“For sixty years Pat Adams has approached painting with an empiricist’s concern for the nature of visual form and the intimist’s sensibility that addresses the layered complexity of being. With abstract paintings characterized by seductive colors and richly encrusted surfaces, Pat seeks to bring from her “gatherum of quiddities” – that stew of unnamed qualities – a visual situation that bestirs contemplation.”
Pat Adams (b. 1928), That is to Say, 2010, oil, isobutyl methacrylate, pencil and crayon on paper mounted to panel, 19 x 24 inches, courtesy of the artist
From 1973 through 1976 Pat Adams was my professor at Bennington College. Pat already had 20 years of experience as a serious artist, showing in New York and collected by museums. The “landscape” for women artists was not an open one. The art world was both smaller and fairly closed to women. Things were changing, but most advances were hard won. I’m not really prepared to talk about what Pat was up against. All I can tell you is that until the 1980s, I believe, only two women had had a one person shows at the Guggenheim — Helen Frankenthaler and Helen Frankenthaler.
Seeing Pat’s paintings today I wonder why I didn’t know them better; why I wasn’t more aware of what she was thinking; what her process was; what battles she was waging on canvas. This retrospective at The Bennington Museum gave me a chance to experience her work and also see some of her materials: things she was looking at, tiny drawings she compiled endlessly in her notebooks. It was a revelation.
It was the opening night and not the best opportunity to take in the work, but at the end of the evening, when the rooms emptied, I had a moment to look closely at some of the pieces with the director of the museum, Robert Wolterstorff. I was struck by how my eyes were pulled around the canvas, how I flet moments of speed and slowness, of agitation and rest, of chaos and precision — like I was entering the universe. I wondered at the surfaces. How she achieved tiny irregularly shaped dots in a grid, how she painted a curved line that was at once as precise as a calligrapher’s curve, and yet broken in spots revealing the paint surface beneath. There was something so illogical about this line, so confounding, I couldn’t figure out how it was made.
When I was able to speak briefly with Pat during the show, she told me that some of the marks on the canvas were achieved by a kind of printing or transfer process. Painting on mylar and “stamping” it onto the canvas. But I didn’t get a chance to ask her about the lines.
Pat’s paintings are full of texture and unusual materials, mica, sand, pigment, and other minerals. Wolterstorff was most taken by this aspect of the work, which made him think of both Keifer’s straw and Beuys’ lard and felt. I forgot to mention to him that there was a Beuys exhibition at the college in the 1970s.
As we looked at the paintings, the rigor of the composition struck both of us. To me, they felt like mathematical journeys. Jamie Franklin, the curator, had displayed some things that Pat had pulled elements from — postcards of a Gothic Cathedral, the composition of an old Master painting, the shape of a sliced geode. All of these were echoed in the work.
Pat Adams’ Notebook
I believe that in the misogynistic days of the 1970s, these elements were at times dismissed as decorative. Seeing them now I know that they were no more decorative than the letters of a formula. What, after all, can be eliminated from E = mc 2 .
The last time I was a resident at A.I.R Vallauris in 2008, I left a box of materials. This time I decided not to take any materials with me and to just make use of what was in the box and whatever I could find in the street.
I had two notions about how I would use my time. One, I wanted to experiment, respond to the moment and not plan everything out. And two, I wanted to look at Goya’s paintings and see if there is a way I can distil their essence into something abstract. I didn’t think that I would do these two things together.
When I open the box, I have plenty of paint, some brushes, and several pieces of 300 lb Fabriano watercolor paper. But what really excites me, is the box itself. It sat in a dry shed for eight years. The cardboard is soft and no longer has much structural strength. One side is white. I tear off one of the flaps and start painting.
Goya’s Dog on Cardboard, 4 inches x 2 inches, oil on cardboard, 2016
Goya on My Mind
Since Goya was already on my mind, I start by loosely painting one of his portraits with black ink. I switch to oil paint and the soft cardboard yields under my brush. The un-even torn edges make a beautiful deckle* around the piece. When I paint Goya’s, “The Dog” I like how the creases in the cardboard interact with the image.
All the pieces are small, averaging 4 inches x 2 inches. In the end, I branch out to include the back of a tuna box and a crushed can that I found in a parking lot.
*deckle edge paper—a type of paper with rough edges
Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: Maja on the Can”, oil on soda can, 2.5 inches x 5 inches, 2016
Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: Dona Tadea Arias de Enriquez on Tuna Box”, 6 inches x 4 inches, oil on cardboard, 2016
Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: The Countess of El Carpio on Cardboard”, 4 inches x 2 inches, oil on cardboard, 2016
Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: Arsensio Julia on Cardboard”, 2 inches x 2 inches, oil on cardboard, 2016
Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: Goya’s Countess on Cardboard”, 3 inches x 2 inches, ink on cardboard, 2016
Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: Portrait of the Countess of Chincon on Cardboard”, 3 inches x 2 inches, oil on cardboard, 2016
Last night I dreamed that I was attacked by bats. Of course it made me think of this etching by Goya.
I looked up its meaning in Wikipedia:
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (Spanish: El sueño de la razón produce monstruos) is an etching by the Spanish painter and printmaker Francisco Goya. Created between 1797 and 1799, it is the 43rd of 80 etchings making up the suite of satires Los Caprichos. Goya imagines himself asleep amidst his drawing tools, his reason dulled by slumber and bedeviled by creatures that prowl in the dark. The work includes owls that may be symbols of folly and bats symbolizing ignorance.
The full epigraph for capricho No. 43 reads; “Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.”
Leslie Parke, “Wrapped Blue”, 40 inches x 72 inches, oil on canvas, 2014. Photo credit: Jon Barber
EVERYTHING IS REAL is a group of paintings that are both abstract and representational. Each image in the series exists in the real world – an old board of insulation, an industrial garage door, a silo and corncrib, a track in the mud and wrapped cargo on pallets. At the same time, each has been composed to accentuate the inherently abstract qualities of the reflective surfaces and their interplay with light.
Leslie Parke, “Silo”, 46 inches x 96 inches, oil on canvas, 2014. Photo credit: Jon Barber
I started my career as an abstract painter, sometimes making non-objective images and at others deconstructing the work of earlier masters, such as Ingres, Matisse and Giotto. Then in the 1990s I received a grant to spend half a year at the Claude Monet Foundation in Giverny, where I had a studio and 24 hour access to the Monet’s garden. At first, I looked for anything abstract; the structure, the color — but in the end, I was seduced by the light. Since that time, I have been in search of the subject matter that would resonate best with this full range of interests. I have painted many things from nature in the past, and even some traditional still lifes, but I’ve never completely related to those traditional genres. It wasn’t until I stumbled onto a waterfront dock piled high with pallets of cargo wrapped in plastic that I felt I’d finally found my subject. This shiny, transparent, and translucent stuff, which reflected light and held water bubbles from the rain, had all the qualities I was searching for. The subject is completely abstract, and yet has a surface as complex and difficult to paint as one of Ingres’ satin dresses.
Leslie Parke. “Leaning Insulation”, 60 inches x 40 inches, oil on canvas, 2014. Photo Credit: Jon Barber
At last, all the elements I’ve worked on separately over the years have come together in these new paintings and I can see a way forward. Everything is real; every crease exists in the object, every reflection.
Grand Via by Antonio López García, 1974-1981, oil painting, 35½ x 36¾.
I don’t give importance to technique. I condition everything so that the painting has spirit, in every way. If not, technique does not do me any good. I have done that: put in all the forms, ordered them in the best possible way, taken measurements. Everything was done correctly, but the painting ended without substance, vacant of emotion. And that, when I had that sensation, it seemed to me a complete failure, it seemed that technique wasn’t worth anything. Not that technique doesn’t have importance, but it’s like the word is the link to the ideas and nothing more. So you acquire technique, but then what do you do with it? Antonio López García
Antonio López García is a Madrid Realist, a group of painters dedicated to working from direct observation. His paintings frequently take years and even decades to complete. While technique alone can never secure the outcome of a painting, it can provide, however, one more tool in the artist’s tool box. Lopez Garcia uses two things that I think are worth exploring. This first is a plumb line — an undeviating vertical line used as a reference when determining alignment. I had heard of their use, but never seen it in action until I watched a film of López García drawing a quince tree. He tied the plumb line to a limb of the tree and used it as a reference to the edge of his canvas, keeping everything in alignment.
In the lower left of this screen capture you can see the plumb line.
In the lower left of this screen capture you can see the plumb line.Here is a clip from that film:
When López García works on a landscape he also uses a positioning and measuring device. I don’t know if it has a specific name, and artists have devised many different versions of this from using the end of a brush to using a black thread to take their measurements. I believe what López García is doing here is holding up a piece of wood that is the distance from his eye to the canvas. At the end of that piece of wood is a vertical piece of paper on which he can both mark the size of something in the landscape and also the angle of it. Notice that he presses the piece of wood into the hollow under his cheekbone. That would give him a consistent spot to position the wood. He also marks the ground where he stands. That way, each day that he returns to doing his painting he can set everything up in the same place. He is, thereby, minimizing the variables as he works on his painting over time. None-the-less, there will be many variables that he cannot control; the weather, the time of year, the light, and since he often takes years and sometime decades to finish a painting, the landscape itself can change with new buildings being built and old ones torn down.
While in Paris, Dégas’ close friend Giovanni Boldini painted a still life on a canvas that measured 47 1/4 inches high by 15 1/4 inches wide. This narrow canvas that stretches to nearly four feet in height was probably meant to evoke a Japanese screen or scroll. In it he painted a glass of red wine just emptied, the residue barely visible at the bottom of the glass and a stack of Old Paris plates, white porcelain with gold trim that casts a celadon shadow. On one of the plates, there is a silver bowl lined with glowing gold. Another plate is strewn with apricots and figs, their skin is the same shade of green as the plate’s shadow, only darker; the inside is the shape of an almond, only white. Faintly in the shadow falling diagonally across this unusual expanse of canvas — so tall and narrow, — one can see an embroidered “D” on the tablecloth, perhaps for Dégas.
As soon as I saw this painting in a coffee table book of still lifes, I knew that this was what I wanted to paint. I wanted to paint that painting, or rather a painting of that size, that composition, that beauty. So, I plunked down the $125. and hefted the book into my arms and carried it home to my small apartment.
In my career as an artist, the muses often contacted me in this manner — leaping from a page in a book — or jumping off the wall. Once, while removing notes, postcards, and photographs from the wall of my studio, I found that the backs of several postcards that I had dropped on my work table framed a perfectly cropped, eloquent painting-to-be of the back of a woman. Without disturbing a thing I carefully taped each of the obliging scraps of paper to the found image, thus making a makeshift frame around it. This way I would know exactly what this painting required, what part of the image should be included and what needed to be cropped out. Careful to maintain the precise proportions I stretched and primed a small linen canvas. The painting effortlessly appeared under the caressing strokes of my brush. I merely revealed through the gentle dusting of my brush an image that was already there; midwife to this painting, I was neither the creator nor owner of what came forth.
Leslie Parke, “The Back”, 13 inches x 10 inches, oil on linen.
The Boldini was different. I knew I wanted my painting to have the same feel: the transplanted Orientalism of the elongated format with the objects casually, yet perfectly distributed on the surface with the shaft of light that divides and illuminates the space, bringing focus to one object and leaving another in the quiet eddies of darkness.
As a dealer once said to me, “I can find plenty of artists who paint well, but they don’t know what to paint.” Not so for Boldini, whose painting is emblematic of his life; a café life, a casual meeting with friends just over, their conversation reverberating in his ear as the muse pulls him aside and says, “Paint this.”
In my apartment, I drag a table in front of my west facing windows. In the late afternoon, the sun pours into the room like rain lighting each bit of dust. But no one has been to my apartment in weeks — no meal just eaten, nothing has been left casually on the table. So I pull objects off my shelves and line them up first by color — the blue vase, the blue cobalt and white Spode china, the gold and blue Lenox teapot. Then I arrange the objects like soldiers in a row. I move everything to the center, then everything to the edge. I try for a Zen-like casualness that fails utterly, as my anti-muse takes over and enters a regularity into my placement that is dull and even.
As I struggle with my artificial arrangements, other artists’ still lifes come to me: Eric Fiscl’s kitchen counter top under florescent light, so modern, real and evocative; and the master of still life painting, Janet Fish’s all over compositions that show formal sophistication, and yet at the same time are so full of her life, friends and everyday objects — a football game on a portable TV surrounded by bags of Cheetos and chips, with a dog asleep under the table and the convenience store across the street visible out the window. Her world is complete, inside and out and it is peopled by friends, family and animals.
I continue to move my objects around — old things like my Grandfather’s Lalique vase, and new things, like my cell phone. With each arrangement, another artist’s work seems to appear: Wayne Thibaud, Morandi, Matisse. I feel like a writer who cannot construct a sentence without recognizing which Hemmingway story it is stolen from.
My own objects are not enough. My friends lend me theirs: 19th Century English Mulberry Brushstroke china, a Belgian crystal ball, and an open-cut lace tablecloth. With each arrangement, I photograph the still life to paint from later. At first I take dozens of photos. then hundreds. Some things remain, the tablecloth, the Lalique, the old China. Others are eliminated, the cell phone. I compose like a veteran editor at the New Yorker. Taking the great raw material of superior artists, I cut and paste until I am left with either the echoes or the essence of the originals. Some of my borrowings are obvious — Vermeer makes an unabashed appearance in the form of a reproduction in a book.
Leslie Parke, “The Weight of Pearls”. oil on canvas, 35 inches x 70 inches
Boldini left me with some evidence of his life. What evidence am I offering? I suppress the query and move on. Two themes emerge, despite me. The tablecloth, which seems never to be eliminated from the still lifes, is taking on a personality of its own. Its arabesques of open-cut lace move across the surface of my paintings like a well-charted landscape. As the light changes from bold to muted and passes through the increasing quantities of translucent objects, it is as though weather is passing over the lace landscape. A cool winter glaze covers the surface when it is coupled with a shimmering crystal sugar bowl in the blue light of the early morning.
Leslie Parke, “Sugar Bowl”, oil on linen
“Still Life with Onions”
My birthday comes and with it a bit of colored translucent wrapping paper that shifts appearance like a chameleon when you crinkle it and let light pass through it. I can’t even remember what came in this magical paper, the wrapping itself seemed such a gift. I put the paper around bouquets and water-filled vases. As the light splinters over the surface, the solid objects in its grasp dissolve, melted in its refracted light. Here is the final theme; The light, the transparence and the disappearance. It is here that I emerge, a thing that is no thing, a reflection, a transparency, an object that light passes through.