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working through As the new year begins, I'm indulging in a little introspection about my work in 2019. It was a year of rapid change for my paintings and I am still feeling a little jet-lagged from the journey. Although I began the year with energy, focus, and strong direction--and maintained that through the summer--by September I was feeling muddled, lacking clarity and purpose. Somehow I did come up with a few good paintings, but basically, I was stalled, and it took months to work through the situation. In retrospect, I can see that I wasn't lacking ideas--actually, I had too many. Looking back, I can see that I was attempting to process too many dissimilar ideas and experiences without a common thread or concept. As a result, I lost clarity and focus and struggled throughout the fall and early winter to get back on track. The year began with work for a show in February 2019 at Thomas Deans Fine Art in Atlanta. My focus was primarily an exploration of form, with landscape and architectural references from time spent in Ireland and Spain. Solid shapes, strong value contrast, and a limited palette were the main components of these paintings--not new ideas for me but an interesting new fusion, and the work went well.
Journeys, Thomas Deans Fine Arts, Atlanta, February 2019
In March, I was in Ireland at Ballinglen Arts Foundation working on a series of small paintings, interpretations of a long poem, Squarings, by Seamus Heaney--taking the first steps toward a scheduled show on the theme of poetry in 2020. These had some aspects of form in common with the previous series, but working with poetry was a more conceptual challenge. I really enjoyed expanding my process in this direction.
Squarings series in my studio at Ballinglen Arts Foundation, March 2019
The next series came after a month in Greece in May when I became excited about working with some new visual references-- the objects and ruins of antiquity that I saw in Athens. Curved shapes like vessels entered my work, along with a sense of compressed, shallow space. I was so fired up about this direction that an entire body of work, including the large paintings pictured below, evolved in just over a month. This was the work I showed in July for a solo exhibit at Addington Gallery in Chicago.
Overlays exhibit, Addington Gallery, July 2019
Jumping around and responding to so much input had its consequences though. Only a few months after the show of Greece-inspired work, I became frustratingly detached from those ideas. They had played themselves out quickly, which upset me because I felt that this work was some of my best. I managed to squeeze out a few more paintings in the series but the energy behind them was fading. In late October I was back to our place in New Mexico for the winter. Surrounded by that magnificent landscape, I played around with a return to the kind of work I'd done in previous winters, abstracted references to rocks, canyons, and arroyos. But too much had happened in the meantime, and I was still clinging to the hope that I could revive my inspiration from Greece. I kept vacillating between these two visual sources which had little in common. And it was not just the imagery I wrestled with. Those questions of form that I'd explored for my Atlanta show were also part of the mix. I spent a lot of days covering up whatever I had painted the day before and getting nowhere. Making strong shapes, then thinking them too strong... introducing color and then painting it back to neutral...playing with edges that were either too emphatic or too weak.
studio view in NM, November
During this time I did a lot of successful small paintings on paper, helpful to my mood and perhaps to my progress. But what finally pulled me out of this slump was returning to the most constant thread of the year --painting in response to the poetry of Seamus Heany. Working with this theme previously had led not only to the series I did in Ireland but to two of the few successful paintings of the fall and early winter. The upcoming deadline for that work (the show, with Jerry McLaughlin, opens Feb.13 at Jennifer Perlmutter Gallery in Lafayette, CA) has made finishing this work a priority, and with that focus, I feel that I've made progress at last.
St. Kevin and the Blackbird, 42"x36" oil/cold wax
I have loved working with Heaney's poems as a point of departure. Responding to his work (and maybe, in the future, that of other poets) is a process that is less influenced by my own changes in location and circumstance. There is welcome freedom in allowing the poems to suggest situations, states of mind, emotion, and thought. I'm not expecting to give up the influence of my surroundings, which has always been central to my work. But I feel like I'm looking for a more intellectual base as well. A friend who looked at this new work yesterday commented that all I need to bring my work into a more conceptual realm is a subtle shift and that he could see that in the painting above, called St. Kevin and the Blackbird, after a poem of Heaney's by that title. I'm excited about the exhibit and the opportunity to show with my dear friend and partner at Squeegee Press. And I'm looking forward to what will evolve in the next body of work now that I'm back on track. Times of confusion and frustration are part of the art life, for sure, but fortunately, coming through them with new understanding is as well. In the end, the particulars of this story are not important, but as an illustration of a pattern many of us have experienced, perhaps they are helpful.