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.
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.
Several years ago I decided that I wanted to do a set of lithographs based on a painting I did of an almond tree. Having never made a lithograph before I thought I’d share the process with you and get your input along the way.
I made 4-plate lithograph, that I printed in different colors to represent different times of the day.
Then I took the separations and scanned them and made a digital version of the lithograph. With 4-scans, I was able to make each scan a different color. Being the art history nerd that I am I used this as an opportunity to explore the palettes used in some of my favorite paintings by some of my favorite artists — Van Gogh, Gerhard Richter and William Nicholson.
My image coming out of the printer.
The digital print being turned back into a painting.
I then used the digital rendering to inspire new paintings on canvas. In this process, it became clear that I didn’t just want to change the palette, I wanted to change everything about how I applied the paiint. I poured paint, and dripped it, I flung it and scaped it. I used brushes, and squeegees, and rags, and paint sticks, palette knives and my fingers. I used oil paint, enamel paint, metallic paint and highway glass.
What remained was as abstract image that was based in nature and had a certain quality of light.
And even then, I was not quite finished, I also went back to some of the lithographs and painted on them to further enhance the image.
This project started in 2008 and it isn’t quite finished. When people ask me how long it takes me to do a painting, I assume they are asking how long it takes to apply the paint — not how long it takes to conceive an idea, nurture it, modify it, deconstruct it and reinvent it.
This process is essential to me. It is not repeating an image, it is studying, investigating, and dissecting an image. And until I have discovered everything I can, I keep working on it.
But now something new is bubbling up. And again it is something I don’t quite know how to go about. So, I thought this would be a good time to share my journey with you. I have a vague idea where I want to go with the new work, but no idea how I am going to get there. If you have any ideas, feel free to chime in. The new project is called The Grid Project and I’ll explain it to you in my next post.
One day I was moving paintings in the “gallery space” of my studio and I heard the words, “French Revolution”. We had just been through a long spate of Trump tantrums and I believe it was that, as much as anything, that brought the French Revolution to mind. I love French history, and while I haven’t studied the Revolution in many years, I spent the afternoon in a revery of free association. I was working on some large paintings that are mostly abstract, but with a representational association. And I was using a lot of metallic paint. I decided that I wanted to paint one of those wide, diaphanous skirts worn by Marie-Antoinette. I found such a skirt misidentified as hers on Google.
The skirt was actually the wedding dress of Hedwig Elisabeth Charlotte of Holstein Gottorp. Mari-Antoinette’s wedding dress said to be made of a cloth of silver and covered with diamonds has not survived. It had all the qualities I was looking for — diaphanous, enormous, like a curatain on a stage, with layers and layers of labor-intensive lace.
As I started to paint this I thought of the French court and how a century before the Revolution Louis XIV declared, “L’état c’est moi!”. “The State is Me!” He brought all the nobels to court, where he could keep his eye on them, and then he sent his minions to the provences where they could corral the land profits for the State. This structure was unsustainable, as more and more of the wealth was concentrated at the top. While the Queen play-acted at being a simple shepherdess at her faux farm, her people were starving. Parallels mount as you look at our current situation.
I did not so much paint this picture as I attacked it. I flung paint at it and rubbed my hands in it. In the end came a shocking moment of beauty, like. the sparkling glass of a broken vase. Should I have called the piece, “Vanitas”?
Nine years ago I spent seven weeks as an artist-in-residence at AIR Vallauris, which is walking distance to the Mediterranean. One of the advantages of returning to a residency is that you already know where everything is; where to buy food, get your laundry done, and buy materials. You can hit the ground running.
When I first arrived in Vallauris I started photographing immediately. I knew that my eyes are freshest when I first land in a place and even after a day or two I can become visually immune to the environment.
I was looking for something very specific. I wanted my subjects to appear abstract, and I wanted them to have layered and visually ambiguous space.
That is not how things started for me in Vallauris. The first thing that caught my eye were the utility boxes that are inserted into the side of a building.
I went from that to the basketball court, to the crumbling walls between buildings. Most of these photographs I won’t print. They are an exploration of the place, but don’t meet the criteria I am seeking in my work.
In the eight years since I had last visited Vallauris much had changed. Vallauris was known as a ceramic center in France bolstered by the years that Picasso spent there working at Madoura. It still has a great ceramic museum and Picasso’s Chapel, but many of the great ceramicists, such as Collet and Derval, have passed away, and most of the ceramic studios that popped up around town have closed. Now many of the stores that carried their work are also closed. And this, finally, is where I found my subject.
It didn’t coalesce right away. I took dozens of photographs of empty store windows until I found just the quality I was looking for.
Leslie Parke, “Golf Juan I”, photograph, archival inkjet print on archival paper.