The Impossibility of Painting is Merely a Feeling

Thoughts and reflections on the practice of painting.


Robert Ryman, Philadelphia Prototype, 2002

Robert Ryman, Philadelphia Prototype, 2002

I have always been attracted to paintings that seem to ask basic questions about their own functions or conditions. Not in the sense of a closed self-reference, but as an exploration of what paint does in a given situation. For instance, how does one get a painting or object on a wall?

Robert Ryman, detail of the edge of a painting against a wall where it has been attached with tape

Robert Ryman, detail of the edge of a painting against a wall where it has been attached with tape

Robert Ryman’s work has been very instrumental in this regard and the book Used Paint, by Susan P. Hudson, has allowed me to re-visit some of my early interests in these questions. The idea of used paint implies that the material has been transferred from one resting place to another, but not necessarily “transformed”.

When I was an undergraduate I had an extended critique with four of my advisors (ranging in their own practice from material formalist to psychological expressionist) about how my work (abstract, spray-paint on mylar) related or didn’t relate to the wall. My solution was to velcro the “skins” of paint to masonite boards spray-painted with contrasting colours, which acted as frames. These were attached to the wall by screws that were hidden by the mylar.

These frames were subject to much debate about how bad a solution they were. Not debate actually – it was clear that the solution was bad, merely the degree and the corrective were debated. After that grueling two hours I never made assumptions about the wall and painting again.

Robert Ryman, Surface Veil, 1970

Robert Ryman, Surface Veil, 1970

On the other hand, it is sometimes too easy to fall into the trap of exaggerating these issues. A friend of mine snorted when I told him about the critique. He asked, “did you try anti-gravity?”

An interesting video on Robert Ryman:


A Letter to Ross Feld by Philip Guston

Philip Guston, Entrance, 1979

Philip Guston, Entrance, 1979

I think that because of teaching – having a ‘career’ – being in the ‘real’ world, with dopey minds, who can only ‘argue for more’ or ‘bargain for less’ as you say – that this makes it easier for me to become infected with the linear thinking found in universities – and  elsewhere too. I begin to wobble – wonder if I am reaching for the invisible too much – and in tottering like this, I am prone to settle for ‘less’. And luckily for me, ‘less’ sticks in my stomach like a sour thing until my ‘ideal’, that I’ve always had but lose momentarily (could be that one should – needs – to have it slip away – in order to regain it) the ‘shimmering’ – ‘the dazzling gift’. I think you are writing about the generous law that exists in art. A law which can never be given but only found anew each time in the making of the work. It is a law, too, which allows your forms (characters) to spin away, take off, as if they have their own lives to lead – unexpected too – as if you cannot completely control it all. I wonder why we seek this generous law, as I call it. For we do not know how it governs – and under what special conditions it comes into being. I don’t think we are permitted to know other than temporarily. A disappearance act. The only problem is how to keep away from the minds that close in and itch (God knows why) to define it.
(Philip Guston in a letter to Ross Feld, Nov. 13, 1978, Guston in Time: remembering Philip Guston, p. 149)

Philip Guston, Moon, 1979

Philip Guston, Moon, 1979


Henri Matisse, Interior with Egyptian Curtain, 1948

Henri Matisse, Interior with Egyptian Curtain, 1948

What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling subject matter … a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair that provides relaxation from fatigue. (Henri Matisse, Notes of a Painter)

This statement by Matisse is one that I misunderstood for a long time. As Jack Flam explains, “[t]his often-quoted sentence tends to give the impression that Matisse desired from painting merely relaxation or entertainment – in short that his ideals were somewhat superficial” (Flam, Matisse on Art, p.35). This supposed superficiality is what has always made me uncomfortable as I didn’t understand what was at stake for Matisse in making his work.

Flam continues:

It is important to realize, however, that this statement is more an explanation, and perhaps defense, of his limited range of subject matter than an expression of simple-minded optimism. (Moreover, it is very likely that when he wrote this he had in mind his new patron, the Russian businessman Sergei Shchukin, whose recent life had been filled with tragedy and who sought consolation by what he called ‘living in’ the pictures he acquired from Matisse.) Matisse is not advocating an art of superficial decoration or entertainment, but stating his belief in art as a medium for the elevation of the spirit above and beyond, yet rooted in the experience of, everyday life.

Nietzsche said that without music, life would be a mistake. I take this to mean not that life is merely enriched by music but that it is the only acceptable recompense for the burdens of living. The consolation that Nietzsche finds in music or Shchukin in Matisse’s paintings is the sense of wonder and unity that is at the core of aesthetic experience.

For me, the sensory overload and drive to consumption in contemporary society dulls the capacity for this sense of wonder – it is literally anaesthetic. The aspect of Matisse’s work that I had overlooked is that it was made in the face of constant struggle, in defiance of a modern world gone mad with two world wars and on a trajectory that was almost wholly independent of avant-garde trends. It was an attempt to make visible and available for experience the dynamic order of the universe.

In the text for his book, Jazz, Matisse writes: “A new picture must be a unique thing, a birth bringing to the human spirit a new figure in the representation of the world. The artist must summon all of his energy, his sincerity, and the greatest modesty in order to shatter the old clichés that come so easily to hand while working, which can suffocate the little flower that does not come, ever, in the way one expects.” (Matisse on Art, p.173)

It is difficult nowadays to talk about an ambition for “art as a medium for the elevation of the spirit above and beyond, yet rooted in the experience of, everyday life”. It is thought of as an outmoded metaphysics, a pretension of so-called high culture to think that work could function this way. It is more legitimate to talk about art as a mode of critique or deconstruction or cultural strategy. I believe it is or can be all of these things, but they are byproducts of an activity that is aimed at something else: a means of coming to terms with the brokenness of life.

One of the reasons for my renewed interest in Matisse is the seriousness of his aspirations and the formal ruthlessness and cunning that he brought to bear on his work. Another is the sense that his work seems to have functioned not as a retreat from the world, but as his way of meeting its implacable enmity with a precarious sort of radiance.

Matisse’s work has resonated with me, particularly in the last two years, because my own aim has shifted towards an attempt to understand the contingency and vulnerability of our existence. My recent work has been made with the realization that everything crumbles, breaks down, dissolves, and that the small times, the brief moments of pleasure and contentment give way, recede, erode. Not all at once in a dramatic, sweeping action, but bit by bit, scraping and grinding down until you realize that you often feel barely alive.

blooms, 2012

blooms, 2012

The rubble and potholes and ditches are sometimes offset by blooms, but they are brief. When I was trying to write an artist statement for the Whale and Star workshop in Miami, I at one point resorted to poetry – an embarrassing turn and luckily I didn’t read it in the group. But even if it is bad poetry, it summed up the feeling behind the images in the work:

when I am broken
my consolation is in new leaves

The words broken, consolation and new were key. The little boy who is experiencing the world for the first time, whose joys and sorrows seem so immediate and full, is my consolation. And maybe making this work is also a sort of consolation, inadequate though it is.

snow hill, 2013

snow hill, 2013

Paintings of these small things, these routine places, and minor moments feel right to me. They aren’t great paintings, and maybe not even good paintings, but they do feel like they are directly related to my life and how I am in the world.


Matthew Ritchie, Weights and Measures, 2001 - 2004

Matthew Ritchie, Weights and Measures, 2001 – 2004

One often hears it said, not only of a poem, a novel, or a picture, but even of a musical work, that it is interesting. What does this mean? To speak of an interesting work of art means either that we receive from a work of art information new to us, or that the work is not fully intelligible and that little by little, and with effort, we arrive at its meaning and experience certain pleasure in the process of guessing it. In neither case has the interest anything in common with artistic impression. Art aims at infecting people with feeling experienced by the artist. But the mental effort necessary to enable the spectator, listener, or reader, to assimilate the new information contained in the work, or to guess the puzzles propounded, hinders this infection by distracting him. And therefore the interest of a work not only has nothing to do with its excellence as a work of art, but rather hinders than assists artistic impression … Many conditions must be fulfilled to enable a man to produce a real work of art. It is necessary that he should stand on the level of the highest life-conception of his time, that he should experience feeling, and have desire and capacity to transmit it, and that he should moreover have a talent for some one of the forms of art. It is very seldom that all these conditions necessary for the production of true art are combined. But in order to produce unceasingly – aided by the customary methods of borrowing, imitating, introducing effects and interesting – counterfeits of art which pass for art in our society and are well paid for, it is only necessary to have a talent for some branch of art, and this is very often met with. By talent I mean ability: in literary art the ability to express one’s thoughts and impressions easily and to notice and remember characteristic details; in graphic arts to distinguish and remember lines, forms and colours; in music to distinguish the intervals and to remember and transmit the sequence of sounds.
(Leo Tolstoy, What is Art?, pp. 189 – 190)

A work need only be interesting. (Donald Judd, Specific Objects)

Julie Mehretu, Middle Grey, 2007-2009

Julie Mehretu, Middle Grey, 2007-2009

From W.G. Sebald’s ‘Austerlitz’

Saint Firmin Holding his Head ca. 1225-75, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Saint Firmin Holding his Head ca. 1225-75, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

But now I found writing such hard going that it often took me a whole day to compose a single sentence, and no sooner had I thought such a sentence out, with the greatest of effort, and written it down, than I saw the awkward falsity of my constructions and the inadequacy of all the words I had employed. If at times some kind of self-deception nonetheless made me feel that I had done a good day’s work, then as soon as I glanced at the page next morning I was sure to find the most appalling mistakes, inconsistencies, and lapses staring at me from the paper. However much or little I had written, on a subsequent reading it always seemed fundamentally flawed that I had to destroy it immediately and begin again. Soon I could not even venture on the first step. Like a tightrope walker who has forgotten how to put one foot in front of the other, all I felt was the swaying of the precarious structure on which I stood, stricken with terror at the realization that the ends of the balancing pole gleaming far out on the edges of my field of vision were no longer my guiding lights, as before, but malignant enticements to me to cast myself into the depths. Now and then a train of thought did succeed in emerging with wonderful clarity inside my head, but I knew even as it formed that I was in no position to record it, for as soon as I so much as picked up my pencil the endless possibilities of language, to which I could once safely abandon myself, became a conglomeration of the most inane phrases. There was not an expression in the sentence but it proved to be a miserable crutch, not a word but it sounded false and hollow. And in this dreadful state of mind I sat for hours, for days on end with my face to the wall, tormenting myself and gradually discovering the horror that even the smallest task or duty, for instance arranging assorted objects in a drawer, can be beyond one’s power. It was as if an illness that had been latent in me for a long time were now threatening to erupt, as if some soul-destroying  and inexorable force had fastened upon me and would gradually paralyze my entire system. I already felt in my head the dreadful torpor that heralds disintegration of the personality, I sensed that in truth I had neither memory nor the power of thought, nor even any existence, that all my life had been a constant process of obliteration, a turning away from the world. If someone had come then to lead me to a place of execution I would have gone meekly, without a word, without so much as opening my eyes, just as people who suffer from violent seasickness, if they are crossing the Caspian Sea on a steamer, for instance, will not offer the slightest resistance should someone tell them that they are about to be thrown overboard. Whatever was going on within me, said Austerlitz, the panic I felt on facing the start of any sentence that must be written, not knowing how I could begin it or indeed any other sentence, soon extended to what is in itself the simpler business of reading, until if I attempted to read a whole page I inevitably fell into a state of the greatest confusion. If language may be regarded as an old city full of streets and squares, nooks and crannies, with some quarters dating from far back in time while others have been torn down, cleaned up, and rebuilt, and with suburbs reaching further and further into the surrounding country, then I was like a man who has been abroad a long time and cannot find his way through this urban sprawl anymore, no longer knows what a bus stop is for, or what a backyard is, or a street junction, an avenue or a bridge. The entire structure of language, the syntactical arrangements of parts of speech, punctuations, conjunctions, and finally even the nouns denoting ordinary objects were all enveloped in impenetrable fog. I could not understand what I myself had written in the past – perhaps I could understand that least of all. All I could think was such a sentence appears to mean something, but in truth is at best a makeshift expedient, a kind of unhealthy growth issuing from our ignorance, something which we use, in the same way as many sea plants and animals use their tentacles, to grope blindly through the darkness enveloping us. The very thing which may usually convey a sense of purposeful intelligence – the exposition of an idea by means of a certain stylistic facility – now seemed to me nothing but an entirely arbitrary or deluded enterprise.
(W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz, pp. 122-24)

Independent Project

Jasper Johns, The Dutch Wives, 1975

Jasper Johns, The Dutch Wives, 1975

Walter Hopps: Jasper, from what point in your life would you date the beginning of your career, your sense that you were an artist, or going to be an artist?
Jasper Johns: Going to be an artist since childhood. Until about 1953 when it occurred me that there was a difference between going to be and being, and I decided I shouldn’t always be “going to be” an artist.

(Walter Hopps, “An Interview with Jasper Johns,” Artforum 3 no.6 (March 1965), reprinted in Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, MoMA, N.Y., p.106)

The two classes that I am teaching are currently undertaking “independent projects” where the expected learning outcome is beginning to treat their work as their work. And not only to treat it as if belongs to them physically, mentally, and emotionally, but also that it is their work, their lifelong ‘independent project’.

Of course, it is presumptuous, not to mention absurd, to talk about this as a ‘learning outcome’. At best, it may be the first glimmer of understanding that being an artist is not a skill set, a talent, or an aptitude, but instead a particular kind of orientation towards the world and life. When Jasper Johns says “it occurred me that there was a difference between going to be and being” it suggests that being an artist is literally a question of being, that it is a mode of existence as much as an occupation.

It can be a difficult pill to swallow. Students enter art training for a wide variety of reasons, often without even a vague idea of what is involved in being an artist, but with an interest in making things and a sense that they want to be creative. They are also burdened by the trite images and clichés that circulate in the culture regarding “self-expression” and artistic “freedom”. It can be hard to come to terms with the reality that freedom and expression are the results of responsibility, rigorous discipline, and seriousness of purpose.


I find that the fundamental problem of being an artist involves constantly needing to make choices about the right path to proceed upon, without anything to guide those choices except an elusive “vision” and the evidence of one’s work. Additionally, there is no easy path, or correct path, merely the one that lies ahead, opened or occluded by the accumulation of past decisions.

The first decision is a commitment to inhabit this mode of being fully, in the face of the very high probability that fortune and fame will not be the rewards that follow from this choice. And even if these material bonuses do arrive, the real (if less immediately tangible) reward for being an artist is existing in the world with the senses, the intellect, the emotions and spirit open and fully engaged. A possibly dubious prize when there are so many reasons to numb oneself against the world and so many available methods of anaesthesia.

The ‘independent project’ of art-making unfolds in relation to the life of the maker. As a teacher, I have become increasingly aware of the difference between how I perceive my life and art and how students (generally half my age) perceive theirs. When I was younger, the urgency that I brought to my work had to do with wanting certain things (e.g. career success, jobs, shows) immediately. Now the urgency comes from the fact that I am over forty years old, that I may live another forty if I’m lucky, and that the first twenty-five to thirty were more or less pissed away. This leaves very little time to work on my project before the deadline.

No longer wander at random. You shall not live to read your own memoirs or the acts of the ancient Romans and Greeks, or the selections from books which you were reserving for your old age. Hasten then to the goal which you have before you. Throw away vain hopes and come to your own aid, while you yet may, if you care at all for yourself.
(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Section III, p.32)


Sean Scully in his studio

Sean Scully in his studio

Abstraction has been a point of departure in my work since the early part of my undergraduate training. Before becoming a student I was committed to what I thought of as realism; namely fantasy illustrations and comic books. At the time I equated “realism” with “detail”, for example, how realistically did the chain mail reflect light, how much detail was presented in the veins and muscular striations of superhero x. I was completely unaware of the abstraction involved in the way the human body (among other things) was represented on the covers of fantasy novels and in comic books – instead, I thought of these distortions as primarily related to the artist’s “style”. At the same time, I was hostile to, or rather ignorant of, modern art and thought that famous abstract artists like Picasso and Jackson Pollock simply didn’t know how to draw.

Pablo Picasso, Three Musicians, 1921

Pablo Picasso, Three Musicians, 1921

When I started my training and began to learn about art history in concert with taking up painting for the first time, it took about a year to get over this prejudice. Eventually, I began to understand that modern abstraction was a choice, that it derived from certain historical conditions, that it was, in part, a reaction to 19th century academic norms, and that it involved a notion of honesty: to the materials of painting, to a fragmented and disorienting experience of modernity, and to the viewer of the painting. I came to see the illusionistic window of realism as a kind of deceit, and the emphasis on surface and material in abstraction as a forthright statement of fact.

Sean Scully, Gabriel, 1993

Sean Scully, Gabriel, 1993

My understanding of abstraction has continued to evolve, and I no longer see representation and abstraction as oppositional terms. In fact, in the last couple of years, I have developed work in both veins simultaneously. For me, this is not a question of hybridity or eclecticism, but of specificity. Each point on the continuum of representation and abstraction offers certain possibilities and forecloses others, and each choice for each painting is made in relation to those options.

Terry Winters, Luminance, 2002

Terry Winters, Luminance, 2002

The tradition that my work is based in, and the work of artists whom I find indispensable, definitely relies on abstraction. However, one of the drawbacks of abstraction is the tendency for its discourses to invoke notions of purity. It is not my purpose here to re-hash or counter these arguments, but simply to point out that purity of any sort in painting is a losing proposition. Further, I am dubious of the moral stance that is often taken up in relation to the refusals entailed by so-called non-objective art.

Although I admire the non-objective work of artists like Piet Mondrian and Ad Reinhardt, to name only two examples, the artists that have really fed my thinking about painting (both abstract and representational) have proposed a more problematic relationship to the question of making paintings in general. The problem with purity is that it doesn’t allow for the messy, ambiguous contradictions of concrete existence.

Ross Bleckner, History of the Heart, 1996

Ross Bleckner, History of the Heart, 1996

For me, paintings have nothing to do with utopias, ideals, essences or other tropes of purity. They have to do with lived experience.  The processes and materials of painting are means to an end, specifically that of inquiring after some aspect of real life. It is therefore irrelevant whether a painting is more or less abstract, except to the extent that its relative position on the continuum allows that inquiry to unfold.

Ross Bleckner, Inheritance, 2003

Ross Bleckner, Inheritance, 2003


Untitled (study for The Pit), 2006

Realism has been on my mind in the last year or so. I have been fighting with myself in my journal about whether or not some notion of realism is at stake in my practice. I have produced long justifications for why it doesn’t matter to me, but if that were really the case I suspect it wouldn’t come up as an issue. Because I use photographic sources, people often mistake my work as “realist”. In fact, I use photographic sources more like “found”, all-over compositions than as a reference for how things “really” look. The conflation of photography and realism poses an obstacle to understanding both terms, as evidenced by the common usage of “photo-realism” as proof of technical skill in painting (and drawing), regardless of whether the image derives from a photo.

The notion of realism is complicated by photography. Although it is true that photos normally “look like” the things in the real world that the grains of silver salt or pixels of a photograph conspire to represent, it is a mistake to assume that the function of the photograph is mimetic (or imitative). For me, this would imply a specific type of intentionality which is absent from the mechanisms of photography. Photography is literally “light writing”, an “emanation” of light, as Roland Barthes says, reflected from an object and captured on a receptive ground. The authority of photographic representation is premised on it being a mechanical recording of the object/person/place pictured, without the need for the intervention of an author. Photographs don’t imitate so much as re-present, or reproduce. This is why we have passport photos instead of passport paintings. In other words, the realism of photography is not in any way dependent on the skill of the photographer, the way that it is for hand-made images.

Of course, photographs are made by photographers, whose subjectivity provides the impetus for the photo to begin with, and who do intervene on all sorts of levels in the construction of the image. The point is that photographs don’t imitate the appearances of reality; these appearances are byproducts of a mechanical and chemical (or digital) process. Conceivably, photos could be made to imitate the style of other photos (for example, the followers of Ansel Adams, or the appropriations by Sherrie Levine of Walker Evans’ prints) but not to imitate reality. Their fidelity to “actual” appearance is a condition of the medium that must be consciously manipulated to be overcome (see for example, the work of Aaron Siskind, Man Ray, or Jeff Wall).

Jeff Wall, Flooded Grave, 1998–2000

In painting, by contrast, realism (or illusionism, naturalism or verisimilitude) is utterly arbitrary and dependent on convention. This is obvious from the way that the level of realistic representation can shift easily from artist to artist, from work to work, century to century. Even the meaning of the term realism is contingent on the context in which it is used: is Courbet more real than Velazquez? Lucian Freud more real than Caravaggio?

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1598

The academic tradition of realism depended on the ability of the artist: to mobilize the various conventions of mimetic technique such as shading, perspective and correct anatomy; to produce a formal arrangement that gave the illusion of three dimensional reality; and which “corrected” nature toward an abstracted ideal. Realistic rendering as a guarantee of skill and quality, and as a request from the artist to viewer for admiration of that skill, comes, in large part, from this tradition.

William Bouguereau, Admiration, 1897

The realism of Caravaggio or Courbet by contrast, was based on a refusal to idealize in order to produce works that were more closely related to an empirical experience of the world. These ideas are a prelude to modern concepts of documentary photography.

Gustave Courbet, A Burial at Ornans, 1849-50

The empirical tradition is one that I have always felt a strong affinity with. The realism that I value has more to do with an un-idealized truth-telling than skillful rendering of appearances. My internal conflict on the question of realism in my own work has to do with my nagging doubts about how often it actually measures up to the truth, or how easily it falls for ingratiating tricks.

Reluctance Part II

FINA 3311_w/12 (in progress)

I have recently completed a large painting, FINA 3311_w/12. This painting is based on a snapshot that I took of my 3rd year painting class last semester and I undertook the work as a pedagogical experiment. I had assigned a portrait project where each class member had to paint a portrait of one of their colleagues. This had various functions, but primarily I was interested in students rooting their paintings within an immediate context that didn’t involve  internet plundering or a reliance on pop culture. [I don’t have anything against these strategies as such, I was simply distressed at what I saw as a somewhat lazy, default practice among the students]. As part of this assignment I proposed that I would paint a portrait of the whole class.

Edouard Manet, Young Lady in 1866, 1866

Portraiture has played almost no role in my own practice, although there are many portraits that I admire (Manet’s Young Lady in 1866, being a prime example). Figures generally appear in my work as a by-product of their appearance in source photos. The problem, for me, comes down to questions of likeness: to what extent does portraiture depend on a recognizable likeness? and to what extent is it a strictly imitative or mimetic practice?

FINA 331_w/12 (detail)

In making this painting there was a an interesting tension between the tedious process of producing a likeness and the pleasure in making it come off in a surprising way. Engaging in an “exercise” gave a certain kind of permission to relinquish expectations and see what happens. As always when I finish a painting, I am ambivalent about this work: parts of it are painfully illustrative, others bear the look of too much effort to get it “right”; but, there are little moments that I think are not too bad and others that seem to suggest future possibilities.

I think that this work fails as a painting. As a whole it doesn’t move beyond a fairly mundane description of appearances, even though there are certain passages that do. As a pedagogical exercise it fares somewhat better, in that it has created a kind of dialogue with students as a fellow producer tackling the same problem, with relatively similar kinds of uneven results. Likewise there are some things that I have learned about how I paint that I am not necessarily thrilled about. For instance, I am all too susceptible to the “reality effect” of the photo source, where I find myself aping the source material instead of making a painting. This is particularly troublesome as I am deeply reluctant to admit that “realism” has any bearing on my work.

FINA 3311_w/12, 2012

On the other hand, the process of making this painting has brought to light new possibilities and challenges for my practice. Painting my students left me with the sense that certain kinds of feelings are omitted from my work because I rarely use the literal aspects of my life as direct subject matter. Can the daily life that a person lives be pictured without images of the people and settings that make up that life? If not, is one obliged to either include these or avoid claims for the work relating to that life?

The failure of this work serves as both a warning and a tantalizing promise.

Reluctance Part I

The Life We Used to Love, oil and wax on canvas, 48 x 48″, 2007

Over the past few months I have been trying to resolve some questions about a turn in my practice. This turn revolves around two points which have become more or less impossible for me to ignore: 1) that I have become a landscape painter 2) that realism has been an increasingly important part of the dialogue in my work. Each of these points presents itself in the face of deep reluctance on my part to acknowledge either one.

These are fairly banal realizations in themselves, but what I find interesting is that the work has taken this direction, if not exactly against my will, then without my conscious intention. It seems to be the result of trying to set aside certain assumptions about what “advanced” painting looks like, that, in turn, is a result of a need to distance myself from the look of the “contemporary”.

I am reluctant to self-identify as a landscape painter for a number of reasons. First, there is a sense that this genre has been emptied by amateurs and Sunday painters, by endless calendar reproductions of Monet’s Waterlilies and Haystacks, by Thomas Kinkade and his simpering cynicism; in short that it has become the domain of sentimental hackery (not that I think Monet is a hack, simply that the omnipresence of calendar reproductions has led to a misappropriation of his work).

Second, I am very conscious of the legacy of landscape painting as a trope of Canadian Identity as well as the underlying colonial project that it has become associated with.  At one point, this attachment to Canadian-ness seemed quaint to me, but with the actual landscape in such jeopardy from our endless greed for natural resources, Canadian identification with wilderness and the “North” seems hypocritical and vaguely sinister. So for me, making pictures of landscapes that inevitably become positioned in relation to this legacy is highly problematic and fraught with anxiety.

The Pit (Chevy Mudbog), acrylic on canvas, 42 x 60″, 2006

The landscape has entered my work surreptitiously, through the use of photo sources. It has shifted slowly from background to foreground, inexorably occupying more and more space both conceptually and pictorially. This shift is correlated with moving from an urban centre in southwestern Ontario to a small town in rural New Brunswick. It is difficult for me to express exactly what this change of setting has meant to my thinking and my practice, except that the landscape has seemed much more tangible, vital, and pressing once I was removed from an urban environment.

On the sea floor, low tide, Long Island, Five Islands, Nova Scotia, 2009

This has little to do with the physical beauty of the landscape, although it is beautiful. Instead, I think it has to do with the sense that I am somehow more definitely placed, that I live in a somehow more direct relationship with everything around me. I have no doubt that this experience is completely possible in different contexts, and I make no claim for “getting back to nature”. However, it is hard to deny that the experience of standing on the ocean floor near the Joggins Fossil Cliffs, when the tide on the Bay of Fundy is out, produces a palpable feeling both of one’s cosmic insignificance and of one’s utter rootedness in the physical world.

studio view, Love Does No Good I (in progress), 2011

Although I am a reluctant landscape painter, I have to accept that the conditions of my everyday life are what form the ground of my practice. As an implacable manifestation of material reality, the landscape provides a check on my big ideas. As a source of visual profusion and experiential data, the generosity of the natural world is unmatched. The process of finding adequate analogues for these conditions is a different, and perhaps more tangled proposition.

studio view, Love Does No Good I (in progress), 2011

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