And now, at this point (day 30) in this particular residency in Beatty, Nevada, I am pondering a conundrum about my own landscape work. I haven’t quite enough distance to say for certain [pun recognized after it was made] but it seems to me that my interest in context and a sense of place interferes with my achieving a stylistic breakthrough, particularly with the set pieces that I love, like the mountains around Beatty.
As my colleague and friend David T would say: if he walked into a gallery with my landscape paintings, he wouldn’t think of them as being “by June Underwood,”just as “nice” (not a compliment) landscape paintings.
There are models for moving beyond the “mere landscape”, of course: Grant Wood’s landscapes and Lawren Harris in the Canadian Group of Seven; perhaps Arthur Dove; maybe Hopper would be helpful. Rackstraw Downes is a kind of heroic figure to me and he and David Hockney represent a form of seeing that I believe in. Hockney’s desert road (Plum Blossom Road or some such name) is a masterpiece of getting an angle that makes sense (angles, I should say); and Downe’s work in Texas — his five-part series — are also inspirational. I rather like the jaggedy edgings of Hockney’s collaged landscapes, but I admire immensely Downes’ refusal to avoid what is there, whatever is there.
David T (my friendly colleague) and the abstract landscape painters who are just on the other side of the continuum of representational through abstract make interesting, but spiky, paintings. For the life of me, I can’t seem get my painting around that kind of corner. I want to put my personal spin on landscape. I have done so with my wacky urban-scapes. But my sense of gratitude about place, about my love of what is in front of me, all that interferes, in my landscapes, with an internal sense of — or expression of — self.
Rhyolite Ghost Town and the Goldwell Open Air Museum, Oil on board, 18 x 36″
So I pursue the conundrum: how can my sense of place wrap itself around a place that has a strong sense of its self — immoveable mountains, rocks that are what they are, landscapes that change only according to the time of day and the time of year and the temperament of sky and do not respond to my little self. So I continue the questioning.
What is it that might call to me in this landscape, this sense of place, that could be translated into a personal style? The colors, of course, but they tend toward the conventional — lots of landscape artists jack up the color in order, I suspect, to try to make something their own. I would say I’m not jacking up the colors as I am painting, but later, the colors seem pushed hard.
Bare Mountains, pm, oil on board, 12 x 16″
The shapes and forms here are phenomenal, particularly as you go into California’s Death Valley on the “Beatty Cut-off” from the Nevada town of Beatty . I am interested in the intersections of geology and painting — the fan-shaped alluvials, the fault scarps, the up-lifting and down-tilting, the intersections of faults and washes, the washes that join into the wine-glass formations, cutting deeply into the hillside. I can see them; I just saw them. They are gashes, and up close they are canyons, formidable, unyielding except to wild rushes of water such as I doubt I will ever see. The shapes that pile up on one another in different colors are wonderful to see; the rocks, some rounded, some sharpened, some cut through with various mineral veins; and those amazing desolate playa, rocky plains, where almost nothing grows except rock. Truly rock gardens, although garden represents something too tame to be accurate here. Immense flats of basketball sized jagged rocks set within smaller ones. On and on and on. A vision of a sort of beautiful hell.
I wondered if I cropped out the sky, thus losing the urgency of the landscape format, if that would enable me to see and paint differently. Or if I sketched without including the edges of mountains, the contours by which we judge our surrounds.
Here’s a cropped version of some of the formations in an area of the park called Artist Palette:
Below is a naturally cropped (ie with the camera rather than photoshop) version:
And finally, here’s one with the sky:
This last also has the classic, into-the-photo road, which brings it totally into the conventions of landscape work. Here’s my first plein air version of another similar place, equally formed by geologic processes, equally astonishing.
Golden Canyon 1, 18 x 24″, oil on board
A photo of the entrance to this path looks something like this:
[Mindy Hill Minds my gear while I carry the painting above back to the car.]
So the question remains whether I have any way to imprint myself on my paintings of the landscape, or if they will remain mere simulcrums of something far grander. I begin to see why the Abstract Expressionists refused realism altogether. It was altogether too much to gather together.
….an addendum to the above, written on day 31: this week, I took two large pieces of canvas, unstretched, and taped them to the walls of the Red Barn Studio. And I began two non-plein air, only slightly connected to reality, landscapes. Neither of them is finished (and the photos are dreadful because of the glare). But they give me some hope that while I can’t match the landscape, that I can make some paintings that might evoke something of its feel. I think I would have to go larger (and be younger) to do what really I think of doing. But at least 5′ x 5′ escapes the smaller picture planes and forces me to think and act big. In going larger, I am forced to use different tools and to be clear about what it was that I want to portray. There isn’t much “out there” to guide me; it has to come from within.
…a second addendum, written on day 33, Saturday. Yesterday, I think I broke through some kind of barrier. I finished (or somewhat finished) four paintings. One was of a stripped mountain, mined for gold, which I had done previously and was very unhappy with. Here is its latest incarnation;
Bullfrog Barrick Open Pit Mine, Oil on board 18 x 36″
I finished that one on Friday, and begain and finished the plein air below, sitting at the door of the Red Barn Studio from which I’m working:
Amargosa Playa 3, Oil on board, 18 x 24″
And finally, the big canvases, taped to the walls, which seemed so impossible on Thursday, got reworked into some kind of clarity on Friday.
Amargosa Playa 2, Oil on canvas, about 5′ x 5′
Golden Canyon Revisited, Oil on Canvas, about 5′ x 5′
Here’s a detail of Golden Canyon Revisited:
The two big paintings are nearly complete and won’t be touched again until I return to Portland, about April 3. I counting on the desert air to dry them enough that they can be rolled and put into the Honda for the trip.
So, I admire Birgit’s painting, which comes from within; and I admire Hanneke’s, which are so clearly from the object itself. I want to find a way to integrate the without — the sense of place — with the “within” my own subjective exhilaration or despair or fear in facing a specific “place.” Landscapes that simulate reality are not, for me, adequate. But the process is uncertain, the results uneven. One day I think I’m a total failure and the next makes the process seem inevitably OK.
I don’t think I’m alone in this, but I guess I have to ask — anyone else have these kinds of ups and downs? How do you process them.
I ran across this quote from Rackstraw Downes — it seems an appropriate way to finish:
A professional artist’s life is uncertain and miserable and everyday you feel obliged to do something extraordinary and unusual. It has its problems, it really does. The vagaries of fashion whisk you in and whisk you out again, and give you an income and take it away again. I will say this though, that all of us that are painters or poets or whatever spend quite a big chunk of time everyday doing exactly the thing we really want to do. And that can’t be said by lots of people.