Managing the potentially disabling demands of focus and invention that confront every artist who stands before a boundless canvas is key. It’s been my experience that there is a deep desire on the part of the painter - maybe even a necessity - to arrive at some strategic armature or limiting structure within which to act. After all, as Georges Braque said of the sustained inspiration intrinsic to the demands of Fauvism, “You can’t remain forever in a state of paroxysm.”
Many of the liberating restrictions painters have come upon are formal - think Agnes Martin. During this Grand Canyon commission, the resolution of Burro Train delivered a formal armature. But the unspoken collaboration with the client who commissioned the project awoke me to a liberating restriction of another sort: service.
During the course of painting the first Grand Canyon canvas, I registered each moment of acute delight on the part of the client and realized this client was consistent and yet loved having preconceptions eclipsed.
Whether to the painting, a client or the ground beneath our feet, service proves to be self-serving.
Thus, this service to another’s vision laid the foundational “liberating restriction” to a new process and a second canvas in the commission, Canyon Ascent. This phantom restriction most tangibly manifests in an enhanced naturalistic depiction of depth. Maintaining its predecessor's assertive frontality in the advancing picture plane, Canyon Ascent incorporates the client’s desired depiction of depth. (So, its completed surface operates like a subtler version of the telescoping dolly zoom famously used by Hitchcock.)
To see the process, click the image above for the hi-res QT movie (1 min., 7.3Mb) or try the YouTube version.
When I first began this assignment - painting an “abstract” Grand Canyon - my initial foothold was the realization that I didn’t have to conceive or execute a vision so much as embody processes congruent to those which formed the Canyon, itself. Geomimicry as painting strategy: The accumulation of sediment (or paint) and the process of erosion that resurfaces that accumulation reveals its unique logic and corresponding beauty.
This created a particularly satisfying development of illusionistic depth and naturalistic proportions. In the same way that the Canyon represents a cleaving through geologic history, Canyon Ascent embodies a scraping through layers of art history.
Its fidelity to the abstractions of geomimicry and service make this painting read as representational. This resolution afforded me the rare experience of physically unearthing the academically observed substratum that undergirds America’s Abstract Expressionists: The Romantic Hudson River School painters - Cole, Kensett, Gifford, Bierstadt, Church.
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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.