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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Wonky-Scapes, a truncated history

I was prevented from hanging my upcoming exhibit Wednesday afternoon by construction issues, so I decided my spare time could be spent rummaging around in my brain, thinking about how I got to doing wonky plein air and studio city-scapes.

The exhibit is Wonky PDX: City-Scapes by Yours Truly, showing at the Full Circle Gallery, 640 SE Stark Street, Portland, OR, opening reception 6–9 on Friday May 6 (just in case you are the one human being whom I know who hasn’t gotten the message yet.)

[Although instead of “Yours Truly” I used my own name. I like “Yours Truly” better and maybe next time….]

I have been painting towns, hamlets, villages, near-ghost towns, and the city of Portland since 2007, when I spent two months painting from a studio in an old bank building that fronted the hamlet (450 persons) of Basin, Montana. The months were December and January; I was (am) a plein air painter, but painting outside, except for a gag photo shot, was not an option. But painting the town in front of me, once the windows cleared of ice was.

Here’s the very first painting I did in Basin:

Brad’s Place, Basin Montana, 12 x 16″, oil on canvas, 2006

Brad’s place was directly across from the Montana Artists Refuge studio where I had my residency. Brad’s place required painting, in more ways than one.

I think I painted most of the houses in Basin (I could see most of them from my windows), as well as attempting to paint a geologic map of a timeline of the world. The latter had real problems and eventually got cut up into some nifty abstracts which were subsequently rolled and buried for the ages to admire.  But the paintings of the town were many and varied and a delight to work on. One of the last paintings that I did, however, was the beginning of, not necessarily a wonky style, but a considered concern for connections and context.

It began with a map:

Basin, Montana, Winter 2006-07,¬† about 20 x 60″, Oil on canvas, 2007.

And then I began surrounding the map with specific structures and elements from the village, much wonkier than the structures and scenes I had been painting in the previous weeks:

Basin in Winter, Oil on canvas, about 7′ x 5′, 2007

Anyone who has been looking at my wonky cityscapes will recognize some pre-history here. This is a connected set of paintings, like the Petrified Forest Set. Moreover, the Brick building that is so prominently featured (the Montana Artist’s Refuge, the bank-turned-art-studio out of whose windows I stared) is facing east in one painting; west in another. A third version(top center) allows the viewer to look through it to the town itself, although the town is apparently inside the building.

Context, all context and connections and relationships, among the streets and buildings, the dogs that ruled the town, the schoolhouse where the kids who gathered to peer into the studio windows spent their days, the little stream that ran under the ice down to the Boulder River — lots and lots of parts of Basin, even the Buddha and Shiva that hovered around the Artists Refuge — all jumbled into this set of nine paintings.

So here’s the leap — from that village, in 2007, to a set of paintings in 2010, when I found myself working the St. Johns Bridge in Portland Oregon. First there were “studies,” the equivalent of the paintings of buildings in Basin. I call these paintings studies because that’s a good art term. Actually, I thought of them as paintings, real, honest to goodness paintings, stand-alones, because who knew if I’d ever go back again and do more.

 

 

 

Except for the last, these are all about 12 x 16″, done plein air. A couple have bit the dust (or more literally, been sanded down to dust). A couple will be in the upcoming exhibit. And there are some others so bad I didn’t photograph them.

But that itch about the St. Johns Bridge couldn’t be satisfied. So I went back to the bridge every day for a couple of weeks and completed the eight panels, 16 x 12″ that comprise the panorama that the bridge presents:

St. Johns Bridge, Portland Oregon, Panels 1,2,3,&4, each 16 x 12″, 2010

 

St. Johns Bridge, Portland, Oregon, Panels 5,6,7,&8, each 16 x 12″, 2010

St. Johns Bridge, Portland, Oregon, 12 x 96″, Oil on masonite, 2010

But that itch, that bee in my bonnet about time, space, place, connections and relationships still bugged me. I hadn’t really done Cathedral Park, that sprawls right under the Bridge. I hadn’t painted the bridge as you can see it from the old town that sits on the hills above Cathedral Park. I hadn’t painted the funny little side park on the Willamette Greenway, an extension of Cathedral Park, that sits beside the Portland Water Pollution Control building. And somehow, I hadn’t captured the sense of being there, painting, for hours, and coming back the next day and painting for more hours.

So this spring I painted the bridge from one of the streets that fronts the River:

And I painted the Water Pollution Control Lab Park, with its own artwork by Don Merkt, whose Sculptures, Raindrop, are enclosed in meditative paths.

And I took a studio painting that I had been struggling with off-and-on for months, painted over it with titanium white, and, after reading about Thomas Hart Benton, Jackson Pollock and a bunch of old masters, I finally got what I wanted.

Our Bridge, 30 x 40″, Oil on canvas, 2011

So is this the exhibit? Heavens, no. Nothing from Basin, Montana, will appear in it. The St. Johns stuff has been seriously culled (as I said, sanded over). But these last sets from the St. Johns “studies” resulted my conscious-brain breakthrough, my recognition, slow in coming, of what I have been doing since 2007. What I do is this:

I find a place to paint, I paint a bunch of scenes that are relatively comprehensible, only sort-of-wonky, I absorb the place by returning again and again, and finally, if I’m lucky, the stars are aligned, and I’ve held my tongue correctly, I can produce a contextual painting or set of paintings that satisfy me. And now I even understand a bit about composing these composites, these collectives, these wonky-but-true visions that had been unconsciously appearing in my art for the last four years.

In the exhibit in addition to Our Bridge, I have composite paintings of the Fremont Bridge, of McLoughlin Boulevard, and of that street corner at 6th and Alder. And in my head, I have others, just waiting for the right time to spill onto the canvas.¬† I also will have, in the exhibit, “studies” which are sometimes just as wonky as the collective artifacts are. Onward and upward with the arts, and thank heavens, I’ve finally figured out what I’m doing. Four years — not too long, considering….

And by Thursday, with any luck, I’ll even get to hang the exhibit that opens on Friday.

–June

 

 

 

 

Thomas Hart Benton: Vertical Composition, Energy Fields, and Space through Size

Thomas Hart Benton  seems to hold one or more of the keys to my attempts to consciously understand my own painting processes.

Thomas Hart Benton, Boomtown, 1927 –1928*

As I noted here and here, I am concerned to find that sweet spot, the riparian zone of visual art, where space becomes place, but is not yet the allotted, monocular camera’s eye view.¬† I like painting things that are complex, without central focus, un-scenic, if you will. I am interested in multiple viewpoints, in putting more rather than less into my plein air work and studio paintings, and to find a way to incorporate depth that doesn’t depend upon linear perspective. I want a material space that is representational but not¬† realistic.

All grand abstractions and perhaps easier to say than to understand and certainly easier to understand than to achieve on a regular basis.

Enter Thomas Hart Benton. Benton hove into my sights through a Ken Burns documentary on Netflix, after which I ordered his two autobiographies from the library and found some other images as well as critical writings that I read. I thought (and still think) of him as a social realist; the New York critics saw him as a “regionalist” (and they did not mean that as a compliment); all agree that his greatest achievement was in his murals.

Benton’s murals are massive — they adorn the walls of state capitols and public buildings and tell of historical events and legends of the people that commissioned them. They are collages on a grand scale. They are probably most striking in their depiction of human figures and actions. Benton uses a cubistic style to depict humans engaged in all kinds of activities. He derived his figure making from clay friezes that he made and then painted from. He composed his largest works in clay before he painted them.

And it’s his compositions, not his human figures, that grabbed me. Benton makes enormous collages out of historical events, collages which indicate space and place as well as human activity. His chief problem, as he tells it in his autobiography, was one of composition. His achievement was to compose scenes that are always energetic, moving,¬† surfaces that are readable, lively, representational and yet not anything like photo-realism.

Thomas Hart Benton, Hollywood, 1937

It is the amount of material and the energy in Benton’s compositions that intrigue me. He claimed to have acquired some of it from studying Tintoretto and El Greco. He says he learned to compose his scenes around vertical “poles” pushing up through his picture space. Those “spaces” aren’t simply large canvases — they are murals that are often interrupted by doorways or arches or go around corners.¬† The vertical “poles,” however, provide basic compositional structures for forms that swirl and connect themselves to other verticalities, many of which are clearly part of the middle or background.

Although Benton often seems to be giving us a view from above, we are also below the scene, some of which falls into our laps. To achieve a sense of space and perspective, he uses size changes and stacks his middle and background figures and scenes up to the top of the picture plane; he can’t depend on linear perspective to indicate space because he’s including too many varied, disconnected scenes, and he needs the entire space to be filled for maximum impact for the murals on which he’s working. He stacks his figures but they are not all on the same plane. They recede in our view, as they get smaller, while the foreground figures tend thrust themselves into our faces. The foregrounds come spilling off the wall while the middle ground, which can contain the primary scene, recedes through size changes.

Thomas Hart Benton, Arts of the West, 1932

So Benton composes in vertical swirls, with lines of energy that connect his visual elements, but retains the sense of space by thrusting his foreground figuration almost out of the lower “canvas” while pushing the middle and background back by stacking and sizing. His motion is circular but expands and contracts to pull in various different times and scenes.

JOU, The Fremont Bridge Addresses the Land, 12 x 24″, 2008 (?)

I can already see how some of this will be useful as I work with my wonky city-scapes. However, I haven’t the foggiest how this analysis can be useful in painting landscapes of the desert, where horizontality reigns. But certainly some of the scenes from the Petrified Forest might be made stronger through such compositional strategies, particularly when aligned with processes used by Jackson Pollock, Benton’s student and friend. But that’s for another post.

June

*[A great description of Benton’s work, and Boomtown in particular, can be found in The Modern West: American Landscapes 1890 –1950 by Emily Ballew Neff:¬† Neff describes the composition of Boomtown this way: “These colorful characters inhabit a remarkable landscape, the crossroad at Main, which is localized into a pie-shaped wedge, spreading into the distance. By employing a bird’s eye perspective, Benton looks down and across the vast landscape, following the Earth’s curve. This effect makes the foreground slip down from the picture plane and fall into the viewer’s lap, and the background appears to stretch endlessly, punctuated by telephone poles, enclosed oil well, and derricks.”]