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 PDX Cityscapes — a Review by Sam Underwood

[Ed. note: The following are the images from and a commentary about the wonky cityscapes exhibit shown at the Full Circle Gallery, May, 2011. Sam Underwood is a Portland-born, long-time observer of the city as well as an intelligent observer of paintings. Disclaimer: he’s also related to me.

The paintings have been grouped by the location in which they were painted; the smaller ones were almost all painted on-site (plein air) The groups are set chronologically, earliest to latest. Although 3 of the 4 groupings were done in 2008, it is obvious from the St. Johns grouping (2010, 2011) that I have been continuing to examine the questions raised when the artist returns to sites to paint more.]


The cityscapes below make excellent standalone pieces, but the intricacies and individual quirks of each painting are even more pronounced when the entire collection is viewed at once.

Every group consists of four small paintings and one large painting, where each small painting tackles a portion of the specific area, and the large painting ties the four small paintings together. This system works to ground the viewer squarely in the area to which the paintings relate. You will notice the large paintings seem wonkier than the small ones, because they are a more abstract, feeling-based summary of the four satellite paintings.

When observing each painting, try to imagine the sounds and smells of the sites pictured. As you progress through each painting of each group, this task will become easier and easier. When reaching the fifth piece, it will be impossible for you not to imagine the extraneous sounds, smells, and feelings associated with each place. The richness of the visual plane extends beyond just the visual plane, into unrepresented senses like hearing and smell.


McLoughlin Boulevard Group:

Bike Overpass, McLoughlin Boulevard, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2008

The mental image of this bike overpass near Sellwood is probably not something many people could call to mind on-demand. However, like so many of the paintings in this series, I had an “I know exactly where that is” moment as soon as I laid eyes on it. It’s immediately recognizable, and though the suddenly vibrant splash of red on the bridge (acutely mirrored by the lone red car) grants this painting the “wonkiness” needed to fit in, it’s still a weirdly accurate depiction of the familiar scene.


McLoughlin Boulevard, Evening, 12 x 16″, 2008

Unlike the Bike Overpass, McLoughlin Boulevard, I have no idea where this painting was done. We know where it actually is because of the tidy title, but it really looks as if it could have been painted anywhere. And I like that. It has kind of an old-timey, small town vibe to it, doesn’t it? And don’t overlook the contrast between the sharply angled buildings in the background, and the whimsically contoured trees in the foreground. The trees almost seem to have a personality. To me, it looks as if they are watching over this little yellow neighborhood.

McLoughlin, 7 AM, Oil on masonite, 12 x 16″, 2008

This piece is a great example of how June can make a charming painting out of a scene that would perhaps be unmemorable, bland, or even ugly. In person, this parking lot-building-treeline-telephone-pole mash up would not get a second glance from even the most avid cityscape enthusiast. But this painting has taken all the bore out of the scene and replaced it with, well, wonkiness!

Unavailable (McLoughlin Blvd, Uncompleted draft)

Like each of the paintings in the McLoughlin set, this makes amusing use of the way bright yellow looks next to pretty much any other color. And, like each of the paintings in the set, it has its own unique vibe to it. I don’t know what time of day this takes place, but the long shadows make it feel like the last few hours before the sun sinks below the horizon. It looks like the bittersweet end to a long day of concrete, electricity, and wind in trees.

McLoughlin, Mid-Day, 30 x 40″, Oil on canvas, 2008

This painting has gone through several drafts, and I gotta say – it’s looking its best yet. In a scene this busy, I would have difficulty as a painter making individual elements pop out. In fact, June has told me that in earlier revisions, all the features of the environment had kind of sunk blandly into the background. But in its final version, (pictured here), there’s a keen texture, detail, and style to each of the little objects visible. There’s not any one object that takes visual priority over the rest. It all pops. And, like Bike Overpass, McLoughlin Boulevard (as well as so many others), it’s got an eerie element of accuracy despite the applied wonkiness.

Fremont Bridge Group:

Willamette River, from Front Avenue, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2008

This one manages to be quite interesting while not having a conventional focal point or being crammed with traditional features of beauty. Horizontally, the river cuts straight across the middle of the painting, and is vertically decorated by the watery reflection of – are those…large holding tanks? There’s more vertical action in the form of a chain link fence on the left side of the canvas. These paintings have a very real, very urban feel. There’s no attempt to force things of beauty into the composure. It seems to state that the city, exactly as is, has enough charisma to be art-worthy, even in its raw and natural state.

Condos, beyond the Fremont Bridge, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2008

There’s something very interesting about the perspective here, and the way the yellow road loops about and rises suddenly into the distance. The chosen color palate is also as thoughtful as ever- the light brown of the dried grass and the pavement (and even the paint on the condos) is mirrored subtly in the thick clouds. In all of June’s paintings, the colors are¬† quite elegant without feeling forced or strained.

Fremont Bridge Stanchion, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2008. Unavailable.

There’s an ironic glow to this one. It focuses bluntly on the large industrial gray and mustard yellow stanchion which takes up a large portion of the frame. In its mammoth size, the stanchion completely dwarfs the comically small trees and the river. I very much like the approach of painting what’s there, not what’s conventionally pretty. And there are, after all, many paintings of conventionally beautiful scenes in June’s other painting sets, like the Desert Paintings.

The Fremont Bridge, NW 16th Ave., 16 x 12″, oil on masonite, 2008

Standing under the Fremont bridge, one feels very small. The shapely bridge loses its aesthetic value when viewed from below, and it’s a long way up to the rumbling concrete underbelly. By flipping the orientation of this smaller painting to portrait, June has captured the size of the bridge, relative to the size of a person standing under it.

Interstate, 18 x 36″, oil on canvas, 2008

Arguably the wonkiest of all the paintings in this set, Interstate has interpreted the woefully tangled and stretching plots of freeway as a rollercoaster-esque jumbled mass. It looks like the real I-5 overpass, but with all its features amplified several times. As a child, I remember having a fear of this overpass (though I could never put my finger on why) – and this painting seems to summarize exactly why a child might be scared of such a scene. On a larger scale, I take this as a keen metaphor for the generally congested, twisty, and confusing stretches of roadway that bookend both sides of the river.

SE Alder and 6th Group:

The Melody Ballroom, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2008

My favorite thing about this one is the unbelievably real texture and lighting of the very large tree. It is unusual in this series for one particular object to sit squarely in frame and demand all the viewer’s attention, but I think the tree does its job well here.

The IOOF Building, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2008

With one exception, the SE Alder & 6th set are the only paintings to include people. The people certainly make this scene busier as they scurry from place to place, running errands. One even has a tiny little bicycle. I think the coolest thing, though, is the vibrant red of the IOOF building itself, against the mottled Portland sky.

The US Bank Parking Lot, 23 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2008

Even though these buildings do not appear to conform to normal properties of engineering (they’re wonky!), the way the gray building in the background rises abruptly and without warning over the yellow building in the foreground is so entirely accurate that it’s startling. This gray building has a habit of sticking out prominently from any viewing angle, like the one awkwardly tall person in a group photograph.

The Volunteers of America, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2008

Since so few of these paintings feature people, they are always unexpected and surprising, but seem to fit right in. They certainly look like exactly the people who would inhabit the slightly wonky, colorful, and vibrant Portland pictured in the series. I also love the way the golden building takes up almost the entire frame. I think the interesting composure of objects, in relationship to the viewpoint, is one of the most exciting – and the most wonky – features of the collection.


Circling, SE Alder and 6th, 34 x 36″, oil on canvas, 2009

As is often the case in real life, there are too many cars are here on SE Alder street. So many cars, even, that some of them have to cram into gravity and perspective defying, standing-room-only, parking spots. Purple cars mirror purple buildings and street lights, red cars mirror red buildings and doorways. The odd layout, strange angles, and automobile clutter add to the to the bustling city atmosphere. This painting is like the finale of the Alder series. It combines all the elements of the previous four paintings, and seems to hold them all together.

The St. Johns Bridge Group:

St. Johns Bridge from St Johns, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2011

As summarized in the title, this isn’t a painting of The St. Johns Bridge, but rather, everything one might see when looking toward the bridge and standing in St. Johns. The fence, the buildings, and even the clouds take on as much visual importance as the bridge does.¬† This piece lends a larger, more big picture sense to a set primarily focused on just the bridge itself.

The Portland Pollution Control Lab Park, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2011

The bridge pokes cleverly between the gap in two trees. Its vertical rise, and horizontal run, cut the canvas into four neat quadrants with the fountain splashing charmingly in the foreground.

St. Johns Bridge 2, 16 x 12″, oil on masonite, 2010

Something I love about this one is how little of the ground is visible. There’s some foliage in the shot, so we know that the ground does exist, somewhere. But the tiny visible swatch of grass gives the undeniable impression that the bridge stretches celestially high into the air, like a mountain or a hot air balloon.

St. Johns Bridge 1, 16 x 12″, oil on masonite, 2010

St Johns Bridge 1 employs a similar technique as The Fremont Bridge, NW 16th Ave, where the viewpoint is below the bridge itself, and the underside of the bridge is visible. It makes the metal skeleton of the bridge feel large and impending, and makes the viewer feels small. It almost encourages an “ego-less” viewing; there is the bridge, and only the bridge. There is no viewer.

Our Bridge, Our Park, 40 x 30″, oil on canvas, 2011

In contrast with the somber, serious St Johns Bridge 1 & 2, this piece seems to underscore the entire St Johns set with sudden wonkiness. It’s hard to tell in the picture, but at 40 x 30″, this is the one of the largest canvases in the collection. It feels quite literally like all the St Johns paintings, thoughtfully placed into one massive St Johns arrangement. A much different emotion is evoked from this montage. It’s busy in a way we haven’t seen before in the St Johns set. Suddenly, one realizes that there’s much more than just the bridge. There’s water and sky, pavement and cars, grass and little tiny people. My favorite part is near the middle of the painting, where the bridge seems to disappear endlessly into a round portal of clouds. —

Sam Underwood

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.