thoughts on landscape
Like much of my current work, the shapes in the painting above (Ceide Fields, 36"x48" oil and mixed media on panel.) suggest land forms--craggy, textural--set against a pale background that can be read as sky or sea. This work comes out of my time in County Mayo, Ireland, a place where the strong shapes and complex textures of the bog and seacoast captured my eye and heart.
Landscape has been at the core of my work since my earliest years of art-making, and I've approached it in various ways over time--beginning with direct, representational recording of what I observed. Occasionally in these early days I would include a female figure representing "me." Below is an intaglio print from my undergrad years in which such a figure, seated in the lower left of the image, looks out at the scene. I see this now as an attempt to express my emotional connection to the experience of being alone in nature.
At the core of all my work over time is the expression of this connection. Over time my work has evolved into abstraction emphasizing color and texture which seem to me to be the most direct conduits to the feelings and memories I associate with specific places. While I've allowed in some landscape imagery, for the most part I've downplayed the sense of "scenery" (suggested by pictorial depth and obvious clues such as horizon lines) in my work of the past 15 years or so.
So I'm a bit surprised by some of the work coming out of my time in Mayo in its fairly obvious references to what I remember from my walks and drives along the coast and through the boglands. Below is another recent painting, Mayo Coast #7, 40"x30" which includes dark, rock-like shapes and the suggestion of falling water.
Surprising to find these images emerging--but also somehow liberating. I feel that I'm tapping into some essence or energy of that place that allows me to play more freely and directly with landscape imagery than I have in the past. Along with the shapes suggestive of rocks, bog paths, foliage and cliffs, I've also been including lines that refer to mapping, charting, writing and gridlike designs--lines imposed over the surface of the work that counteract its more representational aspects. Some of these lines are adapted from stratigraphic drawings shared with me by Greta Byrne, the archaeologist at Ceide Field near Ballycastle where I have stayed in Mayo as well as from the maps of ancient stone walls at that site.
I think of this recent work as expressing two aspects --inner and outer--of my personal experience in the Mayo landscape. The inner experience includes the the drama of weather and vistas, the gentleness of the bog, the crashing of surf, the quieting of thought, the moods of the time of day and the feeling of oneness with nature. The outer experience includes purely visual observations as well as awareness of ancient sites, geology and geography, culture and history. I'm enjoying the merging of the inner and outer experiences in these paintings.
About ten years ago, I put together a list of qualities that I wanted my work to embody, including complexity, presence, ongoing exploration, and mystery.
Some of the words and phrases were fairly specific, at least in my mind, such as contrast
--which reminded me to keep value and color shifts interesting. Others, like connection
, were purposefully open-ended and evocative. Connection
could mean connection to my own inner landscape and experiences, connection to the viewer, or connection among the elements within the painting.
I made this list as a practical tool, thinking that it would help me to guide me through my work, keep me on track with what I was after, and also to know when a painting was finished. I did find it to be very valuable for those reasons, and for self critique in general. (Click here for a blog pos
t from 2009 about self-critique that mentions the list.) Over the years, I've revised it a bit, and created a power point around it that I show in some of my workshops, but my editing of the list has been minor. The main ideas remain relevant for me. Although I rarely refer to that actual bit of paper anymore, its basic thoughts are now an ongoing and now deeply integrated basis for my work.The original still hangs on my studio wall--tattered, dripped upon and nearly illegible.
This morning as I moved a few things around on my wall including the list, I studied it closely for the first time in ages, and saw it suddenly in a new way. It struck me that what I had done back then was to set forth my intentions, and that they have been unfolding ever since.
Today, more so than a decade ago, there is increased understanding and theorizing about how intentions shape and create our experience, operating in subtle ways beneath our everyday awareness. I realized this morning that the ideas in the list were probably more powerful than I had considered them to be in the beginning, when I wrote them down as a practical tool. They have likely been a force in bringing my work closer toward my highest ideals, exerting influence even without my conscious attention. Perhaps there's a fine line between the two, but what I realized this morning was that the list has played a huge part in charting my course as an artist, and for that I'm grateful.