I had a busy day in the studio last week. After a morning working on a large charcoal drawing in preparation for a painting, I had a couple of spare hours so I decided to attempt a new small still life painting, which soon ended up being two paintings, based on my extensive ‘crapola’ collection. I’ve stopped collecting things now, having lost momentum with these paintings in the last month, doubting the direction they seemed to be going and questioning my intentions. This has arisen from a few things, not least sharing and discussing them with a few different artist friends who have visited the studio.
The responses have been mixed, from one friend wishing he had thought of the idea, to another thinking they were beginning to look too ‘composed’, and another ‘too haphazard’. The former friend was more excited by the paintings of singular objects, enjoying their uniqueness as ‘objects’ and characters. The groups I had been working on looking too ‘prettified’ almost. I had to agree, and felt I had lately lost a bit of faith in my instincts, bing naturally more drawn to the deadpan character of the single form. He was particularly struck by a painting of brushes in a jar of turps, almost dissolving in the paint.
Having visitors to the studio lately has been really terrific, and has really begun to open up my thinking. The psychological readings made of my work by others, particularly the recent landscapes, has made me much aware of different possibilities that have been very much unexplored in my work for years as I’ve pursued my interest in developing my painting around more formal interests.
A lot of my influences in the last ten years have come from a generation of American painters that established their reputations in the 1950’s and 60’s after Abstract Expressionism and sort of in between Pop. They include Fairfield Porter, Alex Katz, Jane Frielicher, Janet Fish, and also Chuck Close, who was part of the generation that followed after. Many of these artists’ ideas have centred around developing a form of representational painting that was had its ideas rooted in the language of abstract art. It was seen that it was not important what was painted, more how it was painted: a question of ‘style’ being the subject, and a style coming out of the so-called ‘grammar’ of abstract painting. Psychological readings of the work were very much pushed to the sidelines in their pursuit of their formal goals. Their influence became inspiring to me when I was seeking a route out of certain artistic cul-de-sacs I had painted myself into. The large-scale narrative paintings I was making at the time had lost all meaning for me. It was visiting Chuck Close’s retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in 1999 that had the most profound impact on my thinking and lead me to create my first portrait paintings. Interestingly, one common painter all these artists deeply admire is Morandi, with his own deadpan still lives of the bottles on his shelves. Chuck Close refers to them as emotionally ‘flat-footed’, which is a phrase I like. I love Morandi’s paintings too.
Anyway to get to the point, at a time when I have the opportunity to be thinking more critically about what I am doing I’m keen to take more ‘ownership’ of the way my own paintings are read again, an issue I’ve also tried to push to the sidelines. I’m not saying I want to move away from my interest in the formal, or even change my approach necessarily. I just want to be more receptive to the possibilities of exploring other layers of meaning and bringing other influences into play.
Here’s a link to an interview with another American artist of that generation, Harriet Shorr, whose large still lives I really like. She discusses her own obsession with the formal values in her paintings, and how that has started to unravel in recent years based on the readings others have made of her work:
It’s a good interview and discusses with a bit more clarity than my mumblings many of the issues I’ve tried to raise in this blog.