Tag Archives: Robin Gowen

A Painting Liar

black eucalyptus

“You must have so much fun, painting,” someone in the crowd at the gallery reception says.

How many times have I heard that? Too many to count, that’s for sure. How do I answer? Reflex takes over and I lie. I nod, I smile appreciatively, I give assent.

I lie because, no, it is not fun. It’s not following my bliss. It is what I do, it is a bred-in powerful sequence of systems kicking into action that mean when I am painting, I am possessed. It is the kind of prayer that wrings out the center and leaves it void.

I’m not in control, not guiding my brush, if anything the brush is taking me. For my part, I wreak revenge, I’ve been known to snap brush handles and break bristles when I paint, I hit the board or canvas with intemperate force and I cannot possibly paint fast enough. This possession is riding me, I am riding this possession, afraid to get off because like a tiger it might vanish into the grasses out there and I shall never find that particular tiger again.

Sunburst ii

You look at my paintings hung orderly in the gallery and they seem pastoral, the smooth curves of the persistent land, a sweep of one hill merging into another, transforming over the sequence from surge to fall. You look at the colors, balanced; even in my dissonances, there is a sense of one section or one extreme taking part with others so that each work pulls into a whole no matter how loud the tangerine of sun-soaked rise or cobalt-steeped dip.

Evening Flows Down

You tell me my paintings are pretty or even beautiful and I look humbly surprised and pleased. It isn’t humility, it is surprise, because I don’t really have a memory of making my work. When I say I am possessed when I paint, I mean I am no longer the self who sits here today and types out this attempt at an explanation for you. I have little memory of the acts of painting, only scraps at best. I do not choose what color comes next, I instinctively reach out, take what I need, squeeze my tubes in the middle to make them splurt out the colors my inarticulate need dictates. My hands fumble for the next sacrificial brush, trying to catch up to the idea that drives my hands. My hands, not my brain.

Funny because I have spent so much of my life acquiring techniques and honing skills. Adding everything I can to the toolbox, so that I have mastery over the options. But in the act of working, there is nothing temperate about the effort. Nothing civil or studied, nothing calculated by some cunning plan.

Unnamed Hills cropped

You know what I look like, a small dumpling of an older woman with silver-streaked black hair and thick glasses. Usually wearing a home-sewn jumper with thrift store blouses rolled up to conceal the frayed and splashed cuffs. Someone’s grandmother, decent, well-mannered, surely a gardener in her spare hours. But I am another thing when doing this work. I am the tiger, the tiger is me. I am predator after my prey, driven to take hold of it and rend it with all ferocious hunger, to remake as I feel it must be.

P1010815

The land I paint is complicit– it tells me how it wants to become onto the canvas and I channel that surge. Pastoral, what a word full of deception. Those mountains and hills, those waves ranging upon the sands are all savages with their own agendas, survivors, but never safe, they speak in terrible tongues of a drive to go on, to keep being, even though they will never be the same for more than an instant, that instant passing. All impermanent all doomed, all full of a fury at their dying moment. That is what they speak to me and when you praise the peaceful measures of my sloping hills, I smile, and I lie.

Yes, it was fun, I say, as you expect me to say.

Eucalyptus Glow

I wrote this because I just had a marvelous lunch with new friends who somehow prompted this rant out of me, and said I should, after all, tell the truth!

Looking down into Surprise Valley

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sun struck

            I ‘ve been silent longer than intended and here’s why. I’ve been off these past few weekends teaching landscape painting. En plein air has been much misunderstood – in my book it is one of many ways to face the process of painting, not the one holy path to truth.

 

But en plein air is a healthy correction to studio perceptions, and forces the painter to face the fact that the job of painting landscape is impossible. You will only, at best, seize an abstraction of the world where you place your feet. How do you humbly distill, how do you take some powerful essential from the amazing extravagance the outdoors offers? How do you pick your time – because the world changes as you stand and breathe, the shadows flicker in and out of existence. There is no single truth ever. Instead, each movement of your eye, each shift of a nanosecond, reveals another.

Time is often likened to a wind in restless motion, tugging at us and thrusting us off our feet. The world itself is changing and we don’t approve, not one little bit. It means the loss of a friend, a question about who and what we are that we thought was settled long ago. En plein air puts us in the way of such thoughts and such disturbing currents.

 For this course we run brutal painting marathons in the Sedgwick Reserve of the University of California. http://sedgwick.nrs.ucsb.edu We get up at six AM (and I am no morning person,) paint and teach until nine before I take breakfast then go back to the painting, come in for the critique around eleven, eat lunch, go back out by around three depending on whether it’s a really brutal temperature, paint until eight or nine, come in to eat dinner and critique and fall into the tent around midnight. The coyotes can usually be counted on for matins before dawn.

Fridays and Sundays are, thank God, long half-days, but Saturdays are always a thing. Husband teaches the geology and ecology of the landscape, giving lectures about the nature of the plants and earth, I teach painting with Hank Pitcher, a marvelous fellow artist whose work can be seen at http://www.sullivangoss.com/HANK_PITCHER/ . I usually come back with at least eight paintings each weekend, sometimes really big ones — those eight-footers you can see on the Sullivan Goss gallery’s website under my painting name of Robin Gowen at http://www.sullivangoss.com/Robin_Gowen/

 

So we’re estimating that temperatures the first of the weekends at Sedgwick hovered around 105 F. Roasted and toasted and blasted as well. The second was balmy by contrast – merely in the nineties. But I’m happy with the paintings.

 I’m even happier with the students. I love seeing people testing assumptions and techniques in order to add to their tools and skills, and the only way to do that, is to take risks. I’ve deliberately stretched and taken many a pratfall in public to prove the point that if you do what is safe, stay upon the lines of what you already know, you cannot grow. Indeed, if you play safe within your mastery, you die.

We all move back from change, eye it with suspicion, with something that can even become fear if we don’t step into it, don’t seize upon it. But change has another meaning, and you’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again, because it’s true. Turned on its head change is opportunity. Out there under a blazing sun, or in the chill fog, lies opportunity.

A bird must move into the changing surge of wind; there’s a point when hesitation means destruction, where hovering is not an option. To turn back into the power of the wind is to fall.

Do I think this way when painting? You may be sure of it. The work that earns immortality doesn’t know about repetition, nor safety. It doesn’t depend upon old solutions and comfort zones. There is no ceiling and no end to it, because the work goes on forever, like the sky itself.Image

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