given our culture of entrepreneurial capitalism and our love of the avant-garde, we diminish creativity by fetishizing risk. We lionize Picasso and Steve Jobs. We want art to be “new” and “contemporary.” Perhaps we would be better off if we valued art that is honest and authentic. In this sense “risk” is overrated. But if you think of “risk” as something internal, as having courage to do something that you have not seen before and therefore no one has told you is “good,” then there was never a worthy artist who did not take risks.

SK: I’d like to throw in a pair of classic MWC interview requests, too. Please share a piece of advice you received in school (or elsewhere) that was helpful, and something important that you had to learn for yourself.

ML: My mother once said to me that “all you have is what you do everyday.” You have to love what you do with your time because there is nothing else. For me I have learned that painting is a process that produces a state of mind. It is best when no other concerns invade it. The judgment of others or yourself, the reception of the art world, are hindrances. Paintings are best when made from a state of pure absolute personal need. You must give yourself permission and space to get to it and then notice when you are ripe for working well.

SK: Matthew, thanks so much for spending quality time with these questions!

Images, top to bottom: Matthew Lopas, Miller House, 2013; Matthew Lopas, Arrezzo Rooftop, 2014; Vermeer, Girl Asleep, 1657; Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior with Young Woman Seen from Behind, 1904

Shara Hughes painting, Hot Hot Sun 2015 oil on canvas

Shara Hughes “Hot Hot Sun”, 2015, oil on canvas, 36″ x 30″

Spirit of the Dead Watching is the title of an exhibit at Dan Devening Projects + Editions in Chicago.  Opening August 30, 2015, the exhibit will be on view until October 17.  It’s a show of younger artists, whose work appears to be in conversation with Modernist movements and sub-genres like Cubism, Fauvism, der Blaue Reiter.  According to the press release: “Annie Hémond Hotte, Austin Eddy, Bradley Biancardi, Shara Hughes and Tracy Thomason are all builders; organizing shape and material where characters, people, and humanness emerge. Each artist works within an invented symbology, and uses it to imply a sensation, illustrate an event, and/or create a world.”

Enough to make me curious about the work and these artist’s ideas.  How is it that a group of younger artists from different backgrounds come to a way of making that harkens back to forms invented by European and American artists over a century ago?  MWC decided to ask each of the five artists to respond to some questions about their work, their background and the thesis of the exhibit.  In the discussion that follows, it is quickly apparent that all five artists find purpose through process.  This allows for a practice based on sincerity, genuine search for forms that might express basic universal concepts, and freedom to pick and choose the ideas and theories that are relevant to the work.  I want to say thank you to each of the artists involved in “Spirit of the Dead Watching” for participating.  Here’s the discussion: Continue Reading »

As a follow up to our roundtable discussion on the survey of Sharon Patten’s work at the Daum Museum in Sedalia, here is a post of installation shots and details of the paintings.

Sharon Patten Signal

“Signal”, oil on canvas, 1988-1989

Following our previous entry about the work of the late Kansas City based painter Sharon Patten, we present a selection of details from her paintings.  All images taken at the Daum Museum of Contemporary Art during the course of the exhibit, Sharon Patten: An Independent Visionsummer 2015. Continue Reading »

Sharon Patten ReceptionSharon Patten, “Reception” (installation view at the Daum Museum), 96″ x 84″, oil on canvas, 1994

Sharon Patten’s paintings are currently the subject of a survey at the Daum Museum of Art in Missouri.  Most of these paintings date from the last decade of Patten’s life. At the time of her death Patten was starting to receive national attention for her large-scale, thickly painted work.  Sharon Patten died in 1995 at the age of 52.  She was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, was showing  in New York City and Kansas City, and garnered positive reviews from Art in America.  A native of the small town of Sedalia, Missouri, it’s fitting that the Daum Museum there is currently the foremost resource about her life and work.  Sharon Patten: An Independent Vision is on view until August 30th, 2015.

Patten’s paint is heavy, applied with a knife and so thick that the paintings frequently look different up close than from a distance.  Figure and ground relationships that seem insistent from 10 feet away dissolve when the viewer moves in for a closer look.  An outline can be literally obscured by a passage of impasto.  And for all the physicality of the paintings, the role of design seems critical to the experience of these paintings.  As does the role of metaphor.  Patten herself was clear about the importance of metaphor in her work.  It’s discussed in a quote from the artist posted on the gallery wall, and in titles of many of the paintings: “Concurrence”, “Experience”, “Aplomb”, “Success”, etc.  For Patten abstraction was a form and a behavior.

Given the physicality and surface complexity of these paintings, I felt the only way to write about them was to open up a conversation with other painters also able to see the work in person.  It was the excitement of Boonville, Missouri-based artist, Chris Fletcher, that prompted me to make the drive out to see the exhibit.  Fletcher then suggested an artist from Columbia, Missouri, Jennifer Wiggs, to be the third voice in our conversation.  The three of us exchanged a few emails discussing our experience of Sharon Patten’s work.

Christopher Lowrance:  To start, I’ve been thinking about my drive to work, an hour through the countryside, and the way that, after 8 years of it, I know the land. It’s not the particulars, which are always changing. Trees fall down, buildings Continue Reading »

fate in your hands

Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “My Fate Is In Your Hand” from the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.  Hyperallergic writes about a Kuniyoshi retrospective currently on view at the Smithsonian. We featured a terrific Kuniyoshi from the Des Moines Art Center here on MWC a couple of years ago.


John Berry, “Beserker”, 2015, oil and spray paint on panel, 8″ x 10″

Here is a second, long overdue (Sorry, John!) response to our new prompt, asking an artist to think of three questions she or he might ask of her or his future self.  This time the artist is John Berry, a young painter living in Greencastle, IN.  The artist chose to approach the response by coming up with a list of questions and providing a short explanation as to why he wants to know.  Berry’s most recent show is Image Loading on view at DePauw University in Greencastle last spring.  You can see more of his work at his website.

Are you still using paint?

It is less and less obvious to me why I should use paint, Continue Reading »


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