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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.
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 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.
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.
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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A quarter of all of Gustav Klimt’s paintings were landscapes. When I finally saw them all at an exhibition at the Sterling Clark Museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts, what struck me most was their flatness — even Bonnard’s landscapes recedes more into space. Klimt did not paint panoramas, but rather simple motifs: gardens, meadows with fruit trees, farmhouses surrounded by lush vegetation, and details of the lake and its shoreline. Perhaps it is not surprising that the landscapes appeared flat, considering the decorative nature of his other paintings, but it soon became apparent that something else was at work here. Klimt used a variety of viewfinders; initially, a simple piece of cardboard with a hole cut out of it, and later an ivory plate or an opera glass. [austria.info/uk/art-culture]
He also used a telescope. He would stand on one side of the lake and look through it to the opposite shore. The telescope made the landscape appear flat. Klimt used the pointillist’s mark to create his landscapes. However, he did not use it in the same way as the pointillists did, to optically mix colors. His landscapes were organized into blocks of colors and shapes.
When you examine one of Klimt’s landscapes close up, a couple of things become apparent. First, he leaves a fair amount of the canvas showing through. And, he frequently outlines things, like the edge of flowers or leaves. I have seen Joseph Raffael do a similar thing in his watercolors. It seems that, especially with watercolors, if you let the edge of, say a leaf, just be the place where the color ends, your whole sense of the leaf as an object disappears, something seems quite off about it. Reinforcing the edge with a line helps it hold its space. This was most obvious in Klimt’s paintings of flowers.
Here is a short video of Joseph Raffael fine tuning one of his watercolors.
For months, I have been sharing the process I am going through to create a four color lithograph. One of my main concerns has been how to translate and reinterpret the color in my paintings into print. As each color is applied separately, you have to think about the construction of the color in a different way from painting.
The people following my process have had their own epiphanies about color and the artistic process. This description from Sean Donovan is particularly interesting:
Several years ago I was commissioned to make a large cabinet to hide a big screen TV. After I had built what they asked for, I let the decorator, Kathleen Brenner, know that I was ready for whatever paint thy had decided on. They sent me some paint from a paint company called the Donald Kaufman Paint Co. The merit of this paint which was extremely expensive, was that it was mixed with pure pigment and no fillers. The paint was labeled DK-3, Yellow.
In 1973 I spent a winter as Brower Hatcher’s sculpture assistant, when he was teaching at Bennington College. Today, 27 years later Brower dropped by to catch up. It seems that our ideas are more in alignment now than they were then, even though we haven’t seen each other in the intervening years. It is not that our artistic ideas are so aligned, although one could find some interesting parallels in our interest in light and the desire to envelop the viewer with our artwork, but our ideas about community and how to be an artist in the world are.
We both came out of the tradition of object based art with the artist as the maestro — remember Picasso was still alive in 1973. The way to your public was through the dealers, and in those days they served as gatekeepers determining who was in and who was out. There were two prevailing views of what art was — what Clement Greenberg said it was and everything else. Bennington was ground zero for Greenberg’s view. Both Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock had significant exhibitions at Bennington. Although I think Tony Smith organized the exhibitions, Greenberg was somehow at the center of all that.
When Brower came to Bennington, sculpture seemed to have a linear progression from David Smith to Tony Caro to Isaac Witkin. Caro and Witkin were connected through Saint Martin’s School of Art in London. Brower was recruited from St. Martins. But he arrived on campus as the anti-structuralist. His work at the time were fields of color made from wire. It was as though someone captured the skeins of lines from a Pollock painting and colored them with Jules Olitski‘s spray paint.
I came to work for Brower just when he was transitioning to pieces that remained open and expansive, but for which there were points of connection and the beginning of an internal structure. Looking back on the work now it was an obvious move. Being in the middle of the process the move was not remotely evident.
I spent my days bending metal fencing in the sub-zero weather of Vermont. Then I welded pieces together with a Mig welder, which instead of welding rods had an automatically fed wire that was charged at the tip. If I missed my mark, which was easy to do when aiming at the joint between two wires, the feed wire would shoot out about a foot and have to be cut off to start again. One time the lead wire shot up my welding gloves into an artery in my wrist. Blood spurt from my wrist about a foot into the air. If you could have seen this fountain of blood and some of Brower’s subsequent sculptures, you might see a correlation.
When I recently came across Brower’s work on the internet it was thrilling to see how the work had progressed. Following his own visual logic he was able to expand the field’s of color and turn them into complex structures that span huge areas of space. These huge webs of interconnectedness is the paradigm that we live in now. But it was not something that we envisioned at the time I worked with Brower. It was a very monolithic world back then. And that was reflected in everything, including how art made its way into the world.
Brower was not comfortable in that monolithic world and found that through public art projects he could bring his vision to the public directly — a way that was more inclusive of community. He is very interested in how art intersects with community both in the process of making it and in how the community interacts with it once it is made. His public pieces tend to become the center points of the communities in which they are built. Just as the Eiffel Tower or the Fountains in Rome become a symbolic center in their respective cities, so do Brower’s sculptures in his. It becomes a place of interaction, and the surrounding areas become vital commercial centers. A sense of place, an identity, and a corridor for interconnection is born.
You may wonder how this relates to me and my work. I am still pretty stuck in the object oriented art world. For me the shift is in my sense of community. I have believed for a long time that there is a fundamental shift in how the world operates. The old paradigm is the “dog eat dog world”, “survival of the fittest”, “what is mine is mine” . The new paradigm is all about connectedness, mutuality, sharing and enhancing one another’s lives. One does not win now by cornering the market, one wins by expanding the market to include like minded people.
So the next time Brower and I work together, it will be in the spirit of mutuality and I will not be the art slave out in the frozen tundra shooting welding rods into my arteries.
Artist biography: Brower Hatcher was born in Atlanta. He attended the Vanderbilt University School of Engineering and received his degree in Industrial Design from Pratt Institute in New York. He studied sculpture at Saint Martins College of Art in London with Sir Anthony Caro and William Tucker. He was on the faculty at Saint Martins for several years and returned to the United States and joined the faculty of Bennington College where he taught for 13 years. Hatcher left teaching in 1986 and has since has built more than 35 public art projects throughout the U.S. Hatcher is a recipient of three National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship and an honorary Ph.D. from the State University of New York. He works at the historic Steel Yard in Providence, R.I., as the artistic director of Mid-Ocean Studio, Inc.
Brower Hatcher’s artist statement: My goal, and that of Mid-Ocean Studio, is to create culturally relevant 21st century public art projects. Mid-Ocean is a collaborative group of artists, scientists, fabricators and technical personnel. Our work reflects an ongoing interest in the underlying geometry of organisms and living systems. Our works are typically powder-coated stainless steel ‘cellular matrixes’ built from computer-designed, multi-layered geometric frameworks. Our works often contain various combinations of relevant embedded objects, in this case glass and LED lights. Nature is a strong inspiration in Mid-Ocean’s work and we continually strive to find new ways to incorporate aspects of the natural environment into the work itself.