Post Impressions is a new series of conversations between Mary Jones and artists who’ve graduated from RISD.
Painting from observation is an optimistic act. It requires a certain letting go of the self and focused attention on something, or somebody else. It is a syncopation of the eye and the hand and, while it can be a great release, it also requires tremendous concentration and practice. No wonder, then, that observation is a key element of teaching painting.
Working together from the still life, or the model, turns the classroom into a socially focused space and those who paint together in the class work as if in an improvisational, but silent, concert. By contrast, when working individually, the centered room breaks down, and sometimes the work breaks down, as well. Students create makeshift camps of personal space and private demons. To me, painting from observation keeps a vital structure in tact. The seeing comes first, no matter how difficult or chaotic everything else becomes.
I put these observations to a master of the genre, Julian Kreimer. RISD MFA grad of 2003, currently a Assistant Professor of Painting/Drawing & Art Theory/Criticism at SUNY Purchase College, NY, and just coming off two recent shows:
“Night Painting”, at Alexandre Gallery in Midtown, and Lenore Gray Gallery in Providence R.I.
The interview took place in Julian’s Brooklyn studio, with his recent work all around us.
M: Instead of having a controlled situation, like a still life in your studio, your observational painting project begins with your leaving the studio, choosing a view in the landscape. You’ve said, “the street is your studio” when you work. How do you choose these locations for your work? What is the criteria for the composition?
J: When I’m looking for motifs, I never really know what I’m looking for. I know what I’m NOT looking for. Things that are typical or expected, like McDonald’s billboards, or something. It’s a very critical process and takes a long time. I spend more time finding things that don’t work, eliminating things. I’ll go out on my bike or be out walking the whole day. I’ll cover a lot of territory, especially with the bike, bringing my sketchbooks, I’ll be ready to work, and I won’t find anything. Sometimes it’s frustrating. I’ll go out with all my gear and be walking for 2 or 3 hours and nothing, even on a perfect day to paint, but then at the last moment I’ll stumble upon, or stop by coincidence and find the right place.
M: I feel you choose views that are metaphors for the viewer as an outsider. There’s often a fence, bars, or barriers that confront the viewer. This works to establish a sense of the surface plane, and a deep space beyond. They’re peripheral scenes that belie delicate, precise compositions, but are definitively urban, and unprecious in every way.
J: Even though I’m a transplant, I love the city, and feel like a real New Yorker. I’ve lived here 10 years. But that being said, in terms of making these paintings, it’d be easier to make these paintings in a city that wasn’t so iconic. When I visit my family in Washington D.C. or in Buenos Aires, there’s more stuff to paint because it’s not so iconic. That’s a big part of it, finding scenes that aren’t so iconic. Like a lot of young artists I worked a while as a temp in a lot of offices in midtown. I remember that feeling of midtown at 9 a.m. when I was coming to work; those horrible little side streets and those dingy offices. We think of Midtown as this very sexy place but it isn’t. Also, New York has a huge tradition of observation painting from the last 60 years. Rackstraw Downes, Fairfield Porter, and Jane Freilicher all have strong view points. This is all territory that I must steer away from. I can say I’m attracted to the Central European combination of melancholy and humor as a stance. I see a lot of facile and easy cynicism in cultural products today, in music and literature as well as art. I find it too easy, it’s just too easy to knock things down. To go back to the idea of being optimistic, I suppose it’s that I’m trying to take the clear eyed view, to not be swayed, to see things as they really are.
M: Do you carefully choose the dimensions?
J: I do. I do the research, sketching, but I can’t get a sense of what I really need. So I carry a bag of four of five stretchers with me on any given day.
M: You also write criticism. Do you consider this to be another aspect of your observational practice?
J: Yes. In my painting I’m looking for these views that are entirely unpictorial. The space is indescribable, there’s too many focal points and too much stuff. It’s unclear what’s going on, it’s visually confusing. It’s not ’til I lose myself with the brush, like a woodchopper with an ax going at a huge tree. The brushes are like little chopsticks trying to cut down a tree-and I’m losing myself in the process of capturing something that’s essentially “unseeable.”
As a writer I’m interested in work that has that complexity and power, like the Louise Fishman show. I’m at a loss to tell my students why each painting has such power, yet I feel like I’ve been knocked over. I’ll spend 2 hours in a show and I’ll write anything that comes into my head. And then I’ll start to see things that didn’t occur to me. I can lose myself in this process as well.
M: There’s that Picasso quote that “”unless your picture goes wrong, it will be no good”. Do your paintings go through this process? When you’re out painting on location, how do you deal with failure and revisions?
J: Things can go terribly bad. On location I get people looking at me. Four hours is about the average time I spend on a painting, a very concentrated four hours, I’m totally in it. People come by and watch. During the first three hours people will look and walk away, like they’re embarrassed for me because I’m making this total mess. It looks like a child has thrown some colors down. I dress in lots of layers, an enormous parka covered with paint. I look like a homeless person. The performance part of it I’ve gotten used to, and accept as part of my process. People will bother me with asking for directions and stop and want to chat about their own paintings or their house in Italy or something. I try to be respectful because after all I’m in a public space having a private experience. It’s only at the very end, the last fifteen minutes or so when I put the details in that people start to notice, and they are practically transfixed.
M: Do you ever throw the painting down, start to curse and walk away?
J: I’ve learned to sublimate it a little and I’ll just scrape the whole thing down with my knife and rag. When this happens I can hear audible gasps of horror! A painting is probably painted about four times in the course of a day. By that time I know the motif well and I can do it quickly. That one (“Car Park”) I started about midnight in Chelsea and it ended about five or six in the morning. It went through about five attempts. I was going to throw in the towel about 3:30 and at 4:00 I was totally exhausted. It was still a mess. I’d painted it so many times during the night, I thought I’ give it one more fast pass, why not, I’ve already got the paint on my palette. Suddenly it clicked into shape and it was something I was able to do. It’s such a bizarre view. These elevated cars in the view, these SUVs.
M: Why midnight? Was it something about the light at that time?
J: No. It was Chelsea, and the humiliation factor of painting in the streets of Chelsea was leagues higher than painting in Midtown! (Laughter) It was so mortifying thinking I’d see someone I know, that it was better to do it at night. I’d go at night to do these paintings, I was sure nobody would be there and the city at night is just so unused and available. You can park anywhere, I have to take all my gear, you don’t see anyone, and nobody bothers you. It’s a good time to work.
M: You mentioned that photography is not a part of your process, but that you’re very influenced by photographers.
J: One is Andre Kertesz and also Robert Adams. It’s like that Eastern European saying, “persistence in the absence of hope”. His bleak photos of the west being destroyed are upsetting but there’s a watchfulness and a mindfulness to it that’s hopeful. He’s out there making those photos. I’ve decided to make these paintings for an audience who’d appreciate the subtleties of these works. That’s what I appreciate about Kertesz, a kind of quiet intelligence. I respect that, and he expects the audience to go along with him.
Post Impressions is a conversation series conducted and transcribed by Mary Jones. She is an artist living and working in NYC, and a professor at both RISD and School of Visual Arts.