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Christina Renfer Vogel‘s exhibition Home Bodies is on view at the Christensen Art Center at Augsburg College, Minneapolis, MN, through March 23, 2017. She lives and works in Chattanooga, TN, where she is Assistant Professor of Painting and Drawing at University of Tennessee Chattanooga.

What have you been working on lately?

I spent 2016 transitioning from a body of work that depicts figures in groupings and gatherings, isolated within fields of color. I worked from snapshots as a starting point for this work because I was interested in the chance encounters and awkward compositions that resulted from the casual images. While I am still connected to these paintings, I was ready to move on, feeling the itch to work from life again.

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In June 2016, I attended a residency at the Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts, located in Rabun Gap, Georgia. It is an incredible place. I had a small cabin that served as both my home and studio for two weeks. Surrounded by trees, and without easy access to cell phone reception or the Internet, I was in walking distance to hiking trails and waterfalls. My time there served as an intense period of quiet and productivity. I wanted to respond to the specificity of this place, so I made small paintings in and around my cabin, working from the verdant surroundings and lean interiors. I wouldn’t really say that I made landscape paintings, but it felt exhilarating and challenging to work through the problem of interpreting the landscape. It is so complex! I was moved by the color and by the fullness of it all up against the sparseness of the cabin. It felt like Bonnard’s painting with the yellow mimosa, about to burst through the window, but in green.

Back in the studio, I have been making paintings of houseplants. I am still working through my motivations for this work, but it is certainly rooted in my interest in portraiture (the plants act as surrogates for figures) and still life. Like working from the landscape, plants serve as a vehicle for me to build a painting in a new way, offering unexpected and complex visual information that is pure pleasure to translate through painting. I have paired the plants with patterns in some cases, thinking about the kind of pattern of these living things that extends to decorative backdrops. It connects to my figurative work in some ways; solitude or stillness is still a part of it in a way, but it is also a departure. After making paintings with so much space and psychological tension, I wanted to swing in another direction and make work that felt abundant. I am also occupied with tVogel-2he unremarkable, so there is something about the everydayness of houseplants that draws me in. I see potential for a kind of theatricality through staging these tableaus, balanced with a directness that I like to offer through my work. I think it also speaks to my traditional studio-based painting practice; I am bringing all these things from the outside in, filling my space and translating my encounters. The beginning stages of this new work are on view now in a solo exhibition, Home Bodies at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, which runs through March 23.

One other thing about working elsewhere for a while is that you can come away with insights about your usual working environment. Did that happen after Hambidge? Does place affect your work significantly? If yes, how so?

Working at Hambidge felt so natural and easy, and I think that it was a result of being largely unplugged, with generous stretches of solitude. I have a great Chattanooga studio, but the periods of uninterrupted time and space I experienced at Hambidge is not something I can recreate in my daily life. I like that my studio is apart from my home—something about going to work that works best for me—but the live/work experience while I was in residence resulted in great productivity. Residencies show me that I work best when I have long stretches of time. That’s simply not possible at home, especially during the academic year. I still maintain my studio practice, but it becomes necessary to work in fits and starts, around life and teaching responsibilities. The magic of residencies is the opportunity to engage with a fully immersive studio experience. Residencies always remind that time is so critical.

Although it has not always been at the forefront, I think place does affect my work, because I am always responding to the world around me in some form. At Hambidge, I worked in response to my surroundings, so place drove the work in a direct way. Right now, I am thinking more about creating environments within my studio, in a way, which is a different approach to the idea of place.

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I’m curious about the engagement of the “unremarkable.” In looking at these newest paintings, it seems the mark itself has acquired a different kind of ease and abandon, and the tension now is more formal-visual: the relationships between a shape and the working space, a foregrounded object and backgrounded pattern, or variable levels of “finish” co-existing in the same painting. How does the more intimate scale function in this work? Is it a kind of challenge, or hurdle? Is it a comfort?

I think your observation is right on, that the tension is now less psychological and more formal. I am aiming for a kind of visual excess. The fullness of some of the work is juxtaposed with openness in other paintings such as a plant on a table without adornment. The intimate scale of the interior/exterior paintings contribute to a sense of stillness, I think, but the size also encouraged me to work more quickly and fluidly, too. The most recent paintings of plants and patterns are about life size and a bit larger, so there is a scale shift. I think intimacy may come into play regarding my exchange and encounter with a subject. Houseplants are domestic objects, and the patterns are taken from pillowcases and tables cloths in some cases. Maybe those hints of domestic life contribute to a kind of intimacy as well.

You mentioned Bonnard—are there other painters who figure in prominently/consistently in your own approach?

I am not always thinking about specific painters in relationship to the work I am making in a direct way, but I have thought about Bonnard and Vuillard in response to working with pattern. I am wild about how both artists use color and mark, of course, but I am also specifically thinking about the way they filled the space of their paintings. I appreciate you saying that there is a different kind of ease in more recent work, because that is always something I chase after. I find that I am continuously drawn to painters who do more with less and who make work that feels effortless. My favorites include Morandi, Fairfield Porter, Alice Neel, and Lois Dodd, painters committed to the experience of looking but who navigate that space between seeing and describing with decisiveness and invention. Painters like Amy Sillman, Clare Grill, and Katherine Bradford might be less obvious in relationship to my work, but they are some current artist crushes.

Are there any “known unknowns” in the work right now? Things you expect to discover through the work, or things you find yourself painting into without expectation but with some frequency?

I always feel a sense of the unknown when I work, which is why I make paintings, I think. I often make drawings alongside my paintings, but I don’t usually make sketches or plan much before starting. Instead I like to dig in and work it out through painting—at least that is the hope. There is a lot to be discovered through making, and searching for a resolution or solving a problem through the work is what makes the whole process worthwhile, for me. If painting was simply about executing a preformed idea, it would not be satisfying. It is a bit difficult to articulate, but I think the “known unknown” is the search for a stopping point. That is one of the fundamental questions for painters, right? Guston wrote about this and the idea that to stop a painting is always a kind of compromise. When I ask myself what I hope to discover it has to do with formal resolution and discovery, such as how to approach surface or wrestle with materiality or color, but it is also tied to working through content. Related to this idea of doing more with less, I suppose I’ve also been asking myself “how much does it need?” My relationship to my work deepens and changes over time, but I am at a point now where things feel new and pliable in an exciting way.

A familiar, two-part MWC question: what is some advice that you were given early on that has continued to ring true? What is something equally true that you’ve had to learn for yourself?

I don’t remember ever getting this as a piece of advice, per se, but the painters I have admired ever since I was a student, my professor mentors and peers, modeled the importance of pursuing the work and ideas they were passionate about rather than chasing after current trends. This was important when I started to get serious about my developing practice, and it still resonates. I find my interests are in line with what Mira Schor would call “modest painting,” which is usually not the cool thing.Vogel-4

I think the most important truth for me in regards to my professional life, and what has allowed me to sustain my practice, was to learn to respect my studio time as work time. My painting practice is the most rewarding and challenging job, but it is still work. It is not my only job, and I am so fortunate to have a teaching position that creates a kind of exchange with my practice, but that does require me to carve out dedicated studio work time. This requires commitment as well as a degree of sacrifice at times, because it does cut into my personal life, but it is how I am able to keep my practice going. That is something I really had to experience and learn for myself once I was out in the world navigating professional life.

Thank you Christina!

Works: Night Light, 2016, oil, acrylic, and Flashe on linen, 46 x 46 inches; Front Porch,
2016, oil and acrylic on panel, 8 x 10 inches; Threshold, 2016, oil on linen, 42 x 48 inches;
In Bloom, 2016, oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches; Tiny Floral, 2016, oil on canvas, 16 x 14 inches

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On Finishing: Joseph Holsapple

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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

Thanks Joseph!

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

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Kathy Liao, “Growth (drawing)”, 2015, mixed media, 58″ x 42″

 

The Borders of Itself is an exhibit I put together for the Campanella Gallery at Park University in Kansas City.  The exhibit includes artists Kathy Liao Misha Kligman, Damon Freed and Stephanie Pierce .

The title of the exhibit is taken from the last stanza of the R.M. Rilke poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo”.   Rilke’s sonnet is drawn on a sustained and thoughtful look at the eponymous sculpture housed in the Louvre, written after getting some advice from the sculptor August Rodin.  Rodin’s advice: write less about insubstantial and ephemeral inner moods and try to ground one’s words in the real and material world.

 

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installation view of Misha Kligman, “Closeness”, 2016, flashe on canvas, 67 1/2″ x 47 1/2″

 

That idea of an artwork that exists as a cooperation between material and idea is really appealing to me.  That’s what we learn to do as painters, right?  Not master or control or force our materials to submit to our will,–no, we learn to work with the properties of paint and pigment.  That seems to me an incredibly contemporary idea–to cooperate with, rather than master or rebuff, the physical world.

When Rilke looks at his archaic torso closely, he realizes this immobile fragment of marble tells stories.  Not just A STORY about a long since de-deified mythological character, but many complimentary stories, layered and simultaneous.  Yes, the character of Apollo is a story.  Then too, the unknown sculptor,  and the very act of making this statue, is a story.  What drove this artist, what goals, standards and values did he apply to the making?  What accidents  and learning occurred through the process of making?  It can’t be forgotten that the long life of this ruined fragment is a story.   And of course, the way these forms act upon the viewer is a story–and the poem is loaded with various excitations, arousals and meditations the physical presence of this storied object elicits in young Rilke.

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installation view of Damon Freed, “Chapter XII: Infinity Shape”, 2016, oil, acrylic and ink on canvas, 34″ x 34″

 

To me, that’s what all these works have in common: layers of histories and stories.  Some of those stories seem to be depicted in the paintings.  Some of these stories are made as the paintings are made, in every action and every decision the artist makes (this is the reason so many of these paintings heavily telegraph the artist’s process).  Some of these are stories about the artists’ relationships to their source material–whether that be memory, observation, photography, or drawing. Some of these stories are about the physical, phenomenological relationship between the painting-object and the viewer-subject.

 

 

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Stephanie Pierce, “Long Lapse”, 2014, ink, vellum, graphite on paper, 18 1/2″ x 17″

 

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Stephanie Pierce, “Discordant Wave”, 2014, ink on paper, 13″ x 14″

 

Spending some time with these works it’s occurred to me that another common thread is a distressed relationship between simple Figure and Ground.  In Stephanie Pierce’s drawings, layers and layers of words overfill the page around a simple image of a radio, allowing the negative space to be neither peaceful nor lonely.  Layers of differently-intentioned painting keep the background in Kathy Liao’s painting from settling into a passive role relative to the massive snake plant in the foreground.  Misha Kligman uses four drippy disembodied arms to frame a grid of close-value queasiness that threatens to overwhelm what appears to be a shock of long blond hair.  Damon Freed pushes hard edged negative shapes that appear to sit on top of the thinly painting figure/forms.  Figure and ground can be a simple relationship and all of these complications start to seem like alternate versions of Rilke’s strategy of choosing a headless torso.  So many of the best metaphors do spring from a flawed protaganist–whether that be the headless torso of Apollo, one-legged Capt. Ahab,  nearly-blind Beowulf or Saleem Sinai and the various deformities Salman Rushdie inflicts upon the character in Midnight’s Children.

In the paintings the distressed figure/ground relationship is a tragic flaw that increases both the romantic appeal and the metaphorical depth.  When we, the audience, acknowledge that the Other has stories and histories and struggles–many, many layers of stories and histories–we start to engage in the process of understanding that Other.

 

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installation view of two paintings by Damon Freed, on the left is “Chapter XIII: Angel”, 2016, oil, acrylic and ink on canvas, 34″ x 34″ and on the right, “Chapter XIV: Mother, Father and Holy Ghost”, 2016, oil, acrylic and ink on canvas, 34″ x 34″

 

Lately it seems like one can’t be in a room with other artists without someone starting to talk about empathy.  We live in a culture of easy dismissals, of easy “Likes” and crass comments, and on those occasions we do try to engage, we’re all vulnerable to being overwhelmed by images of refugees and stories of brutality, hurt and loss.  Making empathy plausible–or, re-sensitizing we, the de-sensitized–is one of the more compelling missions undertaken by contemporary art.   “Archaic Torso of Apollo” speaks out of the past to these contemporary concerns by ending, abruptly, with the words: “You must change your life.”

That’s what Empathy really asks of us, to sustainably adjust one’s thoughts and actions to the acknowledgement of an Other.  We have to see that both objects and people we encounter are, yes, for a moment, a part of our story, and at the same time, stories and histories of their own.  Further, we have to be able to maintain that feeling over time.  In thinking that paintings might be a useful tool put toward this goal, I’m reminded of Susan Sontag in “Notes on Style” addressing art as a nourishment for our moral faculties as well as the story Lawrence Weschler recounts of the war crimes tribunal judge who restores his peace of mind with a daily visit to the Mauritshuis to see the Vermeer paintings there.

When I have the opportunity to put together exhibits, it’s always my hope that the theme is applied lightly.  The viewer should be able to simply enjoy the artworks for all their own reasons.  There’s a thread tying these works together, an idea that I think is worth thinking about, and an idea that allows the artworks to offer their own stories.

 

 

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installation view of works by Kathy Liao, Misha Kligman and Stephanie Pierce

 

I want to thank the artists for being involved in this show, as well as Park University and the gallery directors I worked with–Matt LaRose and Dr. Andrea Lee.  Not possible without these individuals.  To see more MWC Curatorial efforts, look here.

 

 

 

 

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Linda Warren Projects is currently hosting Horse Hill Waugh and Other Views, an exhibition of new paintings by Joseph Noderer, which he produced after returning to Western Pennsylvania. The exhibition runs concurrently with Alchemy + Elements, a show of recent work by William Eckhardt Kohler, and New York; New Friends, a Kohler-curated exhibition featuring a number of MWC favorites. We caught up with Joe for a few questions.

MWC: The rural landscape has haunted paintings you made while living in more urban places, and now that you’re actually back in Western Pennsylvania, the work seems to have gotten simultaneously more and less specific – there’s a precision about things encountered in nature that are fleeting and chaotic, but ultimately real. They feel more direct: as a viewer, I’m implicated in the space, transformed by it somehow. Are there new factors being considered here?

JN: Moving back to Western PA has had an enormous influence on my work. Since about 2006 I’ve romanticized my home region, and sought out images that were reminiscent of home (but that often weren’t actually of home). Relocating to Pennsylvania from Texas was a very emotionally harrowing experience for me, which was then intensified when I arrived in PA and found that the place I had longed for was more complicated (but no less moving) than I had assumed it would be. Having a more…critical…view of what I had romanticized kind of forced me to change the way that I approached my work. I had to admit to, and embrace, some realities about what I was seeing.

The paintings have become more influenced by how this place makes me feel; feel about myself, feel about how I fit in here and how I feel about the region itself. So…they are about being here, for real…not from afar. There’s still a very moving, almost spiritual, connection I have to what I see around me (both nature and culture) and I’m still in love with expressing that in my paintings, but at the same time there is an awareness of the reality of the place that makes me a little wary of sentimentality.  A sidenote…I’m curious how you feel implicated in, and transformed by, the space?

I’d say it feels more like physically being in a space – as opposed to merely looking through a window, or seeing a postcard or photograph. It seems like light itself has become a subject lately. Each painting is particular in its luminosity, and the light almost threatens to devour the painting. I notice it particularly with the paintings dominated by the presence of a figure. Are these heads meant to be read as portraits?

Pennsylvania has a lot of trees and undelighttrottedrbrush, really tangly. One winter afternoon I saw a hill covered with bare trees that was bathed in orange sunlight, and it looked like the hill was covered in glowing orange hair. Ever since then I’ve been enamored of light interacting with live or dormant vegetation and hair. Since I think of the portraits as personifications of this region, it made sense to amplify that connection between hair and foliage.

In addition to the light/hair/foliage connection, I soon started to think of light as a force that can both illuminate and obscure/deform something…I think this is in line with the new, less romanticized view I’ve gained of home…at times it’s an unforgiving light shed upon both the beautiful and ugly aspects of my current reality.

The heads are all quasi self-portraits. They are all based initially on myself or combinations of myself and images of other people that I find myself drawn to, or attributes of people here that I am drawn to. The first head started off as an attempt to paint myself as an elderly, isolated man (aging and mortality have become something I think quite a bit about…I guess Horse Hill Waugh is pretty much my midlife crisis show). That approach continues…some of them are portraits of myself that are expressive of feelings of self-loathing, while others are portraits of myself assuming qualities of this region that I find both beautiful and repellent.

The newest paintings are in oil. What led to the switch in medium?

The switch to oil happened a few years ago. I wanted my paintings to be able to be more expressive and also more luminous, in a material sense as well as an emotional sense, and could only get there with oil. I think of acrylic as a quiet, introspective material and oil (at least in my history with it) as having an extroverted presence. I wanted my paintings to be about bigger, in a way bolder, feelings.

Sometimes I think about how normal it is for musicians to collaborate as equals, but it’s less typical for studio artists. Can you talk a little about the collaborative paintings with Dax Norman? Are they feeding your other work? How so?

I’m really glad you’re asking this question! Collaborating with Dax is one of the most important things for me in so many ways. When we started working together it really threw me for a loop…we’d hang out and pass paintings back and forth, sometimes paintings we’d find at thrift stores and often using images that either of us had found somewhere (the internet, books, magazines, album covers, wherever) as starting points. I’d also bring records over to his place, and we’d alternate a side at a time while we worked. Very different than working alone at home and zoning out to whatever album I thought informed what I was working on at the time…getting deeper and deeper into my head.

dangerbird-noderer-normanWorking with Dax reintroduced me to the importance of working from the gut…reacting. It also introduced the new element of real surprise, as neither of us knew what the other was going to paint or how they would react to what had been painted.

Dax’s work is much less inhibited than mine and I admire that greatly…working with Dax I became more able to lower my inhibitions, which in my solo work is what allowed me to making the portraits, and to experiment much more with mark, texture and even humor…basically, working with Dax has helped me to get outside of my comfort zone in the best way possible.

While I paint I often wonder what he would do if I were to pass the painting over to him…and sometimes I even try to collaborate with myself, trying to get outside of myself while I make a part of whatever it is I’m working on (but that’s pretty much impossible). Thankfully he and I still collaborate via mail, to lose that connection would be really sad.

Thank you Joe!

In 2012, Noderer was included in the MWC-curated exhibition Tenses of Landscape. View his comments for that exhibition here.

From top: Old Jonah, 2015, oil and acrylic on canvas over panel, 12 x 10″; Lightrotted, Cracked, 2016, oil on panel, 48 x 36″; Danger Bird (with Dax Norman), 2013, oil on canvas.

 

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Norbert Marszalek, “DC Hotel Room” from the series Hotel Room Paintings, 2009, oil on canvas, 48″ x 60″

 

Here is another (long overdue) installment of our series, On Finishing.

Norbert Marszalek, of Chicago, tells us about his experiences this time.  I asked Norbert to write this for us, intrigued by the fact that he has worked in a number of different modes over the course of his career.  This is not a gadfly approach.  Marszalek’s no dilettante.  With each body of work, he spends years developing a palette, a way of moving the paint around, and a way of responding to subject.  When a way of working plays itself out in the studio, he goes in a distinctly different direction. In addition to a long and respected career as a painter,  Marszalek runs the popular online art magazine, Neoteric Art.

 

 

Are you a good closer?

When I was younger I had great difficulty finishing a painting. Not from an emotional standpoint but more, I hate to admit, out of boredom. Paintings would begin with great intention mixed with gusto but as time went on my focus and direction would be lost. That all changed as I matured as an artist. I see painting and actually the act of finishing a painting much differently now.

 

I’ve let my intuition take over and gotten out of my head. That was a huge positive step for me in the making of art. Now my work is always moving. It’s never static.

 

Once a painting is deemed finished it is done. All the struggles and conflicts end with each finished piece but that’s not to say I don’t continue my battles with the next painting. So yes, I consider myself a good closer.

 

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?

Some pieces take longer than others. Sometimes the solution comes quickly while other times it lingers. I feel the painting being finished from within. Either way, I don’t really struggle—it’s a clean break and the search starts again with the next piece.

When you call it done are you smiling?  Is your relationship to finishing troubling to you at all?


I’m smiling. Hey, I’m fortunate enough to be able to create. This isn’t a bad gig. There is always a new painting for me to work on … thank goodness!

 

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?

Everyone has their own process. I see peers hit blocks where they can’t work and others just keep cranking them out. Every artist finishes their work differently. For instance, there is a difference between finishing a tightly rendered representational piece as opposed to an abstract work—at least there is for me.

 

Any other thoughts on finishing?

In the broader sense, finishing a piece is a very personal endeavor. Every creative person does it their own way.

 

Thank you, Chris, for including me in your project. These questions were very interesting!

 

Thank you!  

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Norbert Marszalek, “Man with a Yellow Teapot”, ca. 2015, oil on canvas, 16″ x 20″

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Buoyant-4, acrylic on canvas, 40_ X 40_, 2016

MWC friend Emil Robinson has written a review of Frank Hermann’s exhibit “The Liminal Landscape” at Marta Hewett Gallery in Cincinnati.  Here’s a link to the review.

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Mark Lewis’s paintings and drawings develop frequently (but not exclusively) out of direct observation of his surroundings. His collaged paintings and drawings, which together comprise a significant and long-running aspect of his studio activities, are simultaneously bold in their composition and intricate in their execution. He received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Kansas City Art Institute in 1982, and a Master of Fine Arts degree from Yale in 1984. Also he attended the Yale-Norfolk summer program in 1981. He has served as Applied Associate Professor of Art at the University of Tulsa since 1998, and his exhibition record is too long to list here (but easily viewed on his own site: http://www.marklewispaintingstudio.com/about).

Robert Hughes once wrote “drawing never dies, it holds on by the skin of its teeth, because the hunger it satisfies—the desire for an active, investigative, manually vivid relation with the things we see and yearn to know about—is apparently immortal.” This reminds me of something you said about painting, more than a decade ago: that it satisfies “visual hunger.” In your own painting, has that hunger evolved? If so, how? If not, would you care to comment on its consistency?

The hunger or desire hasn’t changed—it’s still there but possibly my visual appetite or my visual cravings have changed a bit. Using the words “visual hunger” is my way of being sort of vaguely specific—trying to be particular about my needs for the work, and also satisfying the visual necessity in the work, without illustrating a presumed or measured outcome. I’m not as eloquent as Hughes, but I can tell you I love Ruth Miller’s drawings.

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Strictly speaking, it’s not really possible for language to replace the visual/tactile. Also: people say observing a process will change it. Perhaps there’s a danger in getting too analytical with some things. I think this was part of why I was so surprised and, ultimately, satisfied by your Street Fiction paintings. They use words paradoxically, to point out how useless words can sometimes be. Can you talk about where those paintings came from?

I’m glad that you say it’s not really possible for language to replace the visual, the tactile. I’ve always felt that way but at times it seems the general art world (whatever that means) seems to be dominated by the literary—conceptual illustration—rather than the visual. At this point in my life, having established a personal studio history, I’m as not personally overly analytical as I was, say, 20 years ago. That could be good or bad.

It seems like I regularly have a studio crisis of some sort or another every few years. At one point I was wondering if it was time to work less directly from observation. But to go back further: every 3 or 4 years I’ve always had a body of work developing in the studio that wasn’t based solely on perception. They were paintings of street scenes and paintings of male and female figures in interiors. I didn’t always exhibit those paintings but now I do—or I have recently, anyway. Working perceptually and from a blank canvas seem to be complimentary studio practices—a nice way to feed the work or stir up the work.

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Ten years ago I thought of this body of work as “studio signs.” Riffing on the man-made object found in nature. Lately, I’ve been titling them or thinking of them as “street fiction” paintings: a real-false place that might reveal something truthful.

I’ve enjoyed reading plays lately too. A theatre class on campus invited me to read a play by a visiting playwright, to think about the artists that I’m interested in that relate to the play, and to share those artists’ work with the group in order to create a conversation with the work for the class and the playwright. I’ve really enjoyed this opportunity. If you remember my early work, you know that I was a still life painter. I’ve always thought of the tabletops as stage sets (but not in an obvious way) and now I think of the streets as stage sets too—a place where I enjoy observing daily life. I enjoy thinking of plays as fictional truths—not a big stretch, of course, but I like the opportunity they provide. The street fiction paintings provide an opportunity to explore in a different way.

Any occurrence in observation can be used in my studio paintings or street fiction paintings, like words observed in the street scenes that I draw and paint. The story line of the words doesn’t add up in my field of vision either. This realization gave me the freedom to employ words in a different way, possibly in a more abstract or poetic way. When I listen to music—whether it’s Mozart’s Requiem Mass, Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, the Beatles’ “Back in the USSR,” or the Black Keys’ “Little Black Submarine”—I like the presence of the sound of words, the human voice. I don’t listen necessary to the story narrative, but I like their presence and recognition. In the Beatles tune I mentioned above, it’s the rhythmic beat of the words. In the Gorecki composition, I don’t understand the language, but I still understand. I think all paintings should have a face—not a picture of a face, but recognition found in paint from a hand. Philip Guston’s early abstractions, like Dial, and late paintings come to mind.

 

I feel nostalgia sometimes when I think about my time spent at University of Tulsa. It was before the Internet had ascended so fully as the go-to format for image sharing. I shot real slides of my work, wandered up and down the stacks of McFarlin Library looking at art monographs, and in the painting studio, you shared exhibition catalogs with us. Seeing and handling the catalogs felt special, rare, and also very matter-of-fact: they were objects, and there were only so many of them made. That kind of moment, that feeling, is something I hope to create for my own students, even if the tools have changed. What do you think about the shift in the material culture of being a painter? Maybe not just catalogs—paint, supports, online shopping vs. brick and mortar storefronts…

They are both relevant. I just hope we don’t throw out all of the old, sensory objects and try to replace them with only new opportunities via the internet and assume that is all that has to be done. The library is still best in most situations. I still follow the same practice in the classroom/studio, showing books and catalogues. I buy books for my library and for the university library. I do share a list of blog sites with my students and a list of reviewers or writers that I like to follow too. The tactile is important. I want to share this by saying something to you, by placing a book in your hand.

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Most of your painting develops from direct observation of your surroundings. How has living and working in Tulsa affected your work?

I remember when I first moved to Tulsa—back to Oklahoma—I thought I would start by working in the landscape. I had been working with the landscape on the east coast. I grew up in McAlester, which is located in southeast Oklahoma. It is known for the state prison and was a former coal mining community. But even though I grew up in Oklahoma, my way of seeing had evolved. So the landscape seemed very foreign to me when I first returned. Within a couple of years I started to make new discoveries in the Tulsa landscape, not relying on the type of choices that I was making when I was painting in DC or Charlottesville, for example. There I was working with landscape more as interior space. In Tulsa, I became attracted to open and public spaces.

Does “landscape as interior space” mean unpeopled space, an effect of architectural surroundings, or something else?

Unpeopled and architectural surroundings both, but mainly as private space or a room, like space in the landscape; also, like a studio space claimed in the landscape with a particular view to work with.

Do you think place changes the work in other ways? I’m thinking of practical issues, like scale and cost of rent; also, of artists per capita in a city like Tulsa vs. New York or Los Angeles.

I moved back to Oklahoma after a one-year sabbatical replacement position at the University of Virginia. I had been living in the DC area and had lived on the east coast for approximately 9 years. I would like to think that there would not be that much difference in choice other than the different opportunities that the landscape might provide. Moving to Tulsa was a practical choice, initially. I thought it would provide a greater opportunity to spend time in the studio (lower cost of living, etc.) which I think has been true.

I like to discover places to paint. I like to be stimulated by something that I have seen as a starting point for a work. It’s not practical to make the large graphite drawings/collages outdoors but I prefer the experience of being on site and I suppose I would find a way to continue this practice if I were located in NY or in LA.

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I’m usually working on site or starting a painting with a blank canvas in the studio. I’ve worked large in small studios and worked on a smaller scale in bigger studios. I simply try to find a way to support the work when necessary.

I’m not sure how my work would be different if I had moved to a larger or coastal city. I’m sure there would be some external influences but I’m generally a very private person and the studio dialogue is more internal for me. I’ve found that I don’t need the energy of an art scene or a current trend to respond to—to work—I just need more time in the studio. New ideas come from working, and there is never enough time to explore those ideas.

Thank you Mark!

 

From top: An untitled graphite and paper collage from 2016; detail of same collage; Why?, oil on canvas 2011-12, 91 x 66″; Boston Avenue Looking South, graphite and paper collage, 2014, 75 x 50″; Studio, 2007, oil on linen, 72 x 64″‘ video tour of ML’s 2012 exhibition at Bowery Gallery, New York. All images courtesy of the artist; video courtesy of Ty Smith.

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Neil Callander is a painter and Assistant Professor of Art at Mississippi State University. He was born in Louisville, KY, and attended Indiana University (BFA, 2003) and Rutgers University (MFA, 2006). Additionally, he attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2005. He worked as a studio assistant for Jeff Koons, LLC, 2006-7. Recently, Neil was selected by William Bailey for inclusion in Made Realities/Real Situations: Recent Paintings by Neil Callander, Russell Horton and Marc Roder, on view at the Washington Art Association in Washington CT, April 9 – May 7, 2016.

I want to start with something obvious: your paintings reward the viewer who really likes to look at stuff. One would assume that this issues at least in part from your own enjoyment in long engagements with particular corners of this world. I’m curious: are there any significant non-visual motivators in your paintings? Is there a pattern or overarching strategy in your selection of content?

Oh shit Sam – so much here to untangle.

Maybe the first thing to say is also one of the first things I realized about myself as a painter. I have a real aversion to the frivolity that can surround fine art painting. A formative process for me was learning how to navigate around that ethos. Painting is honest, hard work; I fashion myself a craftsman of objects that have images painted on one side – a builder of cultural artifacts.

To the extent I have a strategy for selecting content it’s driven by impulse not intellect. Painting as a proof of concept seems a limiting endeavor. Although sometimes I wish I did, I don’t have a tidy concept to prove. In fact, I have no concept at all – only intent.

Objects come and go in a painting, in the studio, as I search for the right ones that support my intentions. I enjoy old objects imbued with human contact because their meanings are multifarious. The repurposing of mundane objects also intrigue me – like a coffee can holding paint brushes or a TV screen as a mirror. The big paintings can take more than a year to complete and the whole process is organic (objects moving around, being painted out/painted in). I have to stay excited about the damn things so I’ll toss in whatever I’m into at the moment or even what I just got finished eating. Too often still life painting feels like an assemblage of knick-knacks – lifeless and trite.

A realist painter must contend with the fact that narrative is unavoidable. The viewer will always manifest some sort of narrative meaning, and since the viewer is who brings absolution to a painting I fully support their interpretations over my own.

There are instances where you impose a bit of fiction, too. I’m thinking of Dusty’s Table, Dusty’s Stacks, etc. Care to talk some about the moments of more deliberate narrative invention? 

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I do enjoy creating set-ups that conjure characters. Dusty is a character defined through still life paintings. The still lives exist naturally and are extracted from his life. I made an effort not to write about him or think about him outside of a painting context. He came into existence from a need to get out of my own way. It’s not good to take one’s self too seriously – and I’ve definitely been guilty of that. Dusty’s only purpose in life was to fuel new painting ideas. He allowed me to follow whimsy. I painted Dwight Shrute from The Office adjacent to Julie Andrews on the cover of The Sound of Music – what a match made in heaven!

Let me quote you to you: Experiencing dense paintings that slowly reveal their nature can help us cope with the pervasiveness of fast-talking, slick images. In a media-riddled world, painting is a stabilizing force. You’ve been in Mississippi for the last several years. This gets me thinking about cadence—the pace and rhythm of Southern-inflected speech, of the studio, of paint. Is there any kind of useful intertangling for you between cadences? I’m thinking of place in the geographic sense, of painting as a discipline and a dialogue, of the sense of a precise moment, of the more intimate cycles of home and studio.

I’m convinced that if painting is to have a place in our future it is not through copying the modes and manners of popular culture. There is no way painting could stay relevant. Cinema is the king of narrative. Photography is a much more efficient form of documentation. Music is superior at catharsis. Television and the Internet own propaganda. That leaves painting the domains of materiality and ambiguity.

For those readers who haven’t moved around the country and may not know through comparison, the rural South is a kind of paradise. I’m a lowly Professor of Art and living in a mansion (by international standards) on three acres of woods. My wife and I made a decision to sacrifice a degree of cultural complexity for quality of life. My studio is in the basement of my house along with my lawn equipment. Using the leaf blower is a helpful break from painting.

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I’m not a certain-minded or directed painter but I am a confident painter. In other words, I never really know what I’m doing but am confident I’ll be able to find my way in the end. This kind of uncertainty allows for richly painted surfaces. I scrape, sand, wipe, scratch my paintings – subtracting paint happens about as often as adding paint. In moments of frustration I also spit on them, step on them or smear food into them so that they don’t shut me out. That sounds weird but there’s a strange control dynamic that painters know about and deal with in different ways. There comes a point when the painting starts talking back and telling you what it needs to be finished. That’s a dangerous time because doors start closing, avenues of discovery and spontaneity disappear. And one can just proceed on the easiest path towards completion – the one they have trod before. I detest that feeling and so fight to be open to a painting flipping to completion in an instant.

That is a pretty spot-on take of what painting still offers best in the midst of so many options. What drew you into painting in the beginning? When did you know that you had to be a painter?

I think about that a lot actually. I’m a regretful person and can’t help dwelling on past decisions. If not a painter I could have been an arborist or some sort of plant biologist.

But(!) painting does allow the unique experience of making something that is entirely one’s own creation. You’re responsible for every mark, every millimeter of the picture plane. As an entire world is created the painter feels what it must be to be a god.

Having that kind of raw manifestation of one’s abilities and frame of mind has just become a part of how I live life.

Following up on cadence, perhaps: are there artists (or writers, musicians) to whom you regularly return—whose work continues to unfold? If so, who are they?

Without exaggerating, I have watched the American tv series The Office all the way through at least 15 times. The same for The Andy Griffith Show and Star Trek The Next Generation. All three are hopeful shows that balance crassness with kindness in a way that I enjoy getting to know well. It’s like the company of a reassuring friend; that sounds sad but the studio can be a necessarily lonely place. I also reread John Steinbeck and will for the rest of my life. My favorite is The Winter of Our Discontent.

Of course there are painters too, but with painting I am a voracious consumer and learn just as much from what I dislike. To just plug a few that have affected me and whom I feel I share some territory with: De Kooning and Rembrandt, Peter Blume, Catherine Murphy, Fairfield Porter and Lois Dodd, Frans Snyders and Philip Guston.

Please share a piece of good advice you were taught or told, and something useful you had to learn for yourself.

I’m an observer by nature and often fail to realize what’s going on because I’m engrossed in noticing details and thinking in image not words (some people mislabel this as “daydreaming”). I had a professor in college, Barry Gealt, who taught me so much because he is a very different type of person than I am. One thing he said, “I have opinions and you should too!” I thought, “Of course! That’s what I’ve been doing all along – forming opinions.” I needed someone saying the words to realize.

Thank you Neil!

Images included (all courtesy of Neil): Sleeping Porch, 2015, oil on muslin on panel, 48 x 48″; Dusty’s Workspace, 2012, oil on muslin on panel, 38 x 38″; Lindytron 1978 (off), 2015, oil on panel, 25 x 20″. View more at neilcallander.com

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“Double Valentine with Silenus”, 72″ x 84″, oil on linen, 2011

To paint the observation of a thing with care is to evoke tenderness, and to assume a posture of humbleness about one’s relationship to that subject.  Jessie Fisher’s paintings–seen recently in a survey in Kansas City–are made up of many such moments.  Virtuosity through generosity.  Taut linework creates both tension and resolution–a ribcage pushing outward against the skin covering, a folded cloth gently covering a man’s shoulders, a lock of curly hair.  Layers of paint create slightly-flushed skin tones.  A lot of these things defy reproduction, but are essential to the experience of the paintings.  
At the same time, the paintings are monumental-sized and deal with epic themes and narratives.  Moments of subtle and not-so-subtle pictorial ambiguity occurs in nearly all of the paintings–the reality of the studio in harmony with, and in conflict with, the subject of the paintings.  In The Vexations of Art, Svetlana Alpers writes about such occurences in the work of Vermeer and his contemporaries, “Pictorial ambiguity had, of course, been entertained by painters before the seventeenth century.  The difference that the studio makes is that it frames the ambiguity as originating under particular circumstances.  In the studio, the individual’s experience of the world can be staged as if it were at its beginning.”   Alpers concludes the section with a statement that seems especially appropriate to Jessie Fisher’s paintings: “This gives to studio painting its probing, forward lean.  It is a matter of discovery, not demonstration.”
In the interview that follows, Fisher discusses her studio practice, whether or not its useful to be conservative,  her use of pictorial ambiguity and other ideas that drive her work.  

Many of us don’t grow up with painting and art as part of our daily life, especially many of us away from the coasts and our routes into the fine arts are circuitous.  Was that your experience?  How and when did you say, ‘I’m going to do this?’
I was born in Omaha, Nebraska and after 6 months my family moved around a bit and found ourselves in Minneapolis where I grew up in a suburb called Wayzata, and to my mother’s excitement, attended college at the University of Minnesota, first as an architecture major, then mathematics with a Studio minor and then as a Fine Art major. When I made the switch to the art department I had planned on finding another school to attend but was offered an apprenticeship with a fresco painter which pretty much finished my undergraduate credits in Minneapolis. I attended the first year of the MFA program at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts with Scott Seebart (The painter whom I have been with since we were 17. We sat next to eachother in an art class. I asked him to come over to my house after school and help me paint a reflection on a blue bottle.) Realizing this program was not the right environment for us at the time, we dropped out, lived in a lovely green microbus, drove around the country visiting friends at various MFA programs.  We settled at the University of Iowa where I was finally able to take my first life drawing and painting courses at the age of 29. I had always wanted to be a figurative painter but had no methodology as to how to approach the subject, and in Iowa, I was able to sit in on numerous classes taught by Ron Cohen, as well as teach life drawing myself for several years which was essential as I was able to put into words what I had been struggling with. Teaching essentially allowed me to began my life as a serious painter. I applied for a position at the Kansas City Art Institute and am currently an Associate Professor in Painting where I teach amazing students in their sophomore year in painting and elective drawing courses that focus on Life Drawing and Sculpture.

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Suzanne Dittenber, “Untitled”, 2015, oil on canvas, 60″ x 96″

We began this interview with Suzanne Dittenber over a year ago.  Shortly after agreeing to participate, Dittenber’s work started to change.  We decided to put off finishing the interview while she focused on her studio.  Once Dittenber felt ready, she came back to the original questions, though a few didn’t really apply to the new work.  In responding to the out-0f-date questions by addressing the changes that had taken place in the work, the focus of the interview becomes assessing change, the effect of place, and the core concerns rooted in an artist’s work that might grow in any number of directions over the course of a life and career.

Visit Dittenber’s website to see more of her work.

Please give our readers a little bit of information about yourself (upbringing, education, location, news, etc.):

 

I grew up in Columbus, Ohio where I received my BFA from Columbus College of Art and Design, and spent a semester studying at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. After graduating from CCAD, I moved to southeast Utah where I spent a summer working for the National Park Service as a park ranger – a great experience and visual feast.

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