Varnedoe Lectures

April 14, 2015

By its nature, painting presents the interesting paradox of an object that is flat and inanimate, but whose essence is space and movement. I am reminded of what the late Kirk Varnedoe in the Spring of 2003 at the Sixth and last Mellon lecture he delivered at the National Gallery. “It is our dependence on the material and experiential dimension of art to yield meaning that sets it apart from other symbolic systems that we use, most notably language.”

The Varnedoe lectures had a profound impact on my thinking and approach to abstract painting with respect to my preconceptions of paintings limitations and possibilities. I willfully chose to work alone and quietly for years without the pressures of having finished work to exhibit. This exploration grew into hundreds of journal entries, drawings, and works on paper that created the ground work for the paintings to come. It was not until 2012 that the paintings began to take form. In the process, I felt my painting tap into the larger and unknowable truths that surround us, and thus the group of paintings Traveling Light was created.

 As I worked during this period of exploration, it became clear that I was not drawn to a predetermined theory about painting. I discovered that the rumination of my own thoughts and unconscious associations could determine the painting’s structure. I became completely devoted to the physical act of painting and its insistence and unpredictability where the painting would guide the next step without expecting an outcome. 

I am not interested in the fragmentation of memory, but rather time – the fluidity of time, the present moment of experiences and the materials of paint where the painting is not strictly an optical field, but rather an object with physical dimension. The real stuff of painting is here – connecting and becoming sensitive to the natural rhythms around us and the energies of the body to creative thought and process, all within the formal structure of a painting.

In reading Oleg Grabar’s The Mediation of Ornament, he writes “when Chinese writers talk about writing, their imagery does not dwell on proportions or purity of line, but on life forces, on the storage of energy. It is as though the making and the viewing serve to release the living and active forces of nature.”

I want the viewer to get close, to come up to the surface and take it in, and back up and look again. I also want the viewers sense of physical space and even their sense of mortality to be affected, so that the viewer is no longer a spectator but has become part of the painting process, which I would consider an authentic act of seeing and experiencing. 


Vermont Studio School

Lecture / Vermont Studio School / 2017/ Discordant Voices

These paintings are all oil and alkyd resin on linen done the past two years and although after many years of painting, I always feel like I am beginning again. 

I will be reading some excerpts from my journals that were taking note of my thought process, before, during and after making this body of work.  

What most interests me is the fluidity of time and how the present moment can be expressed within the formal  structure  of a painting. Because simply put,  right there on the canvas is where my thought and my materials reach their deepest level of engagement with the natural rhythms around us, and the energies of the body.

I use pattern and color juxtapositions or tensions to highlight the subjective nature of experience. The structure of a painting is a way into the experience, and acts as an armature for the random prompting of the mind and body.

As T.S. Elliot said “freedom is only truly freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial limitation” I found that painting, as a repetitive act with intense concentration,  allows for change and accident. 

Color is space and not just something applied to the canvas. I think of painting as not depicting ‘ something ‘ but an energy — a moment in time where the image can stimulate sensation, a thought or a pattern of speech. 

I do not set out to deal with form but rather a series of movements that creates a kind of slowness that keeps me in the present moment — 

Abstraction can be a distillation or essence, and it can be generated through an idea and as a line of color on the canvas. Color takes on a kind of voice that expresses movement and emotion. A Call and Response begins to happen where a dialogue is created between colors that takes on a conversational tone. 

The process of painting for me is always one of change. Everything that takes place on the surface is in the act of flux, shifting and thus activating the surface.

Why I work large — I always feel this sense of expansiveness when I am in a landscape, and therefore feel a sense of freedom, while seeking the intimacy of being in the painting at the same time. 

I am trying to create an expansive surface that keeps regenerating to the edges and beyond, a feeling of consciousness expanding beyond the self, beyond what I think I know.

Once when I was in New York standing before a large painting by Louise Fishman, I became so engaged with the painting, I thought I saw it take a breadth, inhale and exhale.

This same level of engagement happened in front of an Agnes Martin at the National Gallery in Washington and all of a sudden I saw the painting leave the edges and float into the room. 

This juxtaposition of the materiality of paint and density expressed as an object while also expressing anthropomorphic associations of the body, and the ability of a painting to move beyond its edges as a purely optical experience, suggests the mysterious and compelling nature of what it means to paint.

I return again to this idea that Painting can be a portal between the material and spiritual world, between a painting taking a breath and the ethereal nature of seeing, that defines the power of the imagination.

Abstract paintings are like novels in that they are about the human condition.

I went to a book party for an author and was in conversation with this interesting writer. She asked me what kind of work I did and I said that I create fiction and she said ‘oh, I thought you said you were a painter.’