NOTES ON THE SIX STONES SERIES

 

 


The following notes are intended to provide viewers of the paintings in the Six Stones series with amplified points of access to the conceptual, formal, and technical processes used in their creation.  This is, however, a risky business since I generally view artist statements with suspicion and mistrust.  Rarely do artists seem capable of clearly articulating through the written word the issues that fuel their studio work.  My sense is that the cocoon of words artists encase their work with is all too often fundamentally inaccurate and, therefore, less than useful in helping viewers understand the work.  At best artist statements are harmless nonsense, at worst they serve to mislead through the imposition of ideas that may in fact have nothing to do with the work per se. The simple truth is that I manifest my beliefs, ideas and interests in visual terms.   I think visually and form pictorial not literary responses to experience.  Readers are cautioned, therefore, to use the following notes with care.

The Six Stones paintings began with a painting done in my San Miguel de Allende, Mexico studio in 1999.  This painting, titled 4.21.99, was of five small stones from our garden.

Moreover, a few years earlier I had prepared but abandoned a series of paintings of stones.  My interest in working with stones was partly the result of seeing a painting of five pebbles by Claudio Bravo, the celebrated Chilean painter.  A much earlier Chinese painting in turn inspired his picture.  What appealed to me in Bravo’s painting was its pure simplicity of composition, concept, and technique.  But, as I say, the series I’d planned to do in the mid-‘nineties was never started and the 1999 painting 4.21.99 was a stand alone project that probably had more to do with technical issues—I was at the time just beginning to work images up using a digital camera and Adobe Photoshop—than with subject matter.  It wasn’t until the fall of 2000 that I returned to a modest collection of garden stones as a starting point.

However, before discussing the Six Stones paintings directly a word or two on the development of my approach to painting generally are probably in order.  I grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, in the post World War II period, and the art I knew anything about was the art of popular culture: comic books, advertising art and the like.  And when I entered art school in 1960 it was with the notion of becoming a commercial artist.  Nevertheless, within a matter of weeks of beginning art school, the floodgates had been opened and painting became my passion.  Abstract Expressionism and the various forms of Modernism pretty much ruled the day, but it was the emergence of Pop Art, particularly the paintings of James Rosenquist, that provided me with a viable figurative alternative to abstraction.  My particular approach to descriptive painting evolved through the ‘sixties and reached a level of maturity in the ‘seventies.  The emergence, in about 1969, of the New Realism movement provided a theoretical context within which I could define my approach, and discussions of, for example, the use of photography as a tool in painting or the denial of surface were central to the evolution of my work.  In fact, it is the positioning of my work in theoretical contexts that I find most useful as a way of explaining certain qualities in my work.

I have always found it somewhat useful to position my approach to painting within the context of the evolution of art ideas between the mid-nineteenth century and the 1960s.  Ruled by Modernism, painting in the first half of the twentieth century relied heavily on qualities such as pictorial distortion, exaggerated surface notation and compressed pictorial space to carry meaning.  My approach to painting has taken the contrary position of abandoning ornamental brushwork and decorative manipulation of the appearance of things.  The primary goal is to describe the appearance of things, not to use things as a starting point for creating pictorial events that point only secondarily to events outside the arena of painting. 

I have also had a love/hate relationship with pre-twentieth century European painting.  While finding much to admire in the descriptive paintings of, say, seventeenth and eighteenth century Holland, I create paintings that viewers may find difficult to link to this tradition.  I have always used acrylic paint, a medium that has little of the sensuosity of oil.  This alone sets my work apart from earlier descriptive painting.  Acrylic seems a decidedly North American medium and to use it is in some small way to position ones work apart from paintings from the past that might ordinarily seem quite similar.  Claudio Bravo’s painting of three pots is done in oil, my three pots in acrylic.  At first glace the Bravo painting could be mistaken for one done a couple of centuries ago, while mine is, I think, very much linked to the late twentieth century.  In large measure, the Bravo painting sits comfortably within the history of European painting because of its use of oil.  By contrast, my painting replaces sensuosity with cold efficiency, a quality inherent in the acrylic medium.

I also use acrylic paint to do something it is not particularly well suited to: blending.  A virtue of acrylic paint, its tendency to dry within minutes, makes creating subtle transitions in value and colour a challenge.  My solution to this problem has been to add air brushing to the group of techniques I use in making my paintings.  Spraying has solved the problem of creating subtle slides of colour and tone while contributing greatly to the distancing of my work from pre-twentieth century descriptive painting.  It has also, I might add, positioned me at the periphery of conventional contemporary realist painting.  Nevertheless, the acrylic medium suits my temperament and any loss of surface sensuosity is, I feel, a small price to pay for the advantages it provides.

New Realism, the 1970s movement that provided a theoretical context within which I could refine my ideas, came to be associated with ideas of populism and subject matter was taken, for the most part, from aspects of everyday life.  My paintings have tended to be of common things close at hand, and I’ve taken more than a little pleasure in painting things not normally found in pre-1960s painting.  The idea has been to hold a mirror up to the cocoon of things that surrounds me, believing, I suppose, in the value of sharing ones life with others.  Sometimes the mirror has been positioned more carefully; other times the reflections provided are the result of less deliberate positioning. A painting like BELIEVE, for example, has the look of a stumbled upon situation, providing a composition that appears to be completely devoid of choice other than to accept it as it is, whereas MIRAGE has a more staged look, suggesting that a level of deliberation has been employed in its creation.

The paintings in the Six Stones series use a number of contrasting qualities such as, for instance, formality/informality as conceptual starting points.  Other contrasts at play in the series would be found/constructed, known/unknown, expected/unexpected, and natural/unnatural.  The individual paintings as well as the series’ sub-groups position themselves along several of these scales, and the whole series appears to build from a position of calm innocence to one of pressure and stress.  Six Stones, the first painting in the series, appears to be devoid of meaning outside itself, the stones appearing to have been casually spilled onto a non-descript, white surface.  The composition seems casual and natural, as does the lighting.  Not Yet, a painting of the same six stones, by contrast, has a formal order about it, which suggest deliberation and conscious concern for arrangement.  It is this subtle shifting of the series’ paintings within sets of contrasting qualities that provides one possible source of meaning.

Subject matter for the paintings in the series includes six small stones, five Mexican stone carvings, studio clutter, and the three pots that appeared as a three painting series in 1999.  The stones point to nature, the carvings and three ceramic vessels to art and the studio clutter to process.  The carvings were acquired directly from the artist in central Mexico in 1966 and have been part of my life since then.  Of the three clay vessels, I made two in the 1970s and the third is one Carroll Lindoe-Taylor did in, I believe, the 1960s.  The subject matter sub-groups appear individually as well as intermingled amongst each other.  Generally speaking, the intermingling of the objects provides a level of implied meaning or absurdity.  ECHO, a painting combining rolls of masking tape and other studio clutter along with the six stones, begs the question why?  The answer lies less in possible iconographic readings than in a simple desire to create a compelling composition using close-at-hand objects.  REFLECT brings together the primitive Mexican carvings, two of the clay vessels and the stones.  The various objects also appear against a range of backgrounds—wooden taboret top, tin foil, black plastic, and white paper—and under different lighting conditions.

Composition has long been a major interest of mine.  In addition, even though my compositions do frequently suggest a lack of formal arrangement they are, in fact, always carefully considered.  Irony is at play here, as I have always found pleasure in working hard at making the considered seem casual or accidental.  The search for beauty in pictorial composition has led me to include or exclude object components based on their formal properties.  The repetition of shapes, colours, and textures in complex patterns results in occasionally seemingly absurd groupings of unrelated objects.  Claudio Bravo is again instructive.  In the following painting it seems obvious that any reading of the object juxtapositions must take a back seat to the recognition that the depicted objects have been chosen for their formal qualities.  This still life painting exists as an example of pure visual orchestration, existing purely for the pleasure it gives on its own terms, while eschewing iconographic interpretation.  WHISPER, should be read in the same way.

But perhaps the interest area that preoccupies me the most is one that deals with the description of form.  I have spent my entire career attempting to describe the appearance of visual phenomena, and in the Six Stones series, I continue to take delight in using paint to describe various surfaces as they appear in different lighting conditions.  Here, for example, are six versions of the same form from various painting completed in recent years. 

I am also interested in finding efficient, systematic ways of describing visual phenomena.  Questions regarding appropriate viewing distance, that distance from the painting where notation surrenders to form, where jabs of opaque white over transparent passages of colour congeal to become a clay pot as it appears under a harsh spotlight or the degree to which process should be allowed to participate in the finished image are of critical interest to me.  As an aid in this regard I have recently turned to digital image processing, and after a couple of years dedicated to becoming comfortable with the process, I feel the paintings in the Six Stones series strike the right balance between excessively noisy notation and fully described form.

John Hall