Friday, December 3, 2010

Landscape and Roadside Vernacular

“Landscape could be seen as the first cognitive encounter with a place.”(1) – W.J.T. Mitchell

The tradition of landscape within the context of roadside vernacular is one that interests me and appears in my work as a painter. I am going to explore the concept of landscape and how that plays out within the genre of roadside vernacular. By roadside vernacular I am referring to a visual language that includes signage, architecture, roads and other various stimuli. In order to understand the specificity of roadside one must look at the notion of landscape first. I will be looking to photography and painting with the hope of having a discussion about the philosophical notion on the tradition of landscape with regard to nature, memory and loss.

The term landscape is a reflection on land-based forms in nature, which include all elements of land and water formations, rivers, lakes, mountains, deserts, oceans and all of the natural vegetation and living creatures that exist within these elements. Additionally, landscape can be looked at as a cultural overlay of man’s footprint onto the earth, which includes the visual evidence of man’s presence within the landscape. It is within the examination and exploration of the cultural overlay where roadside vernacular exists and where the idea of public and private space, regionalism and sense of place, along with memory and loss reside.

Part of the equation of understanding landscape is to look at the complexity that exists in the act of simply viewing. It may be important to define the role of the artist and the viewer as separate yet similar, and not that dissimilar to that of looking at a natural vista verses a work of art. In the book Landscape and Power, W.J.T. Mitchell discusses the dilemma that exists in understanding the conceptual bases and process of navigating the term landscape,

“The vernacular expression suggests that the invitation to look at landscape is an invitation not to look at any specific thing, but to ignore all particulars in favor of an appreciation of a total gestalt, a vista or scene that may be dominated by some specific feature, but is not simply reducible to the feature.” (2)

To further develop or understand the idea of landscape it is important to address the convergence used to construct landscape as a “dialectical triad, a conceptual structure that may be activated from several different angles” of “space, place, and landscape.”(3) The idea of place can be defined as a specific place or geographic location, or as “a notion of place as the location of the Lacanian Real, the site of trauma or historical event.” (4) Seeing place this way is to think of the landscape as a “memorial or monument erected to mark a place.”(5) In looking at space one can arrive at the notion of space in several ways, one as a “holy space”(6) , or as a “human space” (7) which can be symbolic of a sacred or holy event.

Now, I would like to move on and look at specific works of what I am calling roadside vernacular with the final intent of comparing two works, Edward Ruscha’s, Twenty Six Gasoline Stations, and David Hockney’s, Pearblossom Hwy. The first painting I would like to reference is by Dutch painter Simon de Vlieger, Landscape with Haymakers at the Left, about 1640 - 1653 [Fig. 1]. The medium is black chalk with grey wash. I use this as an example because while the painting is of the natural landscape, it clearly references the road as the main avenue by which the viewer’s eyes are led to the distant grove of trees. Interestingly de Vlieger was mostly a marine painter whose limited pallet is carried over into this landscape as well. The next painting I have chosen is by French painter Camille Pissarro, 
Louveciennes, Route de Saint-Germain, 1871 [Fig. 2]. This watercolor over black chalk with the muted pallet and atmospheric sky primarily depicts the particular season and the approach of winter. Pissarro has painted into the painting a reference to man by painting a small carriage at the center of the horizon line. These two paintings provide an excellent example of painting the vista without focusing on the particular but capturing instead more of the overall feeling of the environment. Additionally, although painted more than 200 years apart each convey a similar visual statement.

For the next two examples I have chosen two photographs, Fontainebleau, 1856 by Gustave Le Gray [Fig. 3] and The Road West / Highway to the West, U.S. 54 in Southern New Mexico, negative 1938, print 1965 by Dorothea Lange [Fig. 4]. “Though Gustave Le Gray was trained as a painter, he made his mark in the emerging medium of photography.”(8) Dorothea Lange was most known for her work in photography when she began to work for the Resettlement Administration (later the Farm Security Administration) in 1953. “During this period, she made her most famous image, Human Erosion in California (Migrant Mother), of Native American Florence Owens Thompson and her children in a pea-pickers' camp.” (9) Both of these photographs depict the expansiveness of the roadway with no particular destination at the horizon line. Each communicates a strong and striking bareness of the landscape, all the while portraying man’s existence but without a direct indication of man other than the road itself.

Edward Ruscha and David Hockney, each known primarily as painters, have used various media in their exploration as artist and thinkers. Each artist emerged under the umbrella of Pop Art, which was directly influenced by popular culture and post war consumerism driven by mass media advertising. Each artist was a transplant to the Los Angeles area - Ruscha coming from Oklahoma and Hockney arriving from England - each arriving approximately around the same period of time. It was during Ruscha’s many long trips back to Oklahoma that he began taking photographs of US Route 66, which spanned between Chicago and Santa Monica. Much like Duchamp, Ruscha’s fascination is with the ready-made and the conceptual aspect of the “sleek interstates freeways and on – and - off ramps.” (10) “I had a vision that I was being a great reporter when I did the gas stations” (9). When Ruscha photographed the many gas stations his perception was much like Walker Evans and what he called the “frontal view” and portrayed what he called “roadside reality”(11) or “manufactured reality.” (12) 26 Gasoline Stations, [Fig. 5] is a conceptual piece and one of the many books Ruscha has completed during his career.

Pearblossom Hwy, [Fig. 6] is a photo collage, which Hockney called "joiners”. In this photo collage he constructs a fully imagined “roadside reality”(13) . He, like Evans, Lang, Ruscha and Le Gray, has used photography as his medium, and through his use of “Polaroid prints and later of 35mm commercially processed color prints” , he has developed a fully imagined reality, which differs from Evans and Ruscha’s reality based on architecturally altered landscape. In so doing he transforms his work into a hyper imagined reality. Hockney, too, has taken the full frontal perspective where there appears no perceivable destination waiting on the horizon. Hockney when describing his intent,

“I’ve no doubt that those photographs I took will make people look at everything in a more interesting way—the little tear on one piece of paper, the shadow on another. But good painting has always done that—made you see things. And the most ordinary can be the most extraordinary.”(14)

It can clearly be stated that the landscape tradition of roadside vernacular is a well-established tradition. For me the ultimate mystery or paradox is in the changing typography of the landscape and where new meanings develop almost daily with technology. It is Hockney’s theatricality and his highly developed portrayal that is the most interesting characteristic and might be conceived as the most conceptual. In our daily lives as we face our computer screen, iPad, large high tech sound and supersized projection systems along with developing social platforms like Facebook, Twitter and the like, that we experience a new lived and embodied tradition of landscape, nature, memory and sense of place.

Dorothea Lange, The Road West / Highway to the West, U.S. 54 in Southern New Mexico,
American, negative 1938, print 1965, Gelatin silver print, 7 3/8 x 9 3/8 in.

David Hockney, Pearblossom Hwy., 11 - 18th April 1986, #2,
Chromogenic prints mounted on paper honeycomb panel
78 x 111 in.

(1) W.J.T. Mitchell, Landscape and Power, University of Chicago Press, 1994, 2002, p. vii.
(2) W.J.T. Mitchell, Landscape and Power, University of Chicago Press, 1994, 2002, p. vii.
(3) W.J.T. Mitchell, Landscape and Power, University of Chicago Press, 1994, 2002, p. xi.
(4) W.J.T. Mitchell, Landscape and Power, University of Chicago Press, 1994, 2002, p. xi.
(5) W.J.T. Mitchell, Landscape and Power, University of Chicago Press, 1994, 2002, p. xi.
(6) Getty Museum,
(7) Getty Museum,
(8) Richard D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, Phaidon Press Limited, 2003, p 58
(9) Richard D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, Phaidon Press Limited, 2003, p 58
(10) Richard D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, Phaidon Press Limited, 2003, p 9
(11) Richard D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, Phaidon Press Limited, 2003, p 9
(12) Getty Museum,
(13) Richard D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, Phaidon Press Limited, 2003, p 9
(14) Getty Museum,

Works sited:
W.J.T. Mitchell, Landscape and Power, University of Chicago Press, 1994, 2002
Getty Museum
Richard D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, Phaidon Press Limited, 2003

Monday, November 8, 2010

VIEWS ON THE EVERY DAY: Roy Lichtenstein and Ralph Goings

“A beautiful painting can be made of anything —
ordinary, uninteresting, or whatever.” —
Ralph Goings

At the start of this semester, while visiting New York, before even thinking about this investigation, I felt fortunate to have been able to see the Lichtenstein still life exhibition last June at the Gagosian Gallery. Having mostly known Lichtenstein for his comic book strip paintings, his still life paintings provided me with up-close information on the materiality of his work – the use of strips and Ben Day Dots that create the painted yet illusionistic look of mechanically produced and printed works. Also included in the exhibition were small quick sketches using pencil and paint that provided me with detailed information not only about the development of his working ideas but information about his skill as a painter. The sketches were minimal yet vibrant gestural jewels. For this project the challenge in looking at the life’s work of painters Roy Lichtenstein and Ralph Going was to pick one painting from each artist that would be representative of their work with the hope or intent of having a conversation about their key roles in the genre of painting within Pop Art and Photo Realism. Their visual language weaves a similar thread where in lies their mutual love of the everyday object. Each artist through the use of mechanical devices, canvas and paint, depicts a narrative about contemporary society and more importantly what one could perceive as representations of American culture and the dream of utopia.

Pop Art and Photo Realism, more alike than not, share a common desire to understand what differentiates High Art from Low Art and additionally to address what the artists perceived as the commoditization of art. Artists painting within Pop Art and Photorealism were driven to investigate and question the galleries, collectors, and museums. They juxtaposed notions of high art against common print marketing propaganda within the subject matter of their works and in the process defined what was happening with in popular culture and mass media advertising. This investigation provided a view into the social and economic post war America. Largely these stylistic approaches’ were in response to America’s booming post war consumer culture. It was during the 1950s and 1960s that advertising agencies developed unprecedented, highly designed, narratives. The overall consistent message was that anything could be made better, along with the idea and assumed promise of a higher quality of living and better way of life. Though Lichtenstein and Goings process, primarily defined by materials and subject matter differ greatly on many levels, each speaks to the every day common and most banal representations of American life.

Lichtenstein looked no further than newspapers, comic strips, magazines, telephone books, along with well known works by other artists which were reproduced in print media, as his starting place for his often larger than life works. Lichtenstein’s initial idea was to use works created by a commercial artist and whose works were not perceived as art but non-art. Lichtenstein stated his desired effect was, “I’d always wanted to know the difference between a mark that was art and one that wasn’t.” In Lichtenstein’s investigation, and to get his paintings right and have a high level of integrity in his painting process, he used what was called the Ben Day Dot, a process developed and used in commercial printing applications. With extreme accuracy he painted, using countless individual dots on his canvas, painting with oils and the limited palette used in actual printing process. He was able to paint the printing process in his paintings. This gave his work consistency and in addition gave the viewer the information which had been provided in his original source. Not only was painting the printed process important to the authenticity of his work but gender identification used in advertising was an important aspect of Lichtenstein’s work. For example, in Step-on Can with Leg, (1961) (figure 1) women were used in advertising as extensions of house hold appliances. In this two-panel, oil on canvas, Lichtenstein demonstrates exactly how the woman, while dressed in her high heels, can dispose of the trash without having to physically touch the trash can.

Lichtenstein’s satirical view, not only of the art world, but contemporary social and gender issues, played out over and over again in his paintings. When looking at Girl with Ball, 1961, an ad taken from the Sunday supplement of the New York Times, one can see how Lichtenstein has modified the image in order to create a more dramatic, sexually heightened and cynical view of advertising.

It was Gallerist Ivan Karp along with Louis K. Melsel who helped define the term photo realist painter with one overall rule: that the photo realisest painter must have the ability to “make a painting look photographic.” Like Pop Art, Photo Realism conveys accurate depictions of American life. The use of photography provided artists with the ability to “achieve a much greater degree of formal accuracy.” When one looks at the very nature of photography that captures everything in the lens, one can understand how this played in Goings heightened sense of realism while additionally providing accurate information about light, shadow, reflective surfaces, as well as completely informed visual detail. Relying on the photograph alleviated relying on human observations, “we simply cannot see everything at once with the same clarity.”

Photo Realist painter Ralph Goings has a fascination with the working man’s unpretentious environment. Consistently he has painted the working pickup truck; most often the truck is an older truck which might have been restored to its original condition without the addition of a lot of chrome and fancy gadgets added to the vehicle. The trucks are consistently placed in a typical environment either in front of a diner, residential house, or a store. Goings, who shoots many photographs, will choose one final photograph from which he will work. He builds the canvas to fit the image so there will not be any editing of the original photo. He believes in maintaining the original integrity of the photograph by working within the confines of the information provided. Unlike artist like Edward Hopper who worked from artist renderings and life, Goings feels that working from life unavoidably adds an undesirable element by conveying the artist own feelings or emotions into the painting, thus rendering the image nostalgic or sentimental. By working directly from the photo Goings desire is to keep the painting pristine and original to the photograph, as well as free from any unwanted sentimentality. In choosing Moby Dick as the painting to represent Goings work, I wanted a painting that depicts not only the working truck but the neighborhood in which the truck probably resides.

As important as the truck is as a representation of American life, my personal fascination is with the American home and home ownership. It was the GI Bill of Rights that not only provided post war American veterans with the opportunity for an all expenses paid college education but also provided them with the opportunity to own a home by providing government funded low interest home loans. When one looks at defining what is at the core of the American dream or the implied meaning of Utopia it could be the image of the working truck, strong working men, and smart beautiful women. The idea of home ownership has become synonymous and representative of this American dream. It is interesting when we look at recent events to see how corporate greed and predatory lending practices which have undermined this historic dream.

Lichtenstein and Goings, within the confines of their particular genre, have similarities which go beyond their visual language and iconic imagery. Lichtenstein’s use of paint, his machine-like, ultra smooth application of the paint, leaves no trace of the human mark. Goings, like Lichtenstein, applies his paint to the ultra smooth surface so that for a moment the viewer is uncertain whether the work is a photograph printed on canvas or a painting. Each artist in their visual dialogue looks at the trappings or evidence of life in America with an eye for irony and humor as well as a little cynicism.

Works Sited:

Linda Chase, Ralph Goings, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publisher
Janis Hendrickson, Lichtenstein, Teschen Publisher

Janet Bishop, Michael Auping, Jonathan Weinberg, and Charles Ray, Robert Bechtle: A Retrospective, University of California Press

Natasha Vargas-Cooper, Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America, Harper Collins Publishers

Edited by Mark Francis, Survey by Hal Foster, Pop, Phaidon Publishers

Brink Lindsey, The Age of Abundance, How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture, Harper Collins Publishers

Thomas J. Craughwell, The Book of Art, Tess Press

Monday, September 20, 2010

American Roadside Vernacular: Nostalgia and Its Implications

Images: Edward Ruscha, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Ralph Goings

“Caution: Objects in this mirror may be closer than they appear!”
– Jean Baudrillard

In my youth traveling across the country from the California Bay Area to the flat open fields of Iowa and Nebraska, it was the long car rides that offered many educational, interesting and provocative encounters that fed my imagination. The roadside was full of fanciful visual stimuli - from pink dinosaurs 20 feet in height, to mock tee pees, bold graphic gasoline signs and all manner of advertising signage. In the roadside diners there was the clinking sound of coffee cups and reflective glimmer of napkin holders and catsup bottles that rested on tables. I remember being somewhat mesmerized by these unorthodox displays of a wonderland of amusement park like attractions. I felt conflicted by what I saw - what was real and what was merely theatrical display meant to pull us in off the road. There have been many artists, painters as well as photographers, who experienced the American landscape in such a way that it influenced and directed their work. In this essay I would like to look at these shared experiences, with the hope of understanding their work and get a bearing on mine as well. Artists like Wayne Thiebaud, Edward Ruscha, Ralph Goings, Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns whose work has been shaped by American folklore have directly influenced my work.

In looking at post war 1950s America we see the rise of the Abstract Expressionist movement thought to be Americas “first avant-guard movement” which was a direct response to European Expressionism. American avant-guard gave way in the 1960s to more conceptually based works by artists which were a reaction to popular culture, mass media and consumer culture. Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein who painted iconic images of soup cans and comic book characters presented a satirical view of consumerism and commoditization while blurring the lines between fine art and commercial art. It is important when looking at Thiebaud, Ruscha, Goings and Johns to put their work in the context of Pop Art in order to fully understand where their works fit in a historical reference and to establish a relationship between the artist and their work.

Wayne Thiebaud, born in the US in 1920, was encapsulated into the Pop Art movement due mostly to his formalist paintings of display case consumer goods; cakes, cup cakes and slices of pie. The similarities between Thiebaud, Warhol and Lichtenstein exist in the “love hate relationship with commercial art” and bold highly graphic reductive and seductive depictions of common objects. Like Thiebaud, Edward Ruscha was classically trained in traditional graphic design. On several road trips across America Ruscha became fascinated by roadside vernacular and in particular with the overstated grandeur of gas stations signs. Ruscha, who lived in Southern California, was influenced by Hollywood theatricality and chose to cross the lines between bill board mentality and American consumerism by depicting and drawing attention to the graphically flattened highly reductive imagery of Standard Stations that dotted the American landscape. For Ruscha it is the crossing of the line between design and painting that was and is his investigation. Ruscha’s self identification, to this day, has maintained his practice to be that of a painter and it is his distinguishable conceptually based works that are based in response to consumer cultural.

What has and continues to separate Thiebaud from pop artist is the bold brush work and heavy materiality of his paint. Lichtenstein, when talking about Abstract Expressionism, described the differences as “tension between apparent object-directed products and actual ground-directed processes” that “is an important strength of Pop Art.” Thiebaud had a strong kinship with abstract expressionist painter William De Kooning and both painters identified a deep seated love of paint, ground and process. As stated by De Kooning, “painting was a lot more important than art.” Both Theibaud and De Kooning painted from life but more in an experiential way, a way of referencing the real but from memory. The fundamental goal or desire of Pop Art is to “look out into the world” and “if there is a radical edge in Pop it lies here: less in its thematic opposition of low content and high form, and more in its structured identity of simple sign and exalted painting.”

Photorealist painter Ralph Goings and photorealism challenged the very nature of the idea of art and the making of art and its process. Goings worked directly from photographs, projecting the image onto the canvas and painting in an illusionistic manner as to reproduce the photographic quality. “He crammed the paintings with visual effects, featuring extremely neutral even banal subject matter. There exist in them no romance, no hints at intuitive insights, no sensitive brushwork or quirks of drawing.” One would ask why Goings wouldn’t, like Thiebaud, want to convey the feeling or visceral response of the paint to the painting? During the 1960s in the Bay Area and the beginning of photorealism - paintings were intended to go directly against Abstract Expressionism and challenge the idea of art. Going’s idea was “with the personality of the artist taken out of the loop, all that remains are objects and settings harshly and brilliantly exposed under the bright California sunshine. The effect can be unsettling and overwhelming, an invitation to become immersed in the visual wealth and splendor contained in a mundane environment.”

Fredrick Jameson in his discussion on Postmodernisms and the existence of a consumer culture states, “postmodernism is the effacement of some key boundaries or separations, mostly the erosion of the older distinction between high culture and so-called mass or popular culture.” It is the blending of pop culture and art that leads authors, song writers, and artist to look at advertising and how that shaped the American landscape, specifically in looking at “heart’s destinations” like Santa Fe and Las Vegas. As Jean Baudrillard has remarked, “Las Vegas is a theme park, like Disney-Land, except for the fact that people live in Las Vegas.” “Often euphemistically called modernization, postindustrial or consumer society, the society of media or the spectacle, or multinational capitalism” this presents a new type of social life or social order, the American Dream or dream of utopia.

Postmodernism, photorealism, and the other influences have shaped my philosophical attitudes and work processes. As a youth I was struck by roadside vernacular: specifically an individual could be enterprising, own their small business - be it a market, diner, or gas station - and successfully live out the American dream by supporting themselves and their family. Just a few short years ago, now as an adult, while traveling in Utah I was struck by the changing American landscape and how that has played out with the advent of the strip mall and chain superstores.

I see my work as more documentary, painting from digital snapshots and appropriated images. Not unlike many artists, Edward Hopper, Robert Bechtel, and Edward Ruscha, my background is in traditional graphic design and painting as visual communication. In my paintings I paint with a measure of restraint, a sense of proportion that I take to be the unspoken vocabulary of the vanishing middle-class.

Today, our senses are so bombarded with technologically enhanced stimuli: email, cell phone calls, text messages and the like. Our sense of proportion so overwhelmed by the scale of materially supersized commodities: cars, houses, televisions, sodas, bodies, etc., and our sense of nature so increasingly disengaged from our sense of self by climate change, genetic engineering, even plastic surgery, that it seems harder and harder to maintain a healthy, normal, measured bearing toward the world. My aesthetic goal is two-fold: to evoke the residue of the past and to provide the viewer with a visual respite from their very busy lives. These two are not as unrelated as they might at first seem. Respite in reflective nostalgia for a simpler world may indeed be a meaningful and resonant social and political position.

Art, or more specifically beauty, has the capacity to not just alter and expand our consciousness but also to connect us more deeply to the world we live in. A good painting or sculpture affects us bodily. Good art is superior magic - a slight of hand that shifts space and bends time. The seductive painterly effects that steal our time and dislocate us are nothing other than precisely what I refer to as the visual respite from our daily lives. Art is the formal corollary of the "American Dream" and "the open road."

Works cited:
Jean Baudrillard, America, Verso Press, 1989, p 1
Paul Fabozzi, Artists, Critics, Context, Readings in and around American Art Since 1945, Prentice Hall Press, p 102
Paul Fabozzi, Artists, Critics, Context, Readings in and around American Art Since 1945, Prentice Hall Press, p 103
Hal foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Art Since 1900, Press Thanes & Hudson, p448
Adam Gopnik, Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective, Thames & Hudson Press, p 48
Roy Lichtenstein, Artnews, 1963, What is Pop Art?”, published in Paul Fabozzi, Artists, Critics, Context, Readings in and around American Art Since 1945, Prentice Hall Press, p 103
Hal foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Art Since 1900, Press Thanes & Hudson, p448
John Parks, From Watercolor, Fall 1996, Ok Harris Gallery, Artist Profiles: Ralph Goings,
John Parks, From Watercolor, Fall 1996, Ok Harris Gallery, Artist Profiles: Ralph Goings,
Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism and consumer Society, The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, Hall Foster, The New Press, 1989, p128
Dave Hickey, Dialectical Utopias, On Santa Fe and Las Vegas, Harvard Design Magazine, p 1
Dave Hickey, Dialectical Utopias, On Santa Fe and Las Vegas, Harvard Design Magazine, p 1
Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism and consumer Society, The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, Hall Foster, The New Press, 1989, p129

Saturday, August 14, 2010

American Perspectives: Edward Hopper and Robert Bechtle

“We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.”
– Anais Nin

In 2009 I attended an exhibition at the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco entitled Edward Hopper And Company. The exhibition juxtaposed the works of Hopper with works from eight photographers spanning the years 1936 to 1974. The exhibition included the works of Robert Adams, Diane Arbus, Harry Callahan, Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank, Walker Evans, William Eggleston and Stephen Shore. My fascination with Edward Hopper predates this exhibition by many years. Hopper’s iconography - strong use of shadow and edited compositions - presented many questions for me as an artist. Seeing this comparative exhibition provided new insight into how Hopper influenced other artists, including myself.

Similar to Hopper, the Bay Area painter Robert Bechtle uses American iconic images of the mundane, commonplace roadside. Each artist, within the confines of a canvas, speaks the same language, of a time frozen or a moment in between to communicate a particular stillness and quiet. In this essay, I explore Hopper and Bechtle to further understand their similarities and differences. In the process, I gained insight into my own work and my fascination with commonplace images that we often overlook. By looking at educational background and other significant influences I’m able to understand Hopper’s art as well as the influence his work has had on other artists, particularly that of photorealist Robert Bechtle.

Painter Robert Henri taught at the New York School of Art where Hopper was a student and directly influenced the young artist. Henri an American educated in Europe at the École des Beaux Arts was directly influenced by the Impressionists. Most notable for Henri was an exhibition he organized called The Eight, associated with the Ash Can School. Their work, sometimes called newspaper artists, focused on a fascination with realism and every day scenes in urban environments.

After completing his education Hopper traveled throughout Europe and lived in Paris for a year. Upon the advice of Hoppers parents he, like many artists such as Arthur Dove, Mark Tobey and most notably Andy Warhol, worked as an illustrator and commercial artist. At the age of 31 Hopper sold his first painting, which would remain his only sale for another ten years.

The year 1918 marked the establishment of the Whitney Studio Club in New York where independent artists were given an opportunity to exhibit their work. Hopper was among the founding members of the club, which was later to become the Whitney Museum of American Art. The first one-man show of the oils that Hopper had done in Paris took place in the Whitney Studio in 1920.”

Through his life’s work Hopper investigated the relationship between nature and civilization, perception on perspective, and edited and cropped the information presented to the viewer. Probably the most important question he engaged with was; what is reality? His art was a well “informed pursuit that drew inspiritation from American writers, Ernest Hemingway and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Along with an educated understanding of art, art history, conceptualism and philosophy, he addressed cultural and social issues surrounding urban life in America. His perceptions played out much like the Surrealists who had a special eye for “the trite, ordinary, and supposedly insignificant things.” Through a series of sketches and mental impressions Hopper presented a consistent simplified narrative of contemporary urban American lives. “This resulted in “that strange combination of distance and intimacy that is such a fascinating yet provoking feature of Hopper’s paintings. This draws us into the picture, which at the same time attempts to exclude us.”

Much like Hopper American photorealist painter Robert Bechtle was trained as an illustrator while getting his MFA in 1958 at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, California (now called California College of Arts, or CCA). This San Francisco Bay Area artist taught at San Francisco State University and currently maintains a studio in Portrero Hill. Most noted for his portrayal of mundane American middle class neighborhoods, as well as urban scenes from everyday life, his overall concern is to address that which portrayed what he thought of as the character of American life.

In the early 1970s Bechtle took on what he called “the beastliness of American cars” of that period. He played with composition by cropping and making the car look mutilated. He also had architectural structure – be it a house or an apartment building - fit the canvas in order to have the paintings “look less like a brochure.” He relished the type of photograph “that pictured the car owners with their prized possession, and they were immediately understood as such, by people looking at them.”

When looking at Bechtle, the artist, the social and cultural context of his early work is important. The documentary Berkeley in the Sixties shows the developing political climate, which started in 1964 with non violent student demonstrations addressing civil rights and freedom of speech. Out of this synergy of organized students came the development of other significant movements. One such was called the Viet Nam Day Committee which organized the first demonstrations protesting the Viet Nam war. Another was the formation in Oakland of the Black Panther Party in 1966, and demonstrations on the Women’s Rights Movement in 1968. Concurrent with the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, during this time frame the Bay Area Figurative Movement emerged, lead by painters Richard Deibenkorn, David Parks, Elmer Bishof and Joan Brown. Bay Area Figurative was in direct response to what was happening in New York with Abstract Expressionism. Bay Area Figurative opened the door for other ideas and distinctions in the West, and one such was Photorealism.

Bechtel’s initial use of the camera was a way to document images for potential paintings. Eventually his 35 millimeter slides were projected onto the canvas with the attempt to “achieve a much greater degree of formal accuracy.” When one looks at the very nature of photography that captures everything in the lens one can understand how this played into his heightened sense of realism while additionally providing greater information about color accuracy. Relying on the photograph alleviated relying human observations “we simply cannot see everything at once with the same clarity.”

Bechtle participated in an exhibition at the San Francisco Art Institute called East Bay Realist. The exhibition included Bechtle, McLean, Charles Gill and Gerald Gooch, all of whom went to CCAC with Bechtle and worked from photographic source material. In a quote in ArtForum about Bechtle’s work, critic James Monte said, “that he under played the artfulness of his work and focused more on social issues.” In another exhibition curated by Linda Nochlin which included Robert Bechtle, she wrote, “it is exactly this sort of accuracy of meaningless detail which is essential to realism - it is what exactly anchors realist work in a concrete rather than an ideal or poetic reality.” It was Gallerist Ivan Karp along with Louis K. Melsel who helped define the term photorealist painter with one overall rule: that the photorealisest painter must have the ability to “make a painting look photographic.”

Comparing the works of both Hopper and Bechtle, one can see their attraction to urban environments and their individual need to address the contemporary look of man in his environment. Their individual and distinctive views were influenced by contemporary political and social issues and thus played out very differently on the canvas. Hopper chose not to use the camera after finding that it changed his oeuvre. Hopper’s use of editing is more tied to the Impressionist’s philosophy and portrays a romanticism, and in the process portrays a unique world created by Hopper. Bechtle’s exactitude through his use of the camera gives all of the objects in his composition equal value and forces the viewer to read his painting like a photograph. Bechtle’s paintings are not about the seductiveness of the materiality but nontheless communicate a particular feeling. “All awash in pale California sunlight and suffused with a subtly sad nostalgia. The paintings impart a strange feeling of loss, which they began as an attempt to avoid emotionality.” It could be concluded that political and cultural issues surrounding both artists made it easier for each artist to just give us information about the mundane and ordinary as a stabilizer, allowing the viewer insight through quietude and reflection.

Works sited:
Anais Nin, Robert Bechtle: A Retrospective, p. 22

Edward Hopper and Company: the American Landscape, March 19, 2009

Ivo Kransfelder, Edward Hopper 1882-1967 Visions of Reality, Borders Press, page 13

Ivo Kransfelder, Edward Hopper 1882-1967 Visions of Reality, Borders Press, page 93

Ivo Kransfelder, Edward Hopper 1882-1967 Visions of Reality, Borders Press, page 115

Ivo Kransfelder, Edward Hopper 1882-1967 Visions of Reality, Borders Press, page 54

Janet Bishop, Michael Auping, Jonathan Weinberg, and Charles Ray, Robert Bechtle: A Retrospective, University of California Press, page 13

Janet Bishop, Michael Auping, Jonathan Weinberg, and Charles Ray, Robert Bechtle: A Retrospective, University of California Press, page 10

Berkeley in the Sixties, Director: Mark Kitchell, 1990

Janet Bishop, Michael Auping, Jonathan Weinberg, and Charles Ray, Robert Bechtle: A Retrospective, University of California Press, page 10

Janet Bishop, Michael Auping, Jonathan Weinberg, and Charles Ray, Robert Bechtle: A Retrospective, University of California Press, page 11

Janet Bishop, Michael Auping, Jonathan Weinberg, and Charles Ray, Robert Bechtle: A Retrospective, University of California Press, page 10

Janet Bishop, Michael Auping, Jonathan Weinberg, and Charles Ray, Robert Bechtle: A Retrospective, University of California Press, page 12

Rachel Howard, Inside the Photoreal World of Robert Bechtle, SFSU Magazine, spring 2006, volume 6

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Third Residency Summary

Chandon, 1965 Mustang, 2010, 24" x 48"

My third residency was full of interesting feedback and in the process crystallized a direction for my research and studio work for the coming semester. My investigation will be to explore the cultural and social identification that exists within contemporary car culture. For example how the Cadillac Escalade is identified with Hip Hop. Over the last few months in my studio practice my work has shifted from iconic German cars - VW busses and bugs from the 60s and 70s, to an exploration of American automobiles which includes the iconic muscle car. For my studio investigation I would like to attempt to paint contemporary cars to further develop an understanding of today’s car culture.

My previous academic advisor has suggested an outline of research for my thesis. My critical discourse will be built around Hopper, Hockney, Rusche, Rickter, and Sigmar Polke along with a complete understanding of the Pop Art movement, realism in post 50s, and photorealism specifically investigating Ralph Goings. In addition I need a good understanding of Hyperrealism theory. Sunanda has suggested reading Baudaillar and looking at the thesis of Nate Stromberg – which Nate emailed me today.

My first research paper will be a comparative between Edward Hopper and photo realest painter Robert Bechtle, specifically looking at environment, temperature, time of day.

American Dream in Mid Century America
Pop Art
Americana - Hope of a Better Way
Modernism – Post Modernism
Photo Realism - Hyperrealism
Emulation - simulation
Influences of Mass Media in the 50s
Globalization - Isolation - Family of Man traveling exhibition
Disneyland verses reality
Human vision paradox - hi definition reality verses natures blending

Roy Lichtenstein
Ed Ruscha
Andy Warhol
Ralph Goings
David Hockney (early work)

Friday, May 28, 2010

Second Semester Summary

My studio work for this semester began with my black and white paintings which were the pieces that received most of the attention during my last residency critiques. The work was described as lyrical, graphic, and organic. The consensus was that the vivid brush strokes which have an expressive randomness was interesting and held the viewer’s attention. These paintings conveyed an idea of a grid, interconnectedness, and some implied system of counting. I was encouraged to take the next semester to further explore this series and see how my work would develop. My research this semester included artist using nature as the point of departure. I investigated books written from the 1980s to the present on Abstract Expressionism. In addition I looked at the work of several artists: Peter Doig, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Laura Owens, Robert Motherwell, Agnes Martin, Donald Sultan, Jennifer Bartlett, John Walker, Kristin Quinn, John Chamberlin, Cy Twombly and Helen Frankenthaler.

I followed Hannah Barrett’s suggestion of using pieces of paper all the same size with a limited amount of black to explore positive and negative space - using small to large shapes. This technique would push my understanding of possible compositions for future paintings. I also decided to use Google images with aerial perspectives of highways, roads, on-ramps and off-ramps as the point of departure for the work. A surprising coincidence that I discovered in my research was that the first highway to span the U.S. goes through the university town of Davis which is located just 14 miles from my studio. The highway was first conceived in 1912 and originally spanned the continent coast-to-coast from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco through 13 states: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California. I find American roadways fascinating from several perspectives - from the impact of urban planners, to car designs, to big oil’s gripping control of the US economy combined with the staggering 14.5 billion dollars spent annually by car manufactures on advertising.(1) All of these elements combined and their direct effect or how they shape the ever changing American landscape is of interest to me.

While I feel the new abstract work is evolving I still have been struggling this semester with trying to bring together the work that I show in the galleries so they have some reference to the abstract paintings and my papers. At this point I feel the only common point of interest is my appreciation for the American landscape, which includes automobiles, 50s, 60s and 70s architecture and the influences that globalization has had on both the urban and rural American landscape. I don’t have any interest in trying to combine the specific techniques that I use in each body of work. The process and materials that I use are completely different with the end result of each successful. While working on the abstract works I realized that my process of trial and error for the work that is shown in the galleries was has been a long and challenging process which has taken at least 12 years. I am realizing with the new abstractions that it will perhaps take the same amount of trial and error in order to develop this into a fully mature idea. I feel the need to resolve this conflict by the end of my third residency so that I can proceed with my direction for the MFA thesis and exhibition. At this point it feels the final resolution would be to drop the abstract paintings and to go in the direction of the work that I show in the galleries, my original work. There has been a benefit to this experimentation. I am actually experimenting more now and enjoying the process and in a way it feels like I am even more open and innovative than ever before.

This past semester my work was accepted into the Caldwell Snyder Gallery and the Campton Gallery. I am scheduled to have my first San Francisco solo exhibition in September and my first New York solo exhibition is scheduled for June 2011. I feel a great amount of excitement about this as it has taken me many years to get to this point. My work will also be going to International fine art fairs for the first time within the coming year. It will be interesting to see how my work will be received in the International venues. In addition to getting into the new gallery I had a piece acquisitioned into the Napa Valley Museum collection. Additionally, the University of California, Davis, has hired me to teach for the second time a class for the Design Department. This summer the class is Design Drawing.

The weekend of May 20th through 23rd the gallery took my work along with several of their other artists to the San Francisco Fine Art Fair. There were galleries from all over the US. It was my first opportunity to see my work juxtaposed with the work of so many artists from all over the world. As I looked at the broad scope of work, which included Donald Sultan, an artist I studied over the past semester, I found it interesting to see how my work fit into the overall scope. I feel stronger about my work, both in terms of imagery and my process and feel it looks well executed and stands somewhat alone in the particular iconography I am attracted to. For years I have looked at my art work as a dialogue between Americana meets Pop Art. I ask, wouldn’t it be best, in order to get the most out of my time in the MFA program, if I let my school investigation reference my gallery work? Visiting artist Rita McBride was a real inspiration for me personally. Her rattan Toyota Celica still really inspires me and I still find myself thinking at some point it would be interesting to think about casting a car as sculpture as an option for my work.

I have continued to work with Tom Holland as my mentor. Tom has continued to offer a critical eye and has encouraged me to bring both bodies of work closer together. I’m not sure how I feel about this idea. I have two mentors lined up for the next two semesters’ work. The first is Boyd Gavin, a painter whose work I admire greatly. For my last semester I have Scott Shields, Senior Curator of the Crocker Art Museum all lined up. He has been watching my work evolve over the years and would at some point like a piece in the museum collection. He has a keen eye and extensive knowledge of contemporary art with an emphasis on landscape. I feel this will be helpful for my last semester as I attempt to coordinate my theses and my final work.

1. Art & Copy, Director Doug Pray. 2009

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Unconscious Reality of Seeing: Freeways as Graffiti

Figure 1. Melissa Chandon, Off Ramps in Black and White, 2010
Figure 2. Cy Twombly, Free Wheeler, 1955, house paint, pencil, crayon, and pastel on canvas

My attraction to roadside vernacular began at the age of ten when I became completely and quite consciously smitten with a white Porsche and a shinny aluminum airstream. I was struck by their beauty, their clean modern design and knew instantly that I liked both of them and someday wanted one of each for myself. That summer we were house-sitting for friends on their farm while they traveled across Europe by car and a camper. The idea of exploring Europe this way was so seductive to me it sounded as wonderful as traveling on the Orient Express or going to the South Pole on the Endurance. I guess the adventurer in me was coming out. I’m not completely sure why a child of ten would feel this way. This attraction or curiosity has continued throughout my life and is an issue that I address in the studio. I find it an interesting phenomenon that we can fall for a “car”. What is that, what does the car represent? In Hollywood we have immortalized car culture in many films; Bullet, Vanishing Point and American Graffiti, and all of the family vacation movies with Chevy Chase, just to name a few. I find it interesting how car sizes have swung like a pendulum with a direct correlation to what is happening in the world – the explosion of Hummers post 911. When you look at the history of the automobile and globalization it is very interesting that the car continues to change drastically in size, design, horsepower and so-on and with such extremes. The auto industry has played a significant role in the evolution of the U.S. not only from the stand point of America’s shift from being a leading industrial manufacturing country, to gas companies lobbying for more cars and less mass transit, to the building of more roads and urban sprawl. I wrestle with all of this as we face serious issues with our environment due to global warming. I feel a responsibility to paint this car culture enigma, to document the many cars that are adored so that we might be more able to move towards other methods of transportation that are more environmentally friendly.

My fascination with car culture and roadside vernacular has taken me in two separate yet connected directions; the abstract realism work that I show in the galleries and another body of abstract paintings based on the landscape. I am currently captivated by freeways, on ramps and off ramps, their design, pattern and lines of abstraction. They seem rich and vibrant allowing room for discussion both in my mind and on the canvas. The freeway is interesting from two perspectives, the abstract qualities that the roads have in and of themselves along with the idea of public and private spaces. When one thinks about public spaces it is easy to think about city parks, national parks, camp grounds and the like as having a significant presence and availability for each individual to use and enjoy. The freeway is of interest to me as it is public space but one that we don’t consider public or even see as a place. When one thinks about the huge amount of land that is consumed by our public highway system it is rather daunting, combined with the hours that we spend, most often alone, navigating mostly through heavy traffic with a kind of blurred vision of both seeing and not seeing the surrounding environment. A few months ago I had an interesting revelation while driving to the airport late at night to catch a red eye. While we drove along the lights from the businesses that lined the freeway were a blaze almost like a Christmas tree, red, blue, green, and bright yellow, and sitting on the dash was the GPS unit which was guiding us towards the airport. Both looked so similar - bright lights set against black - and I thought that in the future driving will probably be a totally different experience. Perhaps we’ll be able to personalize our experience and see only what we wish to see, perhaps it will be more like the way I feel while traveling on an airplane. It’s hard to say.

I have been using Google Images along with my own quickly shot digital photographs taken from the car for my point of departure with the new series of abstract paintings. I feel that using these images is a perfect starting place for the work and has given me room to think about how I might translate the information onto the canvas. I find the act of painting one of editing down to the essentials so for me the digital image provides the structure. Roland Barthes discusses in Camera Lucidia, Reflections on Photography, “The photograph by its very nature is believable”(1) where as a painting by its nature is an abstraction or an interpretation. I am more interested in the abstraction of these large architectural structures than in painting them to look exactly like the photo. I also find that taking the pictures while driving has a random unpredictable quality that appeals to me. It feels more like the way we actually experience them, much like a blur in our peripheral vision.

There are a few artists whose work has inspired me, Jackson Pollock, Cy Twombly, Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Smithson and Richard Deibenkorn. Pollock and Twombly, while working with abstraction and during the same period of time, worked philosophically from very different places. Pollock’s action paintings left a trace of his physical process of painting while, “Twombly used Abstract Expressionism as a weapon against the autographic mark and not the strategy of transforming the spontaneous stroke into a “devise” but of recording the mark itself as a form of graffiti, which is to say, the anonymous trace of a kind of criminal violation of the unspoiled surface”.(2) Free Wheeler painted in 1955 gives a good example of this form of graffiti marks on his canvas.

Robert Smithson, specifically with his earth-work the Spiral Jetty, offered a new perspective to sculpture and the gallery when he questioned the traditions of the art being presented within the confines of a formal gallery. During a visit to the Harwood Museum in Taos, New Mexico a few years ago I was able to closely examine Richard Deibenkorn’s New Mexico aerial perspective landscapes paintings. I found them complex and interesting as they not only hold the canvas together but upon close examination reveal many hidden nuances. Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and Sea, is interesting with the bold gestural movements, use of negative space and the application of the paint as a stain rather than a heavily applied texture of paint.

My goal with the new works about the freeways, overpasses, and on ramps is to really see them as a place, collectively owned architectural structures that are pervasive. They can be thought of as a form of scaring or graffiti consciously placed within our environment. It seems very odd to me that during the Obama stimulus package there has been so much money put into road expansion and repaving rather than the money going towards more high speed trains that would in the long run be much better for “our” environment. TED(3), a small nonprofit, which began in 1984 and is devoted to ideas worth spreading has an annual conference which brings together people from three worlds: technology, entertainment, design. In the documentary, The Future We Will Create: Inside the World of TED , Al Gore gave a concluding talk and suggested that if we were able to think collectively about “our environment” a real shift towards a more environmentally sound future is possible. I feel this is possible and hopefully will come to fruition. We just need to open our eyes and really see.

1. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucidia Reflections on Photography, Hill and Wang, 1981
2. Foster, Hal, Krauss, Rosalind, Bois, Yve-Alain. Art Since 1900, Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, Volume 2, 1945 to the Present. Thames & Hudson, 2007. Page 372
3. The Future We Will Create: Inside the World of TED, 2007, Director: Daphne Zuniga, Steven Latham