March 15, 2007

Commission: "Burro Train" (with dv)


oil on canvas, 52" x 40"

Being incomprehensible to quotidian existence, the Grand Canyon presents an uncommonly great subject for a painting.

This sentiment did not originate with me - recently, it was re-introduced by a client who, enthused by the emergence of landscape in my Mountain Paintings, was curious to see what would be my abstract response to the Grand Canyon.

So began a two month encampment in Arizona where, under the sun, in unspoken collaboration with my client, I was an object of bemusement and intrigue to a gated-community in Scottsdale. In this atmosphere, I got my mind around the project while developing a vocabulary at breakneck speed.

Amazingly - and, perhaps, fortuitously - I’d embarked on the project with no previous firsthand experience of the Grand Canyon. Sedona - which one experiences as a landscape of protuberances, not a canyon - was the furthest north I’d ever travelled in Arizona. (Note: you can see the “before and after” transformation in the painting’s video where the canvas shifts from the Sonoran Valley of the Sun to take on the depth and breadth so aptly noted in the name, Grand Canyon).

To see the process: Click the image above for the hi-res QT movie (1 min., 6.6Mb) or try the YouTube version.

Upon arriving at the Canyon, I was guided to the rim with my eyes shut. My hosts positioned me so that my first glimpse would be unobstructed and immediate. Opening my eyes, my first impression was that the scene appeared flat - like a cinematic backdrop. The sense of scale was unintelligible. The shadows in the distance read as positive shapes - having more solidity than the rock. The drama was that of alternating intervals of sun and shadow dappling across the unfathomable expanse.

From the rim, especially in the bleaching midday sun, this grand panorama registers as an uncannily and solely retinal experience; Walking into it does not feel like an option.

All this, I wanted in the painting.

Plainly, though, I was going to have to get physically into the landscape. The South Kaibab Trail obliged. Upon going over the rim, the Canyon instantly becomes a participatory event - hiking, an act of sculpting - each step down raises the horizon up. This I wanted to get into the painting, too.

It is a fascinating irony that two-dimensional, pictorial depiction dictates a correspondence between moving down into the canyon and moving up the canvas. This became an experiential dynamic of the painting. As a point of reference, I remembered the Met’s Joachim Patinir painting, The Penitence of Saint Jerome, whose gallery wall label reads, in part:

“The true subject of the picture, however, is Patinir's splendid panoramic landscape, which the viewer is encouraged to travel through visually in the manner of a pilgrimage.”

Hence, the incorporation of the burro train whose members are (pun intended) burrowing their way ever deeper into the canyon while correspondingly ascending the canvas in a pilgrimage of step-by-step transcendence that's all in a day's work.

Burro Train is still available for purchase. Why, you might ask, if it was a commission? Well, the process and subject was so engaging that I immediately painted a follow-up, Canyon Ascent, which the client chose after considerable debate. I’ll post this second painting next.

Posted by mark at March 15, 2007 10:04 PM

STUNNING! Burro Train tantalizes the eye. Congratulations on this remarkable piece, and the prose that accompanied it.


Posted by: at March 16, 2007 10:46 PM