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.
Leonardo, dissatisfied with the clumsy technique of fresco painting, where the artist is limited by what can be painted in a single day on newly applied plaster, created a new technique for this mural. In so doing he was also able to apply greater detail and achieve higher luminosity. 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. And 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 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.
“Flying Saucers”, 48 inches x 58 inches, oil on canvas, © Leslie Parke 2012 Courtesy of Gremillion and Company, Fine Arts, Inc.
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.
“Light on Battenkill”, 69 inches x 48 inches, Oil on Canvas, © Leslie Parke 2009, Private Collection, Houston, Texas
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.
“Almond Tree, Biot”, 60 inches x 70 inches, oil on canvas, 2008 ©Leslie Parke 2008, Private Collection, Houston
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.
“Tree in Twilight”, 67 inches x 96 inches, oil, enamel, metallic paint on canvas, © Leslie Parke 2015
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.
“Plated LIght”, 72 inches x 30 inches, oil and metallic paint on canvas, ©Leslie Parke 2017
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.
“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.
“Tree Tracings”, 22.5 inches x 24 inches, photograph, archival inkjet print.
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.
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Travel is an important part of my painting life, but not always in the ways expected. What connects meeting Robert Smithson in New Mexico two weeks before he died, Tony Caro in his London studio and Henry Moore at Perry Green, or having keys to Monet’s gardens, or painting on an archipelago in Sweden? For me, it is meeting artists in the environment in which they work, getting a sense of their connection to the place, its history, the other artists who surround them, and connecting all that to who I am as an artist, both in the moment and as these experiences work on me over time.
My Path to Monet and Giverny
There were ten years between when I picked up a book of black and white photos of Monet’s gardens in a bookstore in London and when I spent five months as an artist in residence at his gardens in Giverny. When I found the book, the gardens hadn’t even been restored yet, nor were they open to the public. But that book drove me to see Monet’s Waterlilies at the L’Orangerie in Paris, where they are mounted on curved walls in two oval galleries.
It is hard to imagine now, but until the 1970s the late work of Monet, which consisted almost entirely of the waterlilies, were not generally appreciated. It wasn’t until a bright light was shown on the work of the Abstract Expressionists: Pollock, deKooning, Kline and Rothko, that these paintings by Monet gained new significance. Monet’s broad and expressive brush-work, which seemed to carry more feeling than content, was seen as prescient of the work of the Abstract Expressionists. It was suddenly relevant again.
Experiencing Monet’s gardens as he had.
Spending five months with unfettered access to his gardens and surroundings allowed me to see for myself what, exactly, Monet was extracting from his gardens and what he was making up. As it turns out, he was making up precious little. To experience the garden in real time, made it possible for me to see what he was up against — what the weather conditions were; how the light changed day to day and hour to hour. It was a great privilege to have this time to understand more intimately what he painted and the challenges he faced. What surprised me, is how precise the information is in his paintings, even with the ones most loosely painted.
Being in Giverny completely changed my own work.
Before Giverny, I was making paintings based on images from Giotto, Ingres and Matisse. After Giverny, I started to paint representationally and, not surprisingly, I searched for ways to imbue my work with light. What may be less obvious about the effects of that experience on me, is that it took me more than ten years to reconcile my abstract/conceptual longings with painting representationally.
Leslie Parke, “October Light”, oil on canvas.
My point is that through sharing Monet’s space over a long period of time, I not only gained insight into Monet, but I was moved and influenced in ways I never anticipated.
The studio is practically empty. I sent eight large paintings to my dealer in Houston. The rest of the work is out to summer shows in museums and regional galleries. The walls are very white and very empty.
The work I sent to Houston is mid-project. I know that there are more pieces in that series, but for the moment I have turned my attention to a large canvas where I am working out the latest manifestation of The Print Project. I spent over a year developing several permutations of a four color lithograph inspired by a painting called “Almond Tree – Biot”. Michael Williams helped me further deconstruct the image into a digital format. With him I was able to separate colors and change them in ways that were antithetical to the original image of a tree in bloom. As we printed out a large print, about 2 1/2 feet by 3 feet, it became obvious to both of us that the print wanted to be larger, much larger. So, that is exactly what I did, I started translating this print back into paint on a large canvas.
I want these paintings to act like Monet’s Rouen Cathedrals, but with a twist. I want the color and the scale of the painting to create an atmosphere — a sensation, something you almost feel before you see. Yet, I want to do this with colors that are not exactly taken from nature. I have sliced and diced the color until it has a certain feeling and a certain light. But the color is not true to what would be the local color in nature. In my first version there are flowers that would be white in nature, that are black in the painting. And yet, over all, you still have the sense that the image is from nature.
Working on the first of these paintings, I have run into endless problems with the alignment of the colors. I will paint a color in one day and out the next. I have kept my brush strokes bold and gestural, but at the same time I am working with very small brushes — so the strokes are as small as they might be on an Impressionist painting. At each stage, I feel as though I have ruined it. Is my brush stroke right? Is it too messy. Will I be able to convey what I hope to? One moment I am certain that it will all work out, the next minute I am wondering who I can hire who can really paint this.
I won’t know if this is any good until I am done, and perhaps not even then. My vision requires that I do several versions of this before I decide if it works or not. So, at mid-year I feel in mid-air, falling, falling, falling.
What happens when Roy Lichtenstein translates mass media printing techniques, notably the Benday dot, into paintings and then back into print? What has happened that the final result does not land back into the banal?
Another story of the path from print into painting and back into print might help explain that.
Much of Monet’s work was influenced by Japanese prints. The prints offer a view of everyday life, emulated by the Impressionists, but they also captured an instant.
So, not only would a Hokusai print depict a flower, but a flower in a particular wind and weather. Note the wings of a the butterfly.
When asked about the origin of Monet’s series of paintings “Grainstacks”, he said that he was working in the field and noticed the light changing. He asked his step-daughter, Blanche, who frequently assisted him, to bring him another canvas, and another and another. He changed the canvases every few minutes to accommodate the changing light.
I think that it is far more likely that Monet’s inspiration for the series came from Hokusai’s “36 Views of Mt. Fuji”. Monet collected Japanese prints and owned several biographies of Hokusai.
Hokusai, “Mount Fuji”
In Hokusai’s “36 Views of Mount Fuji”, he captured the iconic mountain under numerous conditions. Monet did the same with his “series paintings”, but perhaps most famously with his Rouen Cathedral paintings. Here, the monolith is transformed by light.
Monet, “Rouen Cathedral”
In 1968 Roy Lichtenstein used photos of Monet’s cathedrals for a series of paintings and lithographs, using not the Impressionist dash or even the pointillist’s dot, but the banal Benday dot.
Lichtenstein not only reinterprets Monet’s series, but gives a nod to the original print source of Hokusai.
Prints by Hokusai in Monet’s collection:
Roy Lichtenstein: http://vimeo.com/29233321
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