Learning how to see


fort howard #6Saturday night I attended the opening at Oxford Gallery of a three-person show with new work from my old friend, Rick Harrington, along with two young artists whose work never fails to impress me: Matt Klos and Ryan Schroeder. Jim Hall put these paintings together in a brilliant way by seeing a commonality among all three: they are all depicting places or structures that have been abandoned, places once inhabited but now empty. The results range from a sense of desolation to a surprising aura of spiritual energy–as if the emptiness they’re facing has stripped away the trivia of daily life and what’s left in all of these images is a contemplative courage, a willingness to move through the absence of superficial beauty toward a mysterious, insecure spirituality. What’s impressive and humbling is how each of the three artists is doing this while learning how to see in an unpredictable way, not just in the sense of confronting a particular subject without preconceptions and trying to respond to each subject on its own terms–something Rick has been doing especially in a recent series of paintings not represented in this show–but also in terms of artistic method, where, with each painting, they are relearning, to a degree, how to get the image to come together. This is true, even though each artist has a recognizable individual style that’s uniform across all the work in the show, sometimes narrowing down choices dramatically, so that you would think the results could easily become formulaic, but this isn’t what happens. Each painting is a discovery for them, not just an exercise in doing what they’ve learned how to do over the years. I’ve spent many hours talking with Rick about how he wrestles with an image, and I’ve written about his process and his work many times here. He works from drawings he’s made at various sites, usually coming to an impasse and then getting beyond it. It’s an act of determination that pushes past frustration until the image comes together. Like Klos, in the series of abandoned houses he’s showing (inspired partly by his encounter with De Kooning at MoMA a couple years ago), Rick  draws from abstract expressionism, especially Rothko, and for me the heart of abstract expressionism is a willingness to let the image grow and unfold, following where the image leads rather than controlling it–the painting comes to life in the process of painting and the artist nurtures the energy that emerges, without knowing how the image will come together and resolve itself even well into the process. It means not entirely being in control of outcomes, but rather taking chances and discovering as you go.

It strikes me that these three are attempting to do just that, and yet this is representational work. Most people probably think that for anyone who isn’t doing pure abstraction–if there is such a thing–the task is simply to convey what’s there, being as obedient as possible to what’s seen, following techniques learned over years of practice, bringing to life what the artist can’t visualize, in advance, while gazing at the empty canvas. (Having done highly realistic paintings I know this is more often the case, to some degree, with representational work, but the amount of improvisation and instinct required even in an image that looks as if it’s simply a copy of what’s on view always surprises me. Any time I’ve tried to paint a second version of a previous painting, I find it utterly impossible to duplicate hundreds of small instinctive choices I made in the previous painting, so that each painting, no matter how similar to an earlier one, is unique.)

I spent a while talking with both Matt and Ryan at the reception, and I was fascinated by how, in the work they’re showing, they had set themselves up virtually to rediscover their methods with each painting, especially Schroeder. He’s an intense guy, dressed mostly in black for the event, quiet and earnest, but with a sense of humor, currently working on his MFA and studying a lot of art theory. I was surprised that he’s immersed in theory, since his work is vehemently perceptual. He said that he is always trying to engage with his subject at a spiritual level–he actually said “pseudo-spiritual” though I’m not sure why, because he later came back to the term, without the prefix, when I resumed talking to him after a break–and that he is attempting not to work from a position of knowledge. I understood him to mean that the act of painting is itself the discovery of a relationship to the subject, similar to what one means by “knowledge”, except that it isn’t static and can’t be repeated. The act of knowing is in the act of painting, and the finished work is the only knowledge left behind. The act of discovery has to happen with each painting, so that each painting is a rediscovery, and the nature of his images understandably varies from painting to painting. Most are fairly small, and like Matt’s work, they build on a tension between the almost random gestural effects of paint applied rapidly and boldly pulling against the constraint of his obsessive struggle to convey a recognizable scene: a doorstep, a pair of doors in a tiny painting that appear to be sandblasted from rock, an incredibly vivid rendering of empty wooden pews in an old church, and an indefinite image done on an uneven circular disk that is nearly impossible to make sense of, objects that seem to be frozen in the process of whirling toward a dark drain in the center of the disk. All of this probably sounds grim, and his work does have a slightly Edward Scissorhands aura, but many of the images seem to be illuminated by an intense light source penetrating into  surrounding dark. One quiet image, meticulously rendered–the brushwork is far less evident–shows an eerie semi-circle of soil, a ridge of earth, in which are planted maybe a couple dozen dwarf marigolds, just emerging, like an arc of luminary candles, arrayed around a cold hearth full of ash. The room appears to be abandoned except for this modest, ritualistic offering of flowers to the ashes. The painting is small, so the rendering of the flowers is tiny, yet the petals are crisp and accurately captured, in an amazing way. Later in the evening I asked Ryan about that puzzling image and he said he had found the marigolds–someone had discarded them, maybe left over from an early summer planting–and he felt impelled to create that scene around the unused fireplace, a way of creating a sense of spiritual tension between life and death. My favorite painting was one I didn’t see until I was leaving the show: on view in a little glass display case at the entrance to the gallery: an image of a doorstep to a boarded-up apartment. I was astonished at the evocation of intense light falling on the door and the shuttered windows over the shadow of steps and railings falling across the building’s foundation, where Schroeder’s brushwork effortlessly suggested a memory of winter’s light falling through bare branches. The empty building seemed to be animated by an invisible life, indifferent to the seasons,  the cold, the sense of loss: as if the act of seeing that derelict doorstep was all the life it required.

Matt Klos has worked in a variety of different modes, starting with an amazingly straightforward realism, reminiscent of Antonia Lopez Garcia (Schroeder’s current work reminded me of Garcia immediately, though Ryan insists he doesn’t work from photographs now). He got some attention right out of the gate for a suite of his paintings depicting different views of basement spaces, which I believe he was using as a studio at the time. A little later, I admired a fairly large image he’d done of a stove top with a spice rack and refrigerator door, more colorful, more painterly, moving in the direction of the landscapes he’s done more recently, and now these houses. For this show, he chose as his subject an abandoned neighborhood of Fort Howard, as Jim Hall writes, “in the Chesapeake region occupied by military officers decades ago but long since abandoned. But Klos does not charge his images with nostalgia for a bygone time. He examines the houses dispassionately as artifacts in our midst today, with interesting architectural add-ons, with intriguing angles, vertices, and geometrical relationships, and with planes reflecting light or casting shadows.” Klos is working in stylistic region halfway between Schroeder and Harrington. Where Rick strips his barns of almost all individual detail except for the most distinctive structural cues, refining them into a glowing, simplified geometry that still evokes a gorgeous atmospheric light, Klos seems to want these house paintings to look like variations on a highly restricted set of choices–many are painted in a similarly square cut of masonite–and yet each house is clearly an individual place with a unique range of architectural qualities. He wants you to see how the empty house continues to project itself into its space with a sense of depth and volume, and yet the image also works as a flat pattern of sometimes intensely improvisational color–again the brushwork is often wildly visible and at odds with what’s being depicted, building a tension between the mark and the illusion of an image. Klos is pushing here toward a more colorful palette, similar to Porter’s, where most of his hues are whitened to the middle and brighter values, with very few dark passages in these scenes. Matt said that he worked very quickly on these paintings, forcing himself into a premier coup execution, finishing a painting in a couple sittings, and you can feel the energy of the way he applied  the paint. He’s been at this for some time now, the once-and-done painting, working directly onto a white ground, and it makes me envious. I had just been talking earlier in the day with my friends at the Yates County Arts Center how doing paintings this way can be far more difficult than a painting that requires weeks–because it’s almost like a martial arts move that either conveys the energy or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, you’re sunk. (I’d love to know what Matt’s ratio of saved-to-trashed paintings is . . . or maybe I don’t want to know. )

This is quite a show and it will be up for a while. You have to see the actual paintings. The reproductions don’t do them justice.

2 Responses to “Learning how to see”

  1. Richard Harrington

    Thanks for a great survey. I am really pleased to see how well all of our work went together.

    And I wish I could define myself as well as you do.

  2. dave dorsey

    Thanks Rick. I’m tempted to go back and look at the work again without the crowd. Tom Insalaco talked about meeting me there to get a look and catching up. You might find him interesting. If I get it set up I’ll let you know.