My painitngs are about light. When I paint representationally and I am about the business of rendering light, I often choose a subject that is back lit. It seems to offer the most extensive and complex qualities of light — light on a surface, passing through a surface, reflecting off of a surface, often highlighting transparency, translucency, reflection, or glitter. The most complete expression of this can be seen in my china paintings, although it occurs in most of my work.
But how do you get these qualities when you work abstractly? It’s not something I figured out all at once. It started when I was trying to paint the light that glitters off the surface of water. I used white paint, but it felt dull and did not leap off the surface of the canvas. Then I scapped the silver off of a CD and applied that, and that didn’t work either. As I drove home one rainy night I noticed how the stripe on the road reflected the light off my headlights and I thought — that’s what I need. I called the highway department and asked them if I could buy some reflective road paint. It’s not the paint that is reflective, he told me, its the beads of glass that we put in it, and with that he gave me the address of their supplier.
Later I came upon diamond dust, which is even better than highway glass for reflecting light, but I was unable to find a supplier. I used the highway glass to good effect in the river painting.
Then I was working on a series of almond tree paintings, which at first I rendered quite realistically. But after taking a workshop with Vincent di Siderio, a well-known representational painter, who mentioned that he often started a painting by throwing tar on it or rustoleum, I thought, why not approoach this work that way. Apply the paint differently and why not use mettalic paint, after all, Jackson Pollock did.
When I finished “Tree in Twilight” and hung it on my west facing wall, I observed how the light reflected off the surface of the painting and changed every time you moved. It also took on different qualities of light at different times of the day. Immeditately I saw that instead of showing the light of the moment, it was creating a different light each moment. With Monet’ s paintings of the Epte River, he shows you how the light changes moment to moment. With “Tree in Twilight”, the painting itself changes each moment.
From there the work became more and more abstract, but the quality of light and sensation of light remained the subject. Whether I paint representationally or abstractly, I still want the painting to have light emanating from the surface.
I’ve been having conversations with Giotto di Bondone [c. 1267 – 1337, born in Florence, Italy] since I was twelve years old and my class studied the Rennaissance. The conversation became obsessive when in 1987 I created a cycle of paintings recreating the paintings of the Arena Chaple on seven shaped canvases, the largest of which is 18 by 24 feet. [You can see them here.]
“The Last Wall”, oil on shaped canvas, 18 feet x 24 feet, 1987
There are three stories about Giotto. One that as a child he was drawing a sheep on a rock and Cimabue saw this and was impressed and invited him to become his apprentice. Another is that one day while Cimabue was out Giotto painted a fly on Cimabue’s self portrait that was so realistic Cimabue tried to whisk it away several times. Many years later, the fly becasme a symbol of the artist and was inserted frequently into Dutch still life paintings.
But it is the third story that has occupied me recently.
Vasari [the chonicler of “Lives of the Artists”] relates that when the Pope sent a messenger to Giotto, asking him to send a drawing to demonstrate his skill, Giotto drew a red circle so perfect that it seemed as though it was drawn using a pair of compasses and instructed the messenger to send it to the Pope. The messenger departed ill pleased, believing that he had been made a fool of. The messenger brought other artists’ drawings back to the Pope in addition to Giotto’s. When the messenger related how he had made the circle without moving his arm and without the aid of compasses the Pope and his courtiers were amazed at how Giotto’s skill greatly surpassed all of his contemporaries. [Wikiwand]
This winter when I started to paint circles, of course I thought of Giotto, but never more so than when I began to draw them on a large canvas.
To do this I sort of dropped into a meditative state. If I thought too much about what I was doing my mind would interfere with my hand.
“Almond Tree – Tree in Twilight”, oil, metallic and enamel paint on canvas.
I was raised to think that art history evolved linearly – a straight line from Giotto to Pollock. I was not prepared for the halting, meandering movement of a career in art, where you race forward with one idea, retrack steps, add something new, abandon a direction and end up end up in the middle of a hi-way clover wondering which way to go. Nor was I prepared for all the things that would influence my work — art history, a random photo, a hand injury, the availability of materials. This is why I find it so unnerving to write grants — “describe your project”. My project is to get from where I am to where I am going without crashing. My destination is uncertain, the GPS is broken, I don’t have a map, but I do know that moss grows on the north side of a tree.
With my Almond Tree series, I decided to go deep. Explore the imagery every way I could, and see where that took me. The latest incarnation besides kicking the sacred cow of a Pollock drip, also involved using metallic paint. For most of my career I have used high quality artist fine oil paints, but after attending a workshop with Vincent di Siderio, where he told us that he started a painting with roofing tar and Rustoleum, I thought, why not? The importance of how paint “feels” cannot be overstated. Silver Rustoleum is a lyrical medium with a mecurial affect. With it I was able to add a layer to my Monet inspired landscape, where I was not only depicting the light, I was creating it. In these paintings the surface changes with the light. You never see the same painting. When you move, it changes. When the light changes, it changes. The surface was set in motion.
Funny thing about motion. I started taking photographs of the landscape while I was moving.
When I decided to paint the same thing, More adventures with paint suggested themselves.
“Tracings”, oil on canvas
“Drive By – Night” 68 inches x 42 inches, oil, metallic and enamel paint on canvas.
While driving around and capturing these images first as photos and then as paintings, I also observed what rain looked like as my headlights beamed off of the drops.
“Small Rain”, 40 inches x 72 inches, oil and metallic paint on canvas.
“Small Rain”, side view showing the reflective quality of the paint.
“Ebb Tide”, 70 inches x 70 inches, oil and metallic paint on canvas.
In the end the paint was able to create qualities that I observed in nature. Each effort suggested a new way of working with the paint, subjects that were at times representational and at others abstract. Trying to write about this in a grant is frustrating. All I can say is that I am skidding on black ice in a vehicle hoping not to crash.
“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 .
A couple of weeks ago I dreamed that I had sex with Frank Stella under a boardwalk on Fire Island. We were both young. When I was the age I was in the dream I did this painting — clearly the “love” child of our astral meeting:
Leslie Parke, “Primary One”, oil on canvas.
Last night I dreamed that Anish Kapoor was courting me. It was all quite elaborate. I can’t wait to see how this will show up in my work. Harold Bloom would call this the “anxiety of influence”, I call it “having sex with artists.”
Little do I remember of the astronomy lecture I attended twenty some years ago on a warm summer night in an observatory on what may be the last densely wooded tract of land in Cambridge. What I do remember is that the lecture put me in a kind of swoon. For the first time in my life, science and poetry became one. Somehow a talk on chaos theory and its relation to the order of the universe – randomness as the predictable and necessary precursor to design – had the heft and elegance and perspicacity of a poem you want to memorize or a painting you don’t want to leave.
Leslie Parke, “Road Work”, 56 inches x 43.5 inches, oil on canvas, 2014. Photo Credit: Jon Barber
Leslie Parke’s paintings live at the same intersection where patterns court chaos, abstraction approaches the figurative and stasis hovers on the cusp of implosion. Her paintings are charged by contradictions: impersonal grids softened by sunlight; watery washes with metallic spikes; a cathedral of squiggles above a perfectly triangular black hole; the aurora borealis in a zip lock bag.
Leslie Parke, “Silo”, 46 inches x 96 inches, oil on canvas, 2014.
But even contradictions are connected by themes, and what’s most striking across these disparate, spirited works is their relentless energy. This is a painter who thrashes in her sleep. And it is not merely high-powered kinesis that comes through so much as the integration of movement, color and form. It is no coincidence that the lines of “Silo” shift from vertical on the left half of the diptych to horizontal on the right; those same lines correspond with the play of light – muted to the left, increasingly luminous as the eye moves right. For all that it initially appears purely cerebral – the meticulous study of an industrial grid – the painting as a whole achieves the thrilling solace of a sunrise.
As with many artists at their performance peaks, Parke’s recent paintings seem deceptively effortless. They’re not. Go back to them; they have a lot to say.
Christopher Millis’ criticism has appeared extensively in such publications as Art News, Artspeak, The Black American and The Boston Phoenix as well as on National Public Radio. He is the former editor of artsMEDIA Magazine in Boston.
Christopher Millis‘s writing has been published, produced and broadcast widely in the United States and Europe for the last twenty years. He has authored three books of poetry: The Handsome Shackles (2002,) Impossible Mirrors (1994,) and The Diary of the Delphic Oracle (1991,) and his poems have been featured in numerous magazines and anthologies. In 1994, his translations of the Triestine poet Umberto Saba appeared as The Dark of the Sun (University Press of America,) and the first of his acclaimed translations of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, “Requiem for Mohammed Al-Dura,” was published in The London Review of Books in 2000. His translation of Darwish’s “I Remember al-Sayyab” appeared in 2004 in The London Review of Books, The Daily Star, and The International Herald Tribune.
In 1979, Millis was commissioned by the Theater of the Open Eye in New York to write the libretto for Jean Erdman‘s dance opera The Shining House, a collaboration with Michael Czajkowski, Paul Jenkins and Ralph Lee. The Shining House established itself as part of the repertoire of Jean Erdman and Joseph Campbell’s Theater of The Open Eye with productions until 1984. The following year, Poems for the End of the World (1985,) choreographed by June Anderson, appeared at the Merce Cunningham Dance Studio. Millis collaborated with Anderson and David Leisner on The Magnetic Properties of Moonlight at New York ‘s Dance Theater Workshop in 1986.