Sunday, September 10, 2017

Not As Much As This (oil on canvas, 2017)

During the second semester of my senior year in college, I was enrolled in an advanced printmaking class. It was a small class, maybe seven or eight students, most of whom were art majors and all had had two semesters of intaglio printmaking already. The focus of the class was the development of an individualized approach to expression via the printmaking medium. Early in the semester the professor, Elizabeth Peak, announced that we would each have to choose an artist whose work had influenced us and write a thesis about the artist and their work and give a presentation to the class at the end of the semester. I was at the time (and I still am!) completely enamored by the work of Rembrandt and had already read extensively on his life and work and had made a couple of trips to the prints and drawing room at Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to view some of his etchings in person. I could have written my thesis and given a presentation right then and there if need be so I figured that the assignment was nothing that I had to worry about. When class was dismissed I walked over to my teacher, who pulled a book out of her bag and then pushed it into my stomach (knocking the wind out of me!) saying, “You’re not doing Rembrandt. You’re doing this guy.”

Begrudgingly, I took the book, a catalog of an exhibition on the work of Giorgio Morandi, an artist I’d never heard of. “But you said we could choose the artist!”, I protested.

“Not you.”, she said.

The catalog was mostly comprised of pictures, with only a brief introductory biographical introduction. I checked the college library to find more books about the artist, but to no avail. So much for writing my Rembrandt paper that evening after dinner. At least I had the semester to figure it out. And a book of pictures.

Morandi’s work seemed the antithesis of Rembrandt’s – lacking the narratives, the chiaroscuro and dramatic lighting, and the draughtsmanship pyrotechnics of the master’s work. The images were mostly still-lifes, composed of simple, ordinary objects and rendered in a minimalist, abstract style characterized by a quirky drawing style and almost crude cross-hatching. I was utterly baffled. But I studied those images every day, carrying the book around with me and delving into it at every available opportunity.

Eventually, the genius of Morandi slowly revealed itself to me and I saw how, through the use of visual form only, he had managed to imbue these mundane objects with the sublime. The compositions were flawless, the intervals between the different objects and the between the subject and the picture frame were meticulously thought out. He utilized myriad value schemes from extreme contrast to entire images made up of almost imperceivable variations of middle grey. And the quality of his line, although lacking the finesse and virtuosity of Rembrandt, contained a humanity that filled each image with the presence of the artist himself.

The experience had a profound impact on me. Indeed, I spent the next two years making drawings, monotypes and paintings of simple, nondescript objects, exploring subtle variations in composition and tone. Despite getting the wind knocked out me (literally and figuratively!), it was one of the best art lessons I ever had and I have always been grateful to that teacher (for that and many other important lessons).

My current work bears no resemblance to Morandi’s, but his spirit still inhabits my studio. This painting is the latest in a series of variations on a theme that came out of a pencil drawing I did in the Spring. I have been experimenting with different color schemes, value relationships and compositional structure (vis a vis the shape of the rectangle and the subdivision of the pictorial space) and the ways in which these variations in form manifest as images, each with a distinct visual/emotional content. And there’s no denying that my rough-hewn style of applying paint has its roots in my love of Morandi.

I’ve never been interested in using subject matter as a means of imparting my ideas. I believe the best paintings, like the best poetry, communicate through the means of artistic form rather than narrative or subject matter.

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