September 7, 2009

At a Point in Time, Change

Some artists have a very consistent body of work throughout their careers, such as Giorgio Morandi, who conjured up a rich and varied world using the same few objects in his studio. Some changed their work gradually: Constable went from painting a realistic landscape to an expressive one. There are a few whose work underwent quite dramatic change over a short period of time, such as Philip Guston who turned away from abstraction towards a narrative representation, combining a cartoon style with the luscious brushwork of his abstract paintings. I remember the shock of seeing this new body of work, and how long it took for viewers to accept it. I can imagine him just being tired of making those beautiful paintings, and wanting to shake things up.

During the late winter of 2002 I bought my first digital camera, and that purchase changed my vision. My little point and shoot camera, which I had used to take slides of outdoor motifs for a color reference, dropped dead. I decided to go digital, and in order to learn to use the camera before the weather warmed I started shooting some still life around the house. The image above is one that I made at that time. I had always used a camera to record details needed for studio painting, but now I was photographing things up close, creating compositions using strong simple shapes, and I loved it. Though a realist, I had a long term love affair with abstraction, expecially minimalism, and this brought me closer to it. So when I went out to farms that spring, I now photographed the implements I found this way:

Instead of seeing like this, which was painted in 2002, but before that summer:

For years I'd been involved with the idea of the disjunction in landscape: its beauty contrasted with the messy work of using it. The ambivalences brought to mind by farming––the need for food, the degradation of land and water, the nobility of the farmer––were the content of this body of work. But now I was tired of having it front and center . When I looked at my new photos on the wall alongside the landscape paintings, I was stunned by their energy and power. This was the direction I would take my work. It was a very conscious decision for me, one that I haven't second guessed.

This painting, Red Plate, 11 x 15 inches, was done in 2002 from a study done that first summer of change. I liked the repetition of the curves and the way the light played on the forms, especially that of the striped hose. Agriculture, in its positive and negative aspects, is still the subtext of my paintings; all my subject matter is agricultural machinery. I would find it uninteresting to paint, say, carnival rides, even with their marvelous colors and shapes. The meaning of agricultural implements still underlies all that I do in the studio.


  1. I wonder why the eye is pleased by a certain distance and not by another -- looking at a delicious curve, you can still tell --often, barely-- what the objects are in your paintings.
    If I couldnt identify a hose or a gear, then I wouldnt see the subtext of ag machinery -- how would this change my viewing?

  2. Stuart, a great question. I think some viewers have no idea what they're looking at, object-wise. The subtext is important for me, but I don't think it's necessary for the viewer's appreciation of the work (perhaps I'm wrong). It'll be interesting to see what happens with this if the paintings become more abstract in future.

  3. Hi Altoon, Good post with very thougtful ideas.

    I think Morandi may be more like you than not - I believe he had a substantial earlier period where he worked in a more surreal vein before turning to his more famous pot and bottle still life work.