A Further Explanation of The Artist Statement and Tonalism

My paintings invariably involve "almost" recognizable atmospheres in natural settings. You might see clouds, the sea and land masses but, if you've looked at a few of these pieces, you will observe that the depiction of these subjects is quite loose. The reason for this is I my feeling that it is only necessary to convey a remembered feeling or emotion.  When I intentially head down this path I end up eroding just about any object’s fidelity. I believe this frees me to tell a more open-ended story in abstract imagery. 

In a show last year a woman asked me why my "seas" and waves dont really look like seas and waves.  I explained that she was looking at an abstract painting.  This revelation seemed to surprise her.  I explained that I was hoping for a totally different experience for her... not one based on the precision of the curl of the wave. Instead, my hope was that the aspect of one color field abbuted to another separated by what many assume to be an horizon, would have been more suggestive of a different type of experience. Perhaps this could have been a view of something a bit mysterious or an insight momentarily inducing a fleeting meditiative event... an introspection, a reminiscence of her own.
 
An additional point I would make about my paintings has to do with the creative journey that they and I have made together.  When I re-started my focus on painting ten years ago I insisted that I was a painterly painter. I espoused the ideas of color, balance and contrasts popularized (among painters) in the early fifties and sixties… the New York School specifically. Then my nascent painter vocabulary was wrapped mostly in constrained and complicated gestures and sometimes these were presented with an unrestrained pallet. I still consider myself a painterly type painter but now view a painterly product in a different light. I still hold those values of color, balance and contrasts as most important but the canvases added to inventory these days are much more minimalist in concept and contain a more meditative / intellectual component. Where as, early on I viewed boldness as a loud canvas, today I view "boldness" as more the ability to be subtle and "strength" as the wisdom to be delicate or spare. 

I attribute much of this to my growing maturity as a painter. Secondly, I have been exposed to the work of several Eastern (Asian) artists over the past few years and have noticed many cues related to their work beginning to appear in my canvases. Much of this has to do with restraint. Finally, I've begun to think of myself as an "abstract tonalist" harkening back to a period of Tonalism in the late 19th century (see styles of Inness and Ryder). They were representational painters but they emphasized atmosphere and shadow and employed a distinctive technique of using the middle value of colors as opposed to excessive contrast and high chroma.  Their general objective was to create a "visual poem" which many times was done by shrouding the subject with emotional context. Vaporous landscapes were not uncommon.  They appeared to favor unconscious states and emotional experiences over reality.

My creative process, while evolving technically, has been the same for years. I continue to have no preconceived idea when beginning a painting of what it will, or even should, look like when finished. Again, there are a few exceptions, but not many.  Generally, the entire painting process is a dynamic enterprise sustaining an ongoing dialog between myself and the painting. Sometimes this is very verbal.

With the first mark on a bare canvas sufficient energy is created, information begins to flow back and forth, emotions and intellect are engaged and the process is enjoined.
 
“Painting is but another word for feeling,” …John Constable
MWS (2014)


Balance and Opposing Forces

For each of my paintings I’ve made a practice of writing one or two pages describing, in detail, it’s individual, creative dynamic from beginning to end. This includes a description of the naming process. For those paintings that have cooperated, i.e., “fallen into line very quickly,” the text required is usually minimal.  For those canvases more recalcitrant, sometimes the most successful, there is normally more time on the easel and certainly more writing involved. The paintings of the last six or seven years have coaxed more than a hundred and fifty pages of written material from me. I cannot overstate the importance of these notes to my own understanding of my own artistic process. They not only provide developmental history but a form of road map as well. They’ve recorded what has not worked, what has and why. They cast light on my central-core process and, in doing so, illuminate, for me, a form of spirituality that seems like something more than putting some paint on a surface. Of the many clues that are there, a central learning that I take away from almost every description is the importance of “balance” … balance in the painting process… balance in life.
 
When I describe balance I don’t think of it as a negative, as where multitudes of opposing forces cancel each other out. Many would reach for the word stasis as the impact of these forces butting heads equally and thus bringing all energy to a stand still.  In a painting the opposite is true. Opposing forces instead create a palpable energy that drives the creation and the creative process forward. Obviously I’m not talking about life or death issues but things like visual perspectives, harmony-from-chaos, colder and mysterious vs. warm and comfortable, airy vs. heavy, sensuous vs. industrial and so on. In a painting you use all the tools at your disposal to create this balance, i.e., color and juxtapositions of color, tone, texture, brush stroke, organization / composition and even more, to create interest in the viewer. Concepts of balance were present when the first cave drawings were rendered and, since then, have been handed down/taught in every age and style. Most recently, there were aspects of balance being learned and taught in the period of the 30’s to the 50’s as abstract expressionism was sweeping the art world. The hot-bed center of this activity was in the process of moving from Europe to the United States and specifically to New York. Those painters, loosely convened as the “New York School,” were the movement’s primary movers and shakers.  Hans Hofmann, a relocated German painter and teacher, became a guru to many and an instructor to some.  His teachings of balance, including opposing forces (rules of contrast), the uses of color and composition and having these tools create a “push-pull” within the painting formed a core of competence and creativity.  Much of this was expressed as a “painterly” approach to rendering canvases. Many of the New York School painters found their way to Hofmann’s stewardship even though their individual styles varied greatly. 
The entire movement was formalized and moved forward by influential critics such as Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg and several gallery sponsors/benefactors like Peggy Guggenheim.
It’s this type of balance I’ve embraced and, with no better name, I’ve thought of it as simply an on-going and necessary dynamic.

Once this lesson is learned comes the next one, that is that balance doesn’t mean boring… then, comes the next lesson…
 MWS (2016)
 
 
Art Appreciation and the Cosmos

On October 9, 2013 the New York Times published an article on the theory and discovery of the Higgs boson particle. (I've only read it recently)

It was clear that the driving force affirmed by the discovery was a view of a cosmos ruled by an elegant set of laws. At the heart of the concept is an ancient idea, the concept of symmetry, and how it was present in the foundations of physics but hidden in the world as we experience it.  Further, that in art, as well as science, there is something symmetrical to the point that if you move it one way or another, like a snowflake rotated 60 degrees, symmetries appear.  I would go one step further to suggest that any impact of change, however infinitesimal in either of these worlds, tends to affect the total structure where it occurs.  I began to think about these larger cosmic themes and their ramifications for art of any kind and especially in my world of abstract painting. My thinking has had to do with not only what viewers literally experience when viewing art but also how they may be moved by what is felt but not seen.
 
At some point, in a human-level analogy of art and cosmic impact, an effort to understand all relationships and causal effects will most certainly meet with frustration, even in the world of art.  At some point, the ability of “art speak” writers becomes woefully short to explain it away. However, I believe the idea of symmetry, seen and unseen, is totally relevant to art appreciation in any of the millions of ways people have found to interpret it. I’m sure many reading this have had the experience of visiting an art gallery loaded with paintings and after viewing the total array find themselves drawn to a single painting.  In terms of the complex mix of subject, color, balance and structure it, for them, emanates a bit of palpable magnetism. In its most visible attributes, the painting is similar to others created by the same artist, yet, you are drawn in to this one and your mind is working over time to get behind the pigment and into the artist’s brain to find more answers.  Even accounting for the unevenness in the work of all artists, there is an element of something there that’s unexplained.  For no better explanation I have always used the word “mystery.”  And, as a matter of my own rules, I attempt with each painting to leave something unsaid ... sensed but unspoken.  I’m not always successful but when I can create even a modicum of mystery and set it within contexts of organization and beauty I most generally will feel very good about the outcome. At a higher level, I'm sure that those working intimately with understanding Higgs boson, in a much more profound way, continue to be awed by yet unexplained and unseen mysteries.
MWS (2017)
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