A meaning made of trees

eclipse, oil on linen, 12″ x 18″

One of the first shows I visited when I was in New York City last week was a meaning made of trees, a collection of new work form Ron Milewicz. It’s outstanding. Milewicz continues to explore the pictorial possibilities of his new location in the Hudson Valley. I had an illuminating conversation with him about the work.

1. The little catalog available at the show, first of all, how was it done? I’ve tried that for solo shows in the past and have not been happy with the results, but your images were accurate and well printed. Who did these for you? Second, the catalog was from your previous show? If so, there’s a real consistency in quality and approach between those paintings and the ones on view now. You have found a groove and are working it, and you have clearly defined personal “rules” you follow in these Arcadian views. Did this style come to you all at once, full blown, or in stages? 

The catalogue is from my Axis Mundi show in 2020. It was printed by an online company called Uprinting. I had the paintings photographed professionally. I designed the catalog myself on my Mac using Pages, and then a graphic designer familiar with Uprinting design programs made the layout that was sent to the printer.

That was two shows ago—I had another show since at Pamela Salisbury Gallery in Hudson, New York, in 2021.

I do not have “rules” but I do have a consistent approach to the landscapes that has developed over the past several years. For a period of about two years, I was only making on site graphite drawings. These tonal works are very much a direct response to the experience of the landscape I am working from—its atmosphere, light, spaces, and forms as well as its stillness and calm. The drawings were a very intuitive reaction to the environment, and they came relatively quickly. I then started to make oil paintings in the studio from the drawings. It took a longer time to understand how the drawings might be reinterpreted as paintings, in terms of materials, touch, color and scale.

2. Your career is interesting: you’ve gone from excellent urban landscapes to these visionary woodland scenes, both periods just as well done, but with a completely different sense of purpose, at least for the viewer. The urban landscapes fit within a much broader practice for contemporary artists; many more people are working in that vein these days. What you are doing with the trees reminds me of Burchfield and Nick Blosser, a Tennessee artist who has almost disappeared from view on the Web. Do you see these as two distinct phases or is there a continuity between the city and the country work for you? 

They are two phases as they are derived from distinct locales and from the very different circumstances of my life outside of the studio, which inevitably changed my priorities in the studio. There is continuity in the sense that I am painting the world around me in both instances, although the conditions of those worlds are very different from each other. There’s also consistency in my concern for light, stillness and formal rigor.

3. I think of Burchfield in particular: the disjunction between his dark, almost monochrome American Scene pictures and the nearly psychedelic visions of his last period where he seemed to be attempting to convey the totality of nature in each painting. The divide between those two periods was radical, more radical than the shift in your work, but there’s no way for me to see how you get from the urban landscapes to the woodland visions, step by step. The move to Hudson Valley obviously triggered something, but the question is: what internally changed in how you see and paint as a result of this move? Did you grow up immersed in nature and then left it behind for years working in New York? 

I have lived in New York City my entire life. The move to the Hudson Valley was motivated by a yearning for silence, both an external silence and a corresponding internal silence. In that sense there already was a change happening before I moved upstate that anticipated the transformation of my work by my new surroundings. It was a transformation I actively sought even though I did not know the exact character the transformation would take. Immersing myself in nature fulfilled my desire for solitude, and I think it was this fulfillment, along with the influence of a new physical environment itself, of course, that changed the work.

4. My favorites are Eclipse, Pink Pond, Afternoon, At the Edge of the Woods, and Snow Squall, but all of the paintings are impressive. Eclipse is superb. That little black dot just where it belongs. You are obviously focused on trying to convey the nature of trees, but trees in these paintings offer a framework, a skeleton for the entire image which seems to me just as much about how light inhabits space, how it seems to use objects to reveal itself as much as it discloses visible objects. The way you capture a certain quality of light is masterful. Does that come easily or take time? How much are you focused on conveying ambient light in each painting? (One surprise in the Walton Ford show at Gagosian was how much he is concerned with light and the way it colors the animals he’s painting: it’s partly what makes his best work so striking. Everything in the image reveals the light source.)

Light is very much a primary concern in these paintings. I would say that the light comes more easily in the drawings than in the paintings, both because I am in nature when I draw and because of the complications introduced by color into the paintings. The light I am after is a light that simultaneously belongs to this world and doesn’t. The dialogue between the trees and other forms depicted in the image and the light is critical, as I see the material and the immaterial as interdependent.

 5. I’m especially interested in your handling of paint. It’s almost as if you are rubbing the paint on in thin layers, always keeping the tooth of the canvas visible in the marks. The paint looks dry, almost like charcoal or pastel. The edges are never clearly distinct and sometimes are impossible to locate up close. How do you work toward a final image? Are you constantly moving back to look at the image from a distance to see if it comes together and the forms are clearly visible despite the way you eschew tight detail? 

I build the images very slowly with thin layers of paint. I apply the paint without adding any medium so it does almost become as if dry pigment has been rubbed into the surface. I want the light to come up from the white of the ground and for color to be the consequence of the optical mixing of these layers—a kind of dry glazing. I would like for there to be a mutability of color so it seems to change as you look, making it almost impossible to say what single color you are seeing or where one color ends and another begins. I would like to reduce the presence of the mark so it might feel as if the paintings had painted themselves. I am concerned with the big rhythmic movements of mass and light and want detail to find an essential place in the development of these rhythms. I do look at the painting from varying distances as I work and enjoy the abstraction up close and its cohesion into form and space from further back. I am not as worried about the forms being clearly visible as much as them being too visible and not holding their proper place.

6. With quotes from Northrup Frye and Max Picard in the catalog, you are clearly concerned with more than descriptive realism. Was this quasi-spiritual approach to the natural world, the visible world, implicit somehow in the work you did before the tree paintings? Am I correct that you are trying to convey what isn’t visible, a kind of numinous life inherent in the natural world, Emersonian or Buddhist, for that matter, that becomes obscured by the daily grind of individual survival? Thoreau would have spent time appreciating your paintings, I think: is it your intent to awaken that kind of “transcendentalist” appreciation in the viewer? Burchfield had that same quality: the sense that you both try to convey the inner life of the natural world where it connects with something timeless and more mysterious than familiar natural phenomena.

Mere descriptive realism is one of my greatest fears in life. Unless you have that magnificent and rare ability to go through the visible world and past it, such as in a still life by Juan Sanchez Cotan, an overly wrought painting can easily become deadening.  

In all my work I have tried to convey, though not in any self-conscious way, what is invisible in the world through what is visible. Perhaps that possibility is more easily identified in nature. It is hard to spend a sustained time in the natural world without having the sense that there is more present than what we can only see.  Without becoming didactic, I do hope that a viewer of my paintings has an awareness at some level of the unseen forces at work in nature, either as respite or as menace, or as both simultaneously. I can see that there might be connections here to certain aspects of Buddhist or Transcendentalist thought and I am gratified that they struck you as such.

7. My apologies for such long questions. What is your life like in the Hudson Valley? Are you part of a community of artists or do you work mostly on your own? It’s been a trend for a number of years now: artists moving away from the economics of New York City toward a location both affordable and more beautiful. 

My life upstate is mostly solitary which I feel is necessary for the work. Though I pretty much work on my own, there is a strong community of artists in the area with whom I do have regular contact.

8. How long do you typically work on a canvas? Do you work on only one at a time or alternate among several?

I typically work on a canvas on and off for months, sometimes for years, putting it aside at times until it becomes clear to me what needs to be done. I will occasionally work directly from an isolated weather event such as a snow storm, in which case the painting may be completed in one or two sessions. I work on several canvases at a time, but which “several” is constantly changing.

9. Are your sketches done in situ and then used as sources back in the studio? Do you ever take photographs to assist in the work?

The drawings are always completed on site. I do not think of them as sketches or as preparatory works even though they may consciously be intended to be the basis for future paintings. The paintings are typically made from the drawings. I do not use photographs, as the paintings rely on the memory of an actual experience of nature.

10. Many of the woodland paintings are dominated by one tone, sometimes two: rose, blue, gray, yellow, yellow and blue, orange, green. Does that take discipline or is it just intuitive? I’m constantly fighting the desire to use more color than I need to, and always finding that the more that color is withheld a bit, the easier it is to unify a more powerful image. The one or two dominant colors in your scenes offer the key to the mood and the “world” you convey. 

One, but not the only reason, that I paint from drawings rather than directly is to free myself both from literal color and from the ubiquity of green in the summer landscape of upstate New York. I am not much interested in discerning unending nuances of green in a plein-air painting. The color is restrained to privilege other pictorial issues and to achieve the sense of the calm that draws me to the landscape. This is more important to me than accurately documenting factual color. There is an intuitive response to the experienced color and mood of the landscape I am depicting. I hope an authenticity remains despite the liberties I take with perceived color in the interests of creating a coherent image. The further development of color relationships is one that moves forward both by disciplined analysis and by occasional intuitive decisions. This is one of the reasons it is sometimes important for me to put a painting aside for a while – to allow time for the necessary color to reveal itself.

11. Have you always worked on such a small scale? Have you tried much larger versions for this series and if so, what were the results? If not, do you think you may try larger scenes in the future? 

I have worked much larger at times in the past—some of the earlier cityscapes are as big as twelve feet across and some of my still lifes are six or seven feet in dimension. I have not tried much larger versions of the rural landscapes other than a recent horizontal painting that was six feet wide but only a foot high. The landscapes seem to be getting smaller rather than larger and I do not anticipate that they will get any larger in the foreseeable future. I like containing a limitless space in a very intimate and modestly sized rectangle.

12. Are you working on anything or thinking about anything beyond the trees? 

I have recently started working on some still lifes. I am curious to see where they will go or how they may ultimately come to influence the landscapes.

Ron’s show at Elizabeth Harris will be on view until May 28.

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