The Artists of “Narrative Figuration” discuss their work.
Editor’s Note: Because Daniel Brown is both Editor of Aeqai and the guest curator for the exhibition “Narrative Figuration” at The Weston Gallery in the Aronoff Center, it is Aeqai’s policy that our reviewers not review his shows. Therefore, we have asked the five artists in the show to write a brief artist’s statement about his or her work in the exhibition, and how each artist believes their work fits with the others’. What follows is these five statements. Next month, the exhibition will be reviewed by Sheldon Tapley, Professor of Art at Centre College.
In a passage from John Berger’s essay, Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible, he states,
“The secret was to get inside whatever I was looking at… and, once inside, to arrange its appearances for the better. Better did not mean making the thing seem more beautiful or more harmonious, nor did it mean making it more typical…it simply meant making it more itself.”
The quotation itself poeticizes the practice of seeing, to large extent, however, within it; there is a resounding practical application for perceptual painting. When I first read this passage, my interpretation of it was of a more Platonic reading. That which is initially visible in the physical world is simply an idea of reality; that the truth of perception exists inside of the objects, away from the sensible.
In applying this idea to observational painting, I realized how flawed it was in this sense. Adhering to it would entirely neglect the material that makes a painting. The physical world holds all of the pertinent information for painting, not the metaphysical. A truly perceptual painter is concerned with the looking. What elevates it is the manner in which it is arranged and how beautifully it is seen. As a painter, I am invited inside of the things I paint. Not to see them more clearly, but to arrange them perfectly, in an attempt to break free of the idealism of the object and present them as honestly and as uniquely as they actually exist on the surface.
The paintings in Narrative Figuration hold close this idea. Essentially, they are about the work of looking. They are arrangements of unique, unrepeatable information.
-Daniel P. O’Connor
The motif for this body of work is an isolated figure confronted with a stark interior environment. The isolation of the figure, I believe, allows the viewer to enter into the subject’s psychological space, as well as think about the figure’s external relationship with its surroundings. For me, this simultaneity is at the heart of the conceptual drive for these paintings.
Another important element of the work is the implied motion of the figures. The work is centered around the idea of the mundane or the everyday and, as living organisms, we are in a constant state of flux, or motion, in one way or another. I strongly believe that when interpreting something external through paint, there always is going to be a level of abstraction from the original source. Once I realized that there really wasn’t a strong separation between abstraction and perceptual painting, it freed me to make unorthodox formal decisions which still adhering to real-life experiences.
Drawing has always been the backbone of my painting process. To me, the two mediums (drawing and painting) are so interconnected that it is hard to disassociate one’s qualities from the other. In my working process, I am constantly going back and forth between quick gestural painting and clean linear work, which helps me organize the composition and the form. I do this in an attempt to create a physical tension on the surface while still maintaining a sense of accuracy.
When looking at the work in this show as a whole, one can see that the strongest visual tie between all of our paintings is our passion for drawing from direct observation. We all have drawn together every Tuesday night for years. In my opinion, working around the great talent that my peers display is one of the best ways to not get complacent and keep pushing myself to progress as an artist.
– Rob Anderson
Our work is autobiographical–scenes from our studios, others with our intimates. An artist and husband placing us where he stood as he looked deep into his wife’s eyes and slowly formed her image. One shows a low viewpoint perhaps from the bathtub…a solitary moment…time to study a spent toilet paper tube resting quietly on a towel rack. No person depicted here but still the human presence and viewpoint is vital. The work in this exhibition speaks to our artistic lineage…to Vermeer, Rembrandt, Degas, ter Borch, Chardin, Morandi…no cynicism here or art speak declarations. Nothing to shock the audience. These are paintings to remind us to savor and consider, to slow down and notice that light reveals surfaces and spaces and at times our souls.
My friends and family ofter inspiration. They are part themselves/part actors in a drama that comes from an observed moment captured as on film, but with time, transforms into something larger than that moment. In “I wanted yellow singing and the sun”, I capture a connection that is strong but a moment of non-connection as well that cuts deeply. The small “I wait without wonder” also shares in this dual communication. Here the architecture of the room and the placement of the figures declares them in trouble. Separation is palpable, almost nauseating. In “we waste days like mad blackbirds”, I was sitting where you stand as you view the painting, across the table witnessing a moment of discomfort between a brother and sister. They are both displeased but intensely tied to each other. The male’s face becomes a mask. He closes off in every way. She has said something uncomfortable but then thinks twice. Her posture bathed in light is beginning to change and retreat from the comment. This is the kitchen we grew up in.
Loaded with the memories and tensions of family. I am interested in relationships. In particular those moments of transition in a relationship when there is an estrangement or even the feeling of contempt. All intimacies have such poignant moments, each player feeling the duality of being both close to yet far from the other. This is a confusing time. Gender roles have expanded and been reshaped. What is it to be a wife? A husband? A lover? An adult son or daughter? We are living longer with more possibilities and more hopes and desires. This results in a larger set of expectations for ourselves and within our relationships. I draw on many painterly styles to add these layers of meaning to my narratives. My paintings are about contemporary life yet also give homage to the great art works of the past.
– Tina Tammaro
The primary concern of my work is the formational importance of place. We construct spaces that, in turn, construct us. My paintings and drawings explore these places and offer a consideration of how they shape identity, over time, often through repetitive activities associated with such spaces. Because my primary place is a suburban home, shared with my wife and children, much of my work deals specifically with interior domestic space and the routine tasks of homemaking such as paying the bills, doing the laundry, sweeping the floor. Through contemporary genre scenes, I am exploring how the daily domestic task and environment is both shaped by an individual and, reflexively, shapes the individual. The repetitive commonplace labors of the domestic narrative become rituals that order and form our identities over time. While often overlooked, these quotidian activities develop a subtle spirituality of place cultivated by the comings and goings of a home. My work is seeking to capture a moment, or “pause”, in the domestic experience that will allow the viewer to consider how they have been shaped by similar moments. As an artist, my work is informed by the tradition of 16th and 17th century Dutch genre painters and seeks to learn from and build upon their particular technical and conceptual processes even as I offer a current expression of the domestic narrative.
The works included in Narrative Figuration represent several transitions in my work over the past few years. First, the work has transitioned from a centralized, iconic figure within the environment to depictions of the figure marginalized or eliminated entirely from the environment. Thus the earlier works were “about” the figure, and therefore still related somewhat to a tradition of portraiture. The newer works are more about the space itself, and I think of them as “spatial portraits.” I am interested in how much these spaces still have to say, even when the individuals they usually contain have left those spaces behind. Second, the paintings have transitioned in terms of paint application, moving from highly rendered images developed through successive glazes to more recent works that evidence a flatter surface where the paint is applied more opaquely, often with a various knives or trowels. Earlier work utilized a pre-modern technique (representational, illusionistic depth) communicating a postmodern concept (the contextually constructed identity of an individual). Currently I believe the work is discovering a modern “middle ground” as the paint finds the surface, flattening out into abstraction. Finally, a third shift is toward a more geometrically abstract division of space. Just as these depicted spaces have a formational impact upon the individual within them, I am interested in how leveraging perspective and pushing the sub-divisions of the compositional space can cultivate a similar potency in the viewing experience of the painting itself, developing what I hope is a formal narrative that carries beyond the literal narrative.
I believe my work finds resonance with the other works in the show through its investigation of commonplace, often understated subject matter. Each of the works in the exhibition seem founded upon the premise that nearly anything, if given enough sustained attention, can yield deep meaning. Each of the artist’s in Narrative Figuration believe in the potency and beauty of the everyday. Where my work seems to differ from the rest is in its conceptual origin. Whereas the other artist’s seem drawn to the direct perceptual experience of image-making, my work is attempting to use perceptual investigation blended with compositional editing to explore a social phenomena – namely, how individuals are effected by the spaces they inhabit and the repetitive activities associated with those spaces.
– Tim Parsley
The artist Pierre Bonnard famously said: “I should like to present myself to the young painters of the year 2000 with the wings of a butterfly.”
I look at Bonnard’s work a lot, so I suppose his wish was granted. His work is timeless in the truest sense. The work floats unfettered by the published momentum of art history. The impact and mystery of the work trump any questions regarding its subject matter or time period. Other works that speak this way to me stretch from Egyptian funeral portraits to contemporary artist Nan Goldin’s photo and video work. I hope that my own work can grow to operate this way.
Painting is a creative act. At its foundation is the belief that something new is always possible. Painting is the documentation of a unique experience. The mental inspiration and the physical process of making a work are separate experiences. I may have a fleeting vision of something that provides the emotional fuel for what could be long and arduous work. In the world of painting, a memory of a feeling is enough to magnetize an object person or space so that it becomes an object of desire within my painterly vision. Generally these are people and things that have deep resonance for me, but I am interested in objects unrelated to my life that remind me of something in the most poetic sense. This is similar to when the smell of an air freshener in a public restroom brings you back to summer camp. The feeling is an invitation, the material and psychological process that follow are the new relationship. The fruits of that relationship are as varied as the versions of the color white visible to the eye.
Technically, my paintings are evidence of a physical encounter. Light, shadow, color, texture, smell, temperature, these things deeply affect the physical result. The paintings should simultaneously feel familiar and foreign because they invite the viewer to see the world through someone else’s eyes.
The subjects I paint are mundane and nameable, but the resulting work is fresh and un-traveled. The subject of the painting becomes un-nameable because it encapsulates time spent touching and adjusting the painting, time spent with the objects of consideration, and the emotional vapors of my own inner life and personality.
In the show at the Weston gallery, narrative has a place in the paintings displayed. It is important to note that storytelling can take many forms. A painter has many avenues for storytelling in the technical capabilities of his materials. We think of traditional narrative as having rising action, climax, and falling action. This rhythmic ebb and flow is present in the various formal concerns of a painting. From across a room there is the light, color, and form that is personal to each artist, this is already enough to tell a story. We are in unique spaces with unique characters. Given a single object, each of us would produce a work with unique personality. Upon closer inspection, our works reveal even more personality. The paint itself has mini climaxes, crescendos, changes in speed and character as it moves over the surface. This provides sophisticated visual information to the brain of the viewer, and the narrative becomes more complex. The artist attempts to create this experience by seeking a personal response, where ocular perception collides with and marries the bias of individual personality. What is left over is mysterious, a visual prayer whose intentions are as shifting as the diverse viewers who see the work are.
– Emil Robinson