I am so old. I was raised in the advertising age, when mass media and popular culture were infiltrating the local and regional influences of suburban life. Because we moved almost every three years until we settled in Bowling Green Virginia in the 70’s, the most consistent images and narratives I had for reference came from our television and my parents’ magazines.
So when I look back forty-some years to the art I created, it’s no wonder that the appropriation of iconic and mundane images from the media became the building blocks of my art. Growing up, I could render images easily and this aptitude for art provided a direction for a career that many of my peers didn’t have. When I first attended college, I was fascinated by verisimilitude and painters’ techniques like Vermeer’s of glazing layers of color over the detailed rendering to achieve the illusion of realism.
I painted interiors and peopled them with figures found from my family photos. I liked using elements from “bad” compositions—when people were inadvertently and awkwardly cropped out of the composition, or when mundane objects became the unintended focal point of snapshots.
It wasn’t until the last year at Virginia Commonwealth University that I became interested in the object-quality of paintings and the application of found imagery. I took a lithography class and became infatuated with the process as well as the dense paper required to pull the prints.
This was during the 80’s and the punk scene was quite vibrant. Particularly in Richmond Virginia, VCU’s strong arts community fostered bands like Avail and GWAR. For me the punk aesthetic was based on mass produced, roughly hewed, or easily accessible artifacts and found images from Xerox prints. There was a lot of singing / yelling about anarchy and the such. For about two minutes, I even played really awful three chords on red Fender Coranado guitar in a punk band called The Raw Dolls. Trust me, we had the look down more than the actual music. I began to try to build art from everyday items—the red of a plastic toy cowboy should be no different then the same red squeezed from a tube of acrylic paint—plus it carried with it the bonus of popular culture imprints. I started a short-lived art zine called Feedback that covered the bands and artists.
I wanted to challenge the composition of stretched canvas. So, I created the paper foundation by tearing sheets of watercolor paper and pasting the shapes together with painting medium. Once the icon was completed, I built a black display panel and pinned the paintings to imitate the way museums present artifacts pinned in exhibits.
I had a show of 11 icons at Ward-Nasse gallery in N.Y. the same week I entered the graduate program at Syracuse University.
In grad school, I think there were only a couple painters in addition to me who were painting in a narrative format. While the postmodern aesthetic was in high gear (Robert Longo, David Salle, Julian Schnabel) in New York, in Syracuse the majority of painters were still embracing formalism. Brice Marden and color, edge and form were being bandied about. I was having a difficult time resolving striving for illusionism and narrative while still embracing the more formal aspects of object-making aspects of paint and canvas.
My professors wanted to classify my style as a type of pop art. While I was still sourcing images from pop culture, the imagery wasn’t the ironic pop of Andy Warhol, as much as simply the most relevant, accessible images that I could use for composing. I was coming to terms with being a queer artist. As a gay grad art student with paintings of GQ male models hanging on his studio walls, you can’t imagine how many times my professors would bring up David Hockney during critiques. I got so sick of hearing, “Oh, you must like David Hockney’s work.” Which of course I did but I was also capable of appreciating non-queer artists as influential in my work. There wasn’t a queer aesthetic. There were only queer artists. And at Syracuse University there were just the two referenced by teachers, Hockney and Bacon, well maybe an occasional reference with a raised eyebrow toward Judy Chicago. But that was it.
Presciently, my work with the layouts of the icons and fixation on the fashion pages of magazines anticipated my graphic design career in publishing when I began working for trade publications.
My training in classic techniques in painting went hand-in-hand with working with images in Photoshop. With ease and accessibility of rendering realistic images, the challenge of verisimilitude almost became moot. One never had to struggle with media and the replication of images was practically endless.
In 1998, along with my husband David Smitherman, I established Palari Publishing LLP, an independent publisher of books, magazines and web applications. Among the publications Palari launched included URGE, a regional fine arts journal.
But over the years of all my images either being trapped behind the glass of a computer screen or reduced to CMYK process ink--and in witnessing today’s barrage of images on the internet--I get what my fellow formalists were embracing about paintings being unique objects. The event of standing before the painting in full pigment and studying the work wasn’t the same as the image of the work translated to print or on a computer screen. URGE later evolved into the arts section of Greater Richmond Grid a publication that Palari sold in 2010. Following the sale of the magazine, We moved to the metro Washington D.C. area where we currently live and work.
So I’ve returned to the easel. I still compose on the computer, but I create art at the easel. I love the painterly quality of creating with color and edge but also like the poetic engineering that artist creates when rendering a narrative. I like to create an object that when viewed close up provides a completely different aesthetic experience than the illusion that is created from viewing further back.
In digital art, images are broken down to pixels, much like pointillism. The magic of illusionism happens because the computer pixels are arranged in groups and compressed (presented at a distance) on the screen to create an image.
I decided to mimic the process of rendering but also embrace the painterly aspects of making a mark. It’s not pointillism where the illusion of what is being painted is most effective at a distance and the daubs of paint are viewed as a means to an end.
Because of the dense combination of pigment and medium, each mark that I make, each brushstroke dries as an object with unique characteristics that are just as compelling as the illusion created by their optical fusion from a distance. Also I like the challenge of illustrating light with the glow of the hue and saturation of color. Each painting seems to have its own pigment glow that sometimes complements, and at other turns, challenges the light I'm trying to portray.
It’s probably that I am a little obsessive compulsive, but whenever I’ve looked at paintings I’ve focused on the whole of the paint engineering. Particularly if the painting is made by glazing, the weave of the underlying canvas will create a distracting grid from what is being rendered.
This has led me to appreciate the techniques used by the Ukiyo-e Japanese artists from the 17th through 19th centuries. You can see its influence in the paintings for the Earthly Delights show at Eric Schindler in April. Ukiyo-e balances the graphic design of each mark with the subject that is being rendered. Painting this way requires that you own and commit to each mark in a single stroke. There is no physical blending of paint — it’s all an optical illusion created through a cloud of random marks layered upon marks. Sometimes the mark draws, sometimes the mark colors, and sometimes it does both.
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