PSF Residency: Post #4

These posts come slow and slower. I hope not to have to record slowest.

I spent one day down on the res last week. I did one plein air painting. The temperature hovered at about 44 degrees, but the sun mostly shone.

In that plein air day, I began the study of the buildings that make up the Eastside Plating Plant #5, (see the photos in the last blog post). I sat at the corner of SE 3rd and Main for study #1. As usual, I was greeted by neighborhood habitues.

Here’s the painting as it looked when I left the scene:

JOU, SE 3rd & Main, in progress, 12 x 16″, oil on Masonite, 2012

The painting is, um, rough. I have reworked it, but am even more dissatisfied with its twee updating, so I’m not going to show it on the blog. I think I will declare it a (failed)¬† study and turn its face to the wall.

While the study is rough, the experience was, as usual, great fun. I got set up on the sidewalk, with difficulty, because my easel, stool, and paints were cold and didn’t want to expand, extend, or extrude. I was at the corner of 3rd and Main, with a driveway to an underground garage directly behind me (think big trucks backing and beeping about 3 feet behind my back) and a howling wind coming down the street to my left. Shortly after I put the first stroke of paint on the board, a couple came along and asked if they could look.¬† At my single stroke of Payne’s Grey.

I said “sure” and the woman looked, laughed out loud, and said “Beautiful!”.¬† I love it when the kibitzers are as silly as I am.

Then a crew of 5 or 6 skateboarders came along to practice on the loading dock ramp at the left, up windy 3rd street. As I was not absolutely at the corner, but slightly back from it (trying to get out of the gale), there was room, barely enough room, for them and their skateboards and me and my gear.

However, at one point one of them wiped out in front of me;  his skate board flew up and hit the stop sign in front of me. He swore, loud and angry, but I pretended to be too immersed in the painting to notice. Later, when they walked in front of me to get a running start up the ramp, I apologized for being in their way. As is often the case in Portland, kids who seem tough turn out to be rather nice. These guys were no exception. They apologized back, made light conversation, and then I realized that when that skateboard flew, they were probably terrified it would hit me in the head. Or in the painting.

No more skateboard frights occurred after that, either for them or me. They all shouted me¬† a “good day” when they left.

I had other visitors: an office worker from the Pratt and Larson Building across the street came out to see what I was doing. He likes the big funnel too. A worker from Plant 5 had to check out the painting and chat me up. He said, verifying what I know about places like these, that he had seen me looking at the building “a couple of days ago.” No anonymity in Portland, at least in the places I wander around in.¬† A streetcar construction worker came down from MLK Boulevard to check out the painting; he said he liked it when he saw painters working in the streets.

After about an hour had passed, a big dark cloud came up, rain started spattering, and I packed up in a hurry. I threw a poncho over the gear in the cart, put my sort of decent winter coat over my indecent painting coat, and hurried back up Main Street. At MLK, the traffic was awful. Around me were various pedestrians trying to cross the street. We stepped off the curb when the traffic got stopped at a traffic lot and the car to our left gave us plenty of room. Then, zoom, right in front of me, an SUV pulled into the space that the other car had left. Scared me a bit witless¬† —¬† and I yelled, loud and angry, at him. And offered choice words about him to the two pedestrians behind me.

It wasn’t until I saw my fellow walkers draw away from me that I realized how I must have appeared: a wild-haired old woman with five layers of clothes, including two coats, pulling a cart over which a bit of blue plastic was thrown, who yells at drivers — well, you don’t want to get too near her. She may ask for a handout, and almost certainly won’t smell too good.

I scurried on up Main (providing local color for other onlookers) and into my warm dry safe studio, where I took off the excess clothing, pulled my hair back into its proper clip, and returned to being the nice little old lady who paints in odd places.

In the warehouse and the studio, I’ve been playing with a couple of still lifes. Here are three photos, the first of the vase and surrounds that I painted on-site, the second of my first draft of the still life, and the third of the almost-final version.

These were bits of foliage that I gathered from the parkings and weed patches on the way to the res. The window sill is typical of the res warehouse studio.

JOU, Warehouse Still Life #1, 16 x 12″, oil on Masonite, 2012

I painted the original at the warehouse studio, and then, in my home studio, I played with glazing. One of my instructors told me that, traditionally, a still life requires 6 or 7 layers of paint, most of them glazes, in order to achieve the sense of depth within the pigments. The glazes are transparent and allow the viewer to see through them, giving the painting a glow.¬† I have done at least 3 layers on the last photo above, and think a couple more will be added in places. Part of the effect of the last photo, alas, comes from the web-light-through glow rather than the glazing.¬† I’ll keep trying.¬† –June

PSF Residency: Post #3

I didn’t get back to the Portland Store Fixtures studio until Friday of the second week of this residency. I have excuses, not real good ones, but hey — it’s January and the street-ponds have risen.

However, I did work in my warm studio at home, continuing with the painting that started me searching for a residency.

JOU, Under the Hawthorne Bridge, work in progress, 40 x 30″, oil on canvas, January 2012

This is the street outside the res studio window, with the overhead roadway which leads to the Hawthorne Bridge shading the street, the sleeping transient, and the railroad tracks.¬† Portland’s center city, on the west bank, is shrouded in fog across the river, but even in its misty space, it looks down at this eastside passage.¬† The painting is almost finished, but of course, it’s the last bits that are most important.

The other city-scape that I’m working on is more difficult to get a handle on. It’s a block-long grouping of old industrial buildings, the Eastside Plating Plant #5. Six countable buildings are jumbled together in something of a semi-circle, facing Main Street, with a paved “courtyard.”

I was first mesmerized by the over-sized funnel, fed by the large pipe coming out of the innermost building, that sits in the innermost area of the semi-circle. The more I look at the complex, however, the more I want to find a way to express its complexity as a whole.

I have begun an oil-painted study of the entire block, but it’s just a study (and I didn’t take a photo of it). What I did take were photos of the buildings themselves.

This is Plant 5 of the Eastside Plating Plant, photographed in sections. These photos are of the city block of jumbled and heavily trafficked working quarters.

SE 3rd and Main St, Portland Oregon. The Eastside Plating Plant #5

The other side of the windowed “wall” at SE 3rd and Main in the first photo. The low concrete building at the left juts into the space at an odd angle.

The entrancing funnel, along with an oversized trash bin and the inevitable wooden palettes.

 

This building, at the far side of the semi-circle, toward SE 2nd Ave, also intrigues me because it’s of a different era, or had a different rationale for existence. Its sloped roof and siding, windows and doors mostly boarded up and painted over, make it resemble a barn or trolley space more¬† than the industrial plant look of the concrete block buildings with flat roofs and big windows.

 

A view of the SW corner of the plant, with its tangle of shapes and lines.

Obviously, dealing with this will take some time. Just sorting out the shapes and planes and lines and figuring out how to turn those elements into a pigmented painting should keep me out of trouble. –June

 

Benton, Pollock, and, um, Underwood

As I explored in previous posts (here, here, and here), I’m continuing my quest for compositional methods and ways of seeing that can give me a framework for my mostly intuitive working.

Thomas Hart Benton and scholars discussing his work have dissected his use of vertical spirals, collage-like murals, and falling-into-your-lap figuration.

Thomas Hart Benton, The Arts of the West, 94 x 159″¬† 1932

Jackson Pollock, a younger follower,¬† friend and admirer of Benton’s, used Benton’s compositional techniques to achieve very different effects:

Jackson Pollock, Number 31, 1950

Pollock, when asked why he didn’t go to France to learn how to make great art, replied, “It’s here. It’s not in Paris. It used to be with Benton but now it’s with me.” (as quoted in Henry Adams, Tom and Jack, the Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benson and Jackson Pollock, Kindle edition, location 2509)

While the connections seem strained at first glance, other art scholars also note continuities between Pollock and Jackson:  Jonathan Fineberg, in Art since 1940, says,

Benton’s adulation of ‘American’ frontier masculinity must have appealed to Pollock.¬† Benton’s work, reinforced by the example of the Mexican muralists, sowed the seeds for the emergence of a grand scale and an epic quality in Pollock’s painting of the forties.

Jackson Pollock, Mural, 1943

And to quote from Adams again,

All-encompassing principles of design are what make [Benton’s] painting work, and once we recognize this fact it also becomes not too difficult to grasp that what we see in [Pollock’s Mural]… are qualities that go back to what Pollock had learned from Thomas Hart Benton. The basic compositional system of the painting — vertical poles, arranged in a lateral sequence, which serve as the locus of spiraling rhythms — derives from the methods that Benton laid out in his articles in the series [entitled] “The Mechanics of Form: Organization in Painting.”¬† … For years, Pollock had been slowly drifting away from Benton’s influence. In Mural he returned to the principles of his master, if not in terms of surface imagey, in terms of format, and compositional structure and fundamental expressive purpose.

[Adams quotes painter/sculptor Harry Jackson]: He [Pollock] admired Tom Benton and he wanted to be able to do what Tom dreamed of doing, that is, to make Great and Heroic paintings for America. He was painfully aware of not being able to do it the way he wished and he was determined to do it the way he could.”

And then Adams says what we are all thinking:

Of course, one would never confuse Pollock’s final product with a Benton. The brushwork is too wild, the drawing too strange, the figures (if they are figures) too difficult to make out. But given these elements, which had also appeared in Pollock’s earlier work, it is evident that Pollock was now starting to organize them in a different way…. The discipline is in the composition, which is now unified, so that everything forms part of a web of visual movement…. By going back to Benton’s principles he had found a way to be even wilder than before and yet to make paintings that held together.

So what does this have to do with JOU/June O. Underwood’s paintings (and the ostensible reason for this blog). Well, here’s one way it worked for me.

Recently, for a number of reasons, I have been painting barns, plein air. I have discovered a rather methodical way to get to my studio-painted, larger, and for me most exciting works; I do a bunch of plein air studies, meant to be rather mundane but decent paintings which can hold their own over the couch, and then, in the studio, try to transform them into larger, more complex composites of the plein air experience, vision, and memories. In the last post, many of those studies along with the composite versions, were reviewed by Sam Underwood.

My barns, unlike bridges and city-scapes,  have their origins in the horizontal high desert of eastern Oregon. Barns as structures, may obtrude into the landscape but they are shapes rather than lines, and so their verticality translates into paintings less like poles and more like hulking forms:

JOU, Buckhorn Ranch Barn, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2011

Even when placed at a distance, they are still shapes, not transparent or spiralling verticals:

JOU, Grain Silos, Eastern Oregon, 16 x 12″, oil on masonite, 2011

Shapes are nice but they don’t provide the vertical spirals around which a canvas can be organized. They tend to be solid, often stolid, while my painting pushes toward movement and a tension of swirls — more Benton and Pollock than Morandi.

In light of my thinking about Benton and Pollock, however, in the studio work on barns, I found a solution which came out of rational thinking and then extended itself intuitively.

JOU, Barn Memories, 34 x 36″, Oil on canvas, 2011

 

JOU, Barn Interior, 9 x 22″”, Oil on masonite, 2011

Barn Memories was the result of intentionally working the struts, beams and supports of a barn interior across the face of underlying barn scenes from the high desert. Of course, ultimately I had to go to memories and personal experiences to choose visual and emotive materials (see the process on my personal blog, southeastmain), but the recognition that a barn interior with its exposed structure and porous, unfinished exterior through which light and scenery could enter, was a direct result of consciously seeking a compositional structure like Benton’s and Pollocks.

Barn Interior was done after Memories, using the same elements with different emotive qualities. The proportions of the support are also different, providing a very different dynamic of horizontals and verticals.

These two paintings provide the first conscious pushes in my studio painting to integrate a reasoned approach with an intuitive one. And the cerebral knowledge comes directly from research on Benton’s compositional theories. –June

Below, in the continuum, are a sampling of my paintings, from 2007 through 2011, which intuitively worked toward the vertical, in your face, spiraling movement and sprawl of the Benton/Pollock concepts. For me, they provide concrete evidence that this process integrates my spontaneous painting processes with my more “thinky” approach.

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