Bill Santelli

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Hawaii Dream Flash 13 (detail), Bill Santelli, acrylic on canvas

The new show at Oxford Gallery, “The Elusive Image,” makes a powerful impression when you walk through the door. The gallery has integrated the work of all three artists–Bill Santelli, Tony Dungan, and Jan Hewitt Towsley–into a show where everything you see augments the work around it. The tension between angular, hard edges and organic curves ripples from one work to the next, leading your eye forward and back to reassess things you’ve already seen. It’s probably the most unified show I’ve seen at Oxford, and the work is all first rate. I’ll write more soon to share impressions about Dungan and Towsley, but for now I’ll pass along some of the conversation I had with Bill as he walked me through the show, commenting on the work.

Bill’s work falls into three buckets, more or less: large abstracts that set up a tension between geometric shapes and eddies of paint that form partly through chance; his PATH abstractions that call to mind tall grass in the wind; and his “silent dialogs.” He also added a small set of drawings, minimalist squares in the dimensions of tennis courts seen from directly above. We started with the little Open Court series and moved to The Path drawings and then the larger abstracts:

When I was working on (the Open Court series), I was thinking they’ve already been done as large paintings.

I really like them on this scale. The size adds to the sense of restraint and minimalism.

I think I’ll keep the series going for a little while to see how they turn out.

You can see your hand in them, despite how flat and spare they are. There’s real feeling in the tiny variations of color in each grid. They’re so close to watercolor.

It’s funny you say that because I was thinking of doing these in watercolor. Then at the last second—I was even thinking of thinning out acrylic—but with the work on The Path drawings and Zen Mind/Silent Dialogue stuff going in Prismacolor, I figured I’d do the first one in Prismacolor and I got hooked on it.

How does Prismacolor work? What’s different about it?

It has a fair amount of waxy content to it.

It’s in pencil form?

Yes, you can get them in stick too. But those are chalkier.

It sounds similar to pastel.

Yes. They aren’t forgiving in terms of erasability. I’ve tried scaping with a blade but you can’t get all of it.

Do you have something to guide your hand?

No, the series started with just making a mark spontaneously. What I really was doing in the beginning was just putting down the color without the black (outlines) and for whatever reason I kept looking at it and thinking this isn’t really popping the way I wanted it to. So I outlined one mark in black and really liked it and then just went ahead and did it all.

I don’t know how you get such a steady line.

They aren’t one continuous line. I go a ways and stop. Then again. Tom Insalaco gave me the hint to use a bridge. I started using a bridge above the paper. Sometimes I use tracing paper or plastic sheet so I can put my hand or arm on it while I’m putting down the mark. They are smaller strokes, but I try to get into the motion (of the whole line). You can see all the little strokes, if you catch the light just right. The inspiration for these was sea grass. My father in law had a house on the north fork of Long Island where we used to go in the summers. We could take a canoe out and just go out. There were always the grasses. The whole series, I started when I’d ordered some pre-stretched canvas and had nothing to do, so I had this paper lying around and going through file drawers looking for something I found this box of paper. I just got it out and made a slashing mark and liked it to much that I kept it going.

You did it spontaneously. A large quick gesture? 

A swift mark like the beginning of one of these only bigger.

The first one could be fast, but after that . . .

Exactly.

There are so many parallel lines, perfectly aligned.

After the first one, I recognized something and was thinking about it, and my wife came in and said, that looks like the grasses. I started looking at them more and just kind of went from there.

When I first saw these I moved on, but the more I see them the more I like them. I see more and more in them. There’s a Taoist feel of the grass surrendering to the force that moves it. They are so simple, I thought, OK, I’ve figured that out, nothing much to see here, and I’ll move on. But there’s more and more there.

You can see there’s a lot of build up of layer. It isn’t that it’s applied thickly initially. It’s all these tedious strokes to get the color I want. These drawings take about three months on average.

That’s astounding to me. The other thing that fooled me at first, it looks like a print. I thought they were “just” lithographs. But these are one-off. To spend that amount of time on something that is, in the end, this simple . . .

I didn’t paint for almost a year. When I first put these out there, they were getting a fair amount of attention, so I went with it and kept it going. It took so long to do one of these, and I was working eight hours a day and had no energy left.

You have very clearly defined areas of flat color.

The black outlines really makes it work.

Frank Stella did white margins that worked the same way. 

Yes. That’s it. They are a challenging. It gets to be like meditation.

(We move on to the large abstracts.)

How do you get the paint to behave this way, with these eddies and swirls? It has a life of its own that you seem to guide and nurture without too much forcing. 

I did a lot of research on paint when I started working seriously and I was reading all the literature about Golden acrylics.  I also studied Paul Jenkins and Frankenthaler and others and learned they were working in oil and Chrysochrome, (an enamel).   Jenkins was the most scientific about it. I worked for Zora’s Art Supplies at the time and went to Zora to ask what Chrysachrome was – and she admonished me: “Look it up in the dictionary!  Learn for yourself!”  That was what started my studying and experimenting with mediums and different paints.

Swimming inside a David Hockney could be a bucket list item for the serious collector. 

People paid him to paint their actual swimming pools. So I was asking what’s chrysachrome? With these it’s basically, first mixing the viscosity and getting it to the point where it isn’t too thick or too thin. I’ll lay it down, using hake brushes, so that it has texture but not brushstrokes. The first layer I’d take the hake brush and dip it into whatever medium I was using and put that down and then add color. With the hake brush you can manipulate it.

The shapes and patterns look natural, as if they form on their own.

The color in the rectangular shafts are things I remember from dreams. (Jim called these armatures and that’s a great description.) (In the organic areas of free-flowing paint) sometimes the paint has the consistency of milk and if it gets too thick it’s harder to control when you put down the second or third or fourth layer. The Renaissance painters used to work on copper and they wanted the light to come back from underneath. I want the light to work that way as well, so the layers have to be of a certain viscosity.

In this one you can see sky, and that’s what’s interesting, it’s like a view of interior states but you can see external worlds in these images too.

 

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