My work, although mostly non-objective, is grounded in the material world, from landscapes to astronomical objects, including those in the invisible range of the spectrum. I sometimes find representational paintings interesting to do. I don’t, however, think of them as subject matter, but as aids to the viewer – with the images functioning as an armature for the painting.
In Walter Benjamin: an Introduction to His Work and Thoughts (2004 in German, 2010 in English), Uwe Steiner gives a description of Benjamin’s discussion of Critique of Pure Reason, in which Benjamin quotes Kant to the effect, “ . . . ‘that all speculative knowledge is limited to objects of experience,’ and that we can have knowledge of things only insofar as they present themselves as objects of sensory perception, that is, as tangible phenomena.”
Berkeley art majors were required to take, among other classes, Line and Form, and Form and Color. One of the objectives of these courses was to enable students to understand that a form has a distinctively visual function – most easily apprehended in compositional terms with respect to its relationships or interactions with other forms, lines, and with color. Forms do not necessarily convey meaning or posses content.
A form can manifest, or represent, shape, or space. It can have color, either enclosed in it, or as in the open color of Raoul Dufy, a form encompassed by a line might be one form, and an area of open color partially occupying the delineated form might constitute a separate form, overlapping the outlined form, resulting in a complex intersection between two forms – one defined by an outline – the other defined by an area of color.
The above watercolor grew out of drawings of scrub oaks I made at the foot of Venado Peak, a 14,000-foot mountain north of Taos, New Mexico. The painting, at a considerable remove from the initial drawings, is unmediated by representation or narrative.
Some months later I made several paintings based on those drawings. The paintings are non-representational and the motif, while elicited by scrub oak sketches, is based on the madrone tree, a broad leafed evergreen found in coastal areas of the Pacific Northwest, California, and northern Mexico.
I work in a mixed use building located in Fort Bragg, three hours north of San Francisco on the coast near Mendocino.
The painting studio is a cubical area two stories high, with skylights and white walls, but no windows. The back half of the building has a bathroom, an office where I often sleep, and a workroom where I cut mats and mount photographic prints and where my assistant sorts and catalogs my paintings.
The darkroom is in an addition built against the rear of the building. Upstairs there is a small apartment over the office and workroom.
When I bought the building over twenty years ago, the studio and darkroom had open framing and no insulation. They are now finished. The work areas are bright and welcoming. I have installed blackout curtains to facilitate platinum printing. I recently replaced the fluorescent fixtures in the studio with LED work lights that provide enough light of the right color to enable me to paint at night.
I can see the Pacific from the upstairs landing. In 2011 the Mendocino Land Trust bought Hare Creek Beach, a quarter of a mile to the north. I can walk down to the beach on the south side of the creek via a narrow, somewhat steep pathway. The official trail is on the north side. I can sometimes cross the creek where it flows over the sand into the ocean without getting my feet wet. I then hike up to Highway 1, walk south across the bridge, and follow Old Coast Highway back to the studio.
I am conscious of the fact that Edward Weston and Charis Wilson drove along this road while working on Weston’s Guggenheim grant. I often think of them when looking at my mailbox, which is surrounded by berry bushes. They got married in Elk, a town about 20 miles south of here, in 1939.
I joined the Edgewater Gallery in the spring of 2021. It is a twelve member cooperative. The member artists work in a variety of mediums, and styles.
I first went to the Mendocino Coast in the spring of 1964, on a forestry class field trip. I have been coming back ever since. I feel a strong connection to this exceptionally beautiful place, and to friends who were part of the counter culture that took hold here in the early 1970’s.
Shortly after my friend, Kathy Blake, graduated from Berkeley, she moved to Mendocino with her husband, Nat Bingham. Nat was a fisherman. They built a dome and raised a family. Over the years we kept up and visited. When my children were young I brought them up to what I called the reservation, to get them acquainted with my friends, and to share some of my social and ideological roots.
As I do when I travel, I brought cameras – initially 35 mm, and subsequently, the large format cameras I mentioned above. Using a 4″x5″ field camera, I took the photograph to the right at Hare Creek Beach, about a ten minute walk from my studio.
The entire image, from the ground in front of the camera to the horizon line, is in sharp focus. This is accomplished by manipulating the camera’s lens board, and the camera back which houses the ground glass and film holder. (cf. Adams, The Camera, Picker, The Zone VII Workshop.)
This eight-foot wide painting is based on a six-inch wide newspaper clipping in an article about the Galapagos Islands. Working on the painting brought to mind clouds above tropical islands, which I observed from the deck of the Norwegian freighter, MS. Bougainville, on which I worked during a break from university.
My paintings are not about whatever subject matter might be discernible in the motif. They are, however obliquely, related to reality. (More about my process)
This five-foot by four-foot painting is one of several I have come to think of as views from the Ridge Route, looking northward, just before descending on the I-5 into the southern end of California’s Central Valley. The designation suggested itself some time after I completed the paintings.
I’m not sure where my paintings come from.
This photograph is of a sunset on Flathead Lake, in Montana.
The view across the lake motif of the painting beneath the sunset photograph includes a reference to the Moon on the Water Koan. The orange brush strokes at the bottom serve for a reflection on the water. They also refer to the graffiti that high school friends of mine threw up to mark territory.
The photo of the universe, 14 billion light years from earth, shows an array of bright spots of varying colors and shapes — each spot is a galaxy. Some of the spots appear as points of light and look like stars, others are recognizably galaxies.
In Walter Benjamin: an Introduction to His Work and Thoughts (2004 in German, 2010 in English), Uwe Steiner gives a description of Benjamin’s discussion of Critique of Pure Reason, in which Benjamin quotes Kant to the effect, “ ... ‘that all speculative knowledge is limited to objects of experience,’ and that we can have knowledge of things only insofar as they present themselves as objects of sensory perception, that is, as tangible phenomena.”
Much of what my paintings are about is the sensory experience of looking at them.
How does it make one feel when looking at a painting?
When look at a painting, I experience distinctive, simultaneously occurring physical reactions. One occurs a couple of inches below the center of where my rib cage ends (solar plexus). I feel another at the back of my neck in the muscles above the prominent vertebra where the skull meets the spine. A third takes place in an area that can be covered by placing the tips of the four fingers of my right hand - back to front - near the middle of the top of my head a little to the right of center. This last feeling starts on surface of the skin, and seems to seep down through the bone and into my brain.
Beyond this immediate reaction, I am at a loss to describe the particular feeling that comes over me when I look at a painting or a photograph. Sometimes, when I am moving through the world, what I see in front of me snaps into sharp relief, and it feels much the same as when I look at a painting.
When I look at an image on the ground glass of a view camera, I hope to see something that will evoke a reaction similar to what I experience when a painting “feels right,” and offers the possibility that a photographic print might reveal whatever it is that evokes this reaction. Ansel Adams used the expression previsualization. He may have meant what I’m trying to describe.
When all that viewers see is the subject matter, they are missing out on the primary experience of what they are looking at.
The three images to the right, and the one below, include solar references. They are dissimilar in scale and content.
Note in the photo below, the interactions of the ladder, leaning paintings, and the frame of the doorway. Note also the way the ladder and the doorway emphasize the large size of the two canvases. The tension among the linear elements animates the image.
It is enough to look at and contemplate astronomical images without trying to paint them. That said, I sometimes base paintings on black holes and Einstein rings, and other objects, some of which, are visible in the night sky.