In the quarantined Covid year of 2020, I returned to exploring the figure in my mixed media paintings. Even though it’s been years since I’ve used the human figure as a subject, I’ve always considered my paintings “figurative,” containing representations from the real world as they do. I seem to land somewhere between abstraction and representation where composition, layering and playing with the space steer me through the painting. I’ve never been interested in replicating what I can observe outside my window like a photograph. I don’t ever want viewers to forget they are looking at a painting, an object. Instead, I look for ways to get at something more poignant and revealing. Something that feels truer than reality.
As these new paintings evolved, I saw the figures interconnecting with various forms of nature in unusual ways. Birds or bird references have been a recurring image both in my paintings and my recent poems. In an essay on birds a few years ago, I queried, “who doesn’t love a bird?” You couldn’t ask for an image that is more loaded with metaphor, symbolism, psychology and myth. Or sheer beauty and variety. So like a bird, I hunt for crumbs that lead—in a non-linear line—to something that aspires to be poetically convincing.
Years ago, just after graduate school, I made a series of drawings of human figures morphing with animals. It’s a theme that has always been of interest: exploring the ways in which we are like animals and nature, and conversely how we want to perceive human qualities in animals. I’m still wandering through that interconnection and interdependence with nature and how it informs our sensory contact with the world.
The painting process is quite mysterious for me. I don’t do sketches or plan what the painting will become. I may start with one image that feels strong, and then look for associations and connections both in terms of meaning and composition. Beauty is variable. There are no “bad” or “ugly” colors. There might be disturbing or uncomfortable images, but they can also be beautiful.
I regularly paint dead flora and fauna and organs as subjects because I find their decayed forms beautiful. To some people, this feels morbid. And yet, I feel my job as an artist in undertaking this subject is to convince the viewer to have a perception of beauty. I strive for a compelling or significant image rather than what might be considered conventionally beautiful. I attempt to uncover curious juxtapositions between thought, word, memory, dream and reality.
I’ve always been drawn to repetition and pattern, and have used it in different ways throughout my work. The pattern functions as another level of meaning but also helps me play with the space as a flat layer in the composition. I rely on these repeat patterns along with intuitive associations, remembered forms and chance encounters with my chosen materials to provide structure and visual vocabulary.
Fascinated by the history left in a painting, I prefer to let the viewer see evidence of my decisions and where I’ve been in my thought process. This results in a surface that not only exploits the qualities of different media but also different levels of finish. I’ve painted on rice and handmade papers for years. I love the idea that there is no “hierarchy” of materials in order to allow each material to have its own integrity. Just because many artists are taught to begin paintings with pencil and charcoal drawings doesn’t make the pencil and charcoal lines less authentic and true.
Seeing how different media play off each other continues to interest me. One of my favorite professors in art school was fond of frequently saying, “Contrast is a wonderful thing.” And of course, I believe he is right. My greatest hope is that when people view my paintings that they pause. Just as when I’m reading a novel and I come to a paragraph of prose so gorgeous that I drop the book to think about what beauty was just conjured for me. Conjuring beauty in all its forms feels like a lucky way to have spent my life.
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