May 31, 2011

Regarding Subject Matter





Those of us who make art representing the things of this world must choose our subject matter. Why this and not that? and what does our decision mean? I've been painting agricultural landscape and implements for 25 years, which was a natural evolution from my early paintings of domestic architecture. To read more about my transition and thinking, and see some earlier work, see this blog post, "Contemporary Agriculture". In brief, all the issues around agriculture––ecological, social and historical––have been part of the content of my work for years. But as my work has gotten more abstract, more concerned with the elements of color and form and less with narrative, I sometimes wonder if I could expand the sources of my imagery from farm implements, as seen above, recently gathered from the field.






So when I was in Coney Island last week, I took some photos with the idea that they just might work as paintings for me. There is a relationship between these images because of their strong design and striking color––especially the second image which I find compelling in its weirdness––and my agricultural images. But you know what? I just don't have the emotional connection that I need in order to move ahead with them. Underlying the seeming abstraction of my farm implements is still the complex content I've thought about for years.




But there was an exception to this disconnect from the Coney Island subject matter and that was a series of photos I took of the base of the Parachute Jump, a ride I remember from my childhood with great fondness. I love the shapes and the primary colors of this piece of Brooklyn history; as opposed to the new rides, this one has meaning for me. I put together 3 of the images as a triptych, and even though the shapes are smaller in scale than usual in my work, I'm seriously considering a 3 panel work, each 8 x 8 inches (click on image for an enlargement). What do you think? And what about your own choice of subjects?

15 comments:

  1. Altoon, among these images I'm very partial to that first photo (of astro turf or car wash brushes?),though it would not be simple to paint in egg tempera, and I can agree we can only paint best what we feel connected enough to, and enthused about.

    My latest personal favs among your latest great hooked wool drawings are #19 and 21, for their playfulness and color - forgot to mention it when I commented earlier.)

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  2. thanks for the comment Mona. I don't know what those brushes are used for, but they were very large; there was no one around on the farm to ask, but being that they were on a farm I assume they have an agricultural use. I think it'll be much easier to paint that image in egg tempera than any other medium: quick strokes of overlapping color. I love the fast drying of tempera; it allows for painting something like that.

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  3. I'm just not fond of pretty fun color until it's weathered and rusted, abused, destroyed. smooth-skin un-nuanced forms aren't engaging either. but this has little to do with subject matter - which to me is different from form and texture and color, which is what I look at. so your proposed triptych looks intriguing, but not because of the subject. I like when I don't know what I'm looking at - like in the second farm photo.

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  4. I'm an intuitive painter so I don't really understand the angst over subject matter...but we all work so differently....whatever gets you going!

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  5. rappel, your comment points out one of the troubles for me with the amusement rides: that they have no wear, no history. I hadn't thought of it in terms of the smooth skin, but that might be part of it. But still I am unable to leave aside the issue of subject matter, and content, and just go purely on form. I am still attached to walking around a farm, talking to the farmers, as I did this morning, and photographing the workaday machinery.

    mermaid, yes, it's whatever gets us going, that's for sure.

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  6. Altoon--your opening photograph is wonderful--at first glance I thought "sea urchin" and then did a double take. Whatever direction you take--continuing to with abstracting the farm implements or pursuing the Coney Island imagery, I can't help but think that the latter will find its way in somehow. The odd juxtaposition of futuristic elements with the Hellenic columns and the quirky colors that you've captured in the triptych is rich with possibility (and I think, history.)

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  7. I'm with you. A thing has to resonate, it has to have personal significance to make it worth representing.
    There are engineers and designers at Gehl and New Holland, etc., who drew all these things before they got made, and that's interesting to think of. I bet they'd love these paintings! As I do, though I have only a rough ideas what I'm looking at.

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  8. Altoon - you can still walk around a farm and talk to the farmers and love the machinery even without their subject matter in tact! but I like this issue of subject matter, it's what we live on even if we call it abstraction.

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  9. I could see the second image from the top among your work. But the colors of the others are so jarring (outside of content) that I can't quite imagine them. You certainly use bright colors but these are too clownish for my taste (and perhaps yours?).

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  10. Hannah, thanks. I also like that first photo, finding it wonderfully strange, though not as odd as the orifice in the second one. Also thanks for the thumbs up on the triptych.

    Susan, it is interesting to think of the designers, which goes back to the ideas about industrial design in the film "Objectified", those farm machines are not everyday things. But they are designed for specific purposes and their shapes show that. Color in farm machinery is basically part of the logo, so we can identify each company out in the field. As for having only a rough idea of what you're looking at, I often forget which machine was the source of my images.

    rappel, you're right, of course I could, but I don't think I would without the need to go and gather images there. But another thing I realize is that I probably wouldn't continue to work with this subject if it didn't provide so very much visual excitement for me in its abstracted state.

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  11. Ms. Wis, clownish is certainly the intention of the amusement park designers. But I don't find the first image jarring in color but close to other green machines I've painted, or the last triptych with its worn surfaces.
    the first image is funny though, with its round "face" surrounded by bristles, which is fine with me.

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  12. Altoon--you have posted many beautiful images, as always. I love to see what you have here every day. Subject matter interests me as well. As you say, the subject must have enough visual interest to hold your attention. I find that almost any subject will hold my attention visually, but that it must also have a "love interest", based on my experience and environment. I recently watched a video of Antonio López García painting a Quince tree in his back yard despite variable weather. He said that he mainly was interested in just hanging out with the tree and getting to experience it; the painting was essentially a by-product.

    This was an eye-opener for me. I think of it often when deciding what to work on.

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  13. The textures, weathering and perspective on the parachute jump pictures are terrific. Although the primary color theme is not my favorite. I do love the farm brushes in the top picture.
    Cheryl

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  14. thanks for the comment, Erik. A "love interest" sounds right. I know that Lopez Garcia painting you mention and it is very beautiful; I believe he worked on it over a period of years, as with many of his paintings.

    Cheryl, I'm glad you like some aspects of the Parachute Jump triptych, and that you love the brushes. It's great to get all these conflicting opinions...it means I have to make up my own mind!

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