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I was held in the airlock for several minutes before being released into the hall with Leonardo’s “Last Supper”. The room was large, but not vastly so, with light coming in from windows on one side. To be honest, I don’t think I am a good witness to the qualities of the room, because almost immediately what I saw was melded with what I knew about it from my reading.
The doorway, enlarged by the Dominican Friars in 1652, cut off the feet of Christ. Later, Napoleon road his horse through that door, into what was once the Friar’s dining hall, but which Napoleon had converted into an armory and stable. Is that why I remember the floor being dirt? I’m sure it’s not. But in my imagination, that floor is dark brown densely packed dirt.
He covered the wall with two layers of dried plaster and added a coat of white lead to enhance the brightness of the oil and tempera that he applied to that surface. This “experiment” resulted in more brilliant colors and allowed for a level of detail not possible in fresco painting. However, moisture seeping through from the thin wall almost immediately corroded the surface.
That was the least of the assaults that the painting would suffer over the years. Napoleon’s soldiers used the mural for target practice, and in World War II the Allies dropped bombs that took down most of the building. Sandbags and mattresses that were piled up against the wall at the beginning of the war saved the mural. Even after the bombing, the painting remained under the bags for months, with just a tarp protecting it from rain.
I moved close to the fresco and examined what was left after the most recent restoration. Twenty years in the making and much controversy led to its current state. Despite the removal of large swaths of paint, there was a clarity to some of the colors that was reassuring. Details were revealed – a delicately painted glass, a piece of fish or was it an eel? A rhythm danced over the surface of the painting, running along the heads of the Apostles.
The hands told a different story. Christ’s hand reaching toward Judas’ foretold the betrayal. The knife in Peter’s hand was a reminder that he would cut off the ear of a Roman standing in the way of Christ. Thomas’s finger, held in the air, presaged his doubt.
And what do we make of John – – hands entwined and thrust toward Christ. Or is it John? Perhaps it is Mary Magdalene, as has been suggested. I thought that John’s head was based on a drawing that Leonardo had made of Leda, but that drawing came later. The pose is exact: the tilt of the head, the position of the mouth, the downcast eyes. You can practically impose one upon the other. This, I am sure is no accident, a part of the artist’s personal vocabulary, its meaning remaining personal to him.
I stand toward the back of the room. The perspective lines converge at Christ’s head. It was a Renaissance construct that the lines of perspective converged in infinity at the Divine. Even if I didn’t know this, I feel it here.
When I look up at the painting, I don’t see the painting so much as I see the air between the painting and myself. It is as though the dust motes swirling in the sunlit air are imbued with pigment and tiny bits of plaster chipping off the surface.
Suddenly, it is as though the entire painting is just suspended bits of pigment floating through the room, and I too, am splintering into tiny pixels of paint. I am no longer looking at the painting; I am part of this animated space of color and light, where everything exists at once in this constellation – Leonardo painting, Napoleon riding his horse, the bombs dropping, the tourists milling about, and me. And it seems like a divine state, one I’ve been hoping to reach my entire life, but I never knew that this was what I was waiting for, because I could not imagine such a state, one where I could not cohere, but never needed to.
Monet described this phenomenon. He called it “the envelope.” It is what he said he was painting. The envelope was the atmosphere between himself and the object he was gazing at. But maybe he meant something else by that. Maybe he too, was experiencing the divine pixilation of himself becoming what he painted.
There is a feeling that occurs when you are drawing or painting, when you wonder if you are making the painting or the painting is making you. As you drag your brush over the surface of the canvas, is there someone on the other side touching their brush to your brush and painting you into their painting?
I couldn’t stay long with Leonardo, just twenty minutes before being ushered out as the next group in the airlock was let into the space. The sun shown brightly outside, made even brighter by the darkness of the room behind. I walked out of that room, but parts of me stayed and live there still.
From the start, I knew that I wanted to make paintings from the broken television “grid” photographs, but they posed a lot of technical difficulties. To begin with, I paint in oils. Making a clean stripe in oil is more difficult that with acrylic paint. With acrylics you can mask out your stripes with tape and then seal it with a clear acrylic layer, then add your color and it won’t bleed. That pretty much insures that you will have a sharp edge.
It was the atmospheric look of the background that most held my interest in the photographs. How to achieve that? I thought a spay gun might work, but having once tried to spray paint chair in my living room, I know that the paint, suspended on air goes everywhere. In very short order I could destroy all the work in my studio, as well as, stacks of paper, rolls of canvas and other materials. I would need a spray booth.
A person in my building, Keith Davitt from Thirsty Cat Fountains, suggested a spray painter that achieved its effect through vibration. He used it to glaze his fountains. It was much less likely to permeate the air in the studio. I still haven’t settled on a solution, but I am leaning toward an airbrush, like a spray gun, but much more refined and allegedly easier to control.
I wasn’t going to let a need for new equipment stop me. I thought of other ways I might achieve a similar effect.
Rothko mixed pigment with rabbit skin glue in an effort to achieve both depth and luminence. (The glue is what artist’s used to size their canvases. First layer was usually the glue by itself, followed by pigmented glue called gesso.) Agnes Martin worked with very thin acylic paint.
I thought of all the ways I might get the atmospheric background. Spray painting was one way, glazing (using thin layers of transparent pigments suspended in medium), coloring rabbit skin glue, all seemed possible. But as I was set up to do some pouring in my studio I thought I would try that first.
Once I poured in the background I started adding large areas of color.
I knew that I don’t really have the personality to make absolutely perfect stripes. With oil paint I was anticipating that some of the color would seep under the tape. Like Barnett Newman, I was going to live with it. You wouldn’t think choosing the right tape to make your stripes would be that great of an issue, but it turned out to be. There is the issue of the stickiness of the tape. Will it pull off the painted surface below it? Will it block out the layers of paint over it? Will it stick to the canvas and not pull off at all? And then there was the issue of the width of the tape. You can usually find half inch tape at the harware store, but any smaller than that you need to scour the internet. The main issue for me was to get the tape to stick.
While I fololowed the photograph in a general way, I was not entirely sticking to the color scheme. I wanted a little more vibrant color in the final piece.
What followed next was not what I expected. I would lay in the colors and then see that this passage was working, but that one wasn’t. I felt as though it was like playing music. Passages would work, but then how did it work with the whole piece. And other parts were just plain wrong, but why? The painting was tutoring me in what it needed. Here is what it needed: the “ground” needed to be organic, the poured surface relating the the quality of the atmosphere in the original photograph, as well as, being a signifier that this was made by hand and not machine. Colors next to each other had to work together, but there were also passages across the surface of the whole painting that needed to work together. Unlike the “flat surface” that painting has been emulating since the begining of the last century, this painting sat not on the surface of the canvas, but in space. For the whole painting to work, certain stripes cleved to an imaginary plane, while other moved in and out of that plane.
Here are some of the versions it went through. I hadn’t expected the process to be so specific. That is, only certain colors of certain values and certain instensities worked in certain places. Change one, you had to change many of the other ones until it all worked together again. Here is the final version:
You may notice that the original photograph also had horizontal stripes. This canvas was not the right proportion to add those stripes, but there was also the consideration that if I attempted to add them and failed I would have ruined weeks of work. I am now in search of a way to also incorporate those stripes.
Inspiration in my work often comes from the most mundane things. Before visiting my brother in Maryland, I received a text from him with this picture:
My brother moved this television from Florida to his new home and it was damaged on the way. He could still turn it on and off, but all he got were pixilated lines and roving colors across the screen. I told him not to throw it out until I saw it.
For three nights I photographed this screen using my Sony Mirrorless R7 camera, my iphone and my brother’s Canon. I didn’t have a tripod with me, so my brother lent me his ancient one — the sort where you let eveything flop into place and then you don’t touch it for fear that it will fall over.
The screen was, in deed, crushed. You can see the damage in the upper part of the TV. Since the television was flashing and lines of color were moving across the screen, I wasn’t sure quite what I would capture in a photograph. I expected halos of light, blurry areas due to unstable tripod and shooting free hand. In fact, I wasn’t sure I would get anything.
I took hundreds of photos. Eight hundred, in fact. Each night I would go through them to see what might work and then used that as a guide as to what to photograph the next night.
As I looked at the photographs their connection to mid-Century Modernist painters of lines and grids was obvious. But as I have written elsewhere, each artist used the stripe differently. The subject, application, meaning and outcome were different in each case. You have Noland’s horizontal formalist stripes, Riley’s black and white op-art stripes, Barnett Newman’s “zips”, Gene Davis, Frank Stella, and Ellsworth Kelly, But I sensed something different in these photographs of the television screen, here the grid seems like a cross between Agnes Martin and Rothko. The modulated light in the background appears to be like atmosphere or weather. It was moody and the stripes punctuate that mood. The photos felt spiritual to me, as though we could walk thorugh them into another world. I think that that feeling came, in part, because the light eminated from the television.
When deciding which photographs to print, I always consider how the ink works. To me, the printer is another painting tool. There are things it can do well, such as creating a super dense black, and other things that do not work well in this medium. For example, today, while printing with Michael Williams, artist, former assistant to Ken Noland and my printer, I wanted to do a print that was predonimantly dark values on one side and white on the other. Printers don’t actually print white, White is created by the absense of ink — as in watercolors, white is the paper showing through. With so much white in this photo, it would just look like there was nothing there.
What felt like a thing is the original photograph, is nothing in the printed version. But other things, like an infinitely modulated gray background with precisely rendered colored lines looks great.
Several years ago The Crandall Library in Glens Falls, New York had an exhibition called. “Battenkill Inspired”. This year Hannah deGarmo started filming the people in that exhibition. All of us live on or near the river. I traverse it every day on my way to work. Finding how to convey both the look and feeling of this river has preoccupied me for years.
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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.