I’ve been busy in the studio, following up on an idea I’d had since starting my Tree of Life paintings with Series 1, two years ago. I had always considered that first series as a set of media experiments – to be revisited later. They also served as transitional subjects, bridging the Physical Science content in much of my Abstract work and addressing more complex and non “Hard Science” topics (see the Science Abstracts at The Nerdly Painter).
As an aside, “Hard Science” can seem like a bit of a misnomer. In terms of difficulty and intellectual richness and challenge, the “Soft” sciences are every bit as challenging and fascinating as the “Hard” Physical Sciences. The “Soft” sciences have been historically less amenable to mathematical rigor and direct experimentation, but they are rapidly evolving into mathematical rigorous fields to rival the traditional “Hard” Sciences.
In the past year or so, I’ve been revisiting different media ideas and exploring different thematic areas: forests and and forest patterns, different techniques including use of more traditional painting in combination with experimental approaches and other ideas. The results of this exploration are two sets of paintings. The first is a series focusing on groups of trees in a fairly abstracted style, but relying heavily on traditional painting techniques to “bind” some experimental uses of acrylic paint to the subject. An exemplar of these paintings is “Foliage Melody”, shown below. Complex patterns of striping were created using experimental approaches based on the viscoelastic properties of specific acrylic media (for more on this, see my recent interview in the Teleporting Moth Sci-Art blog). Carefully painted and shaded shapes and planes echo the patterns created through viscoelasticity and evoke a canopy of foliage and patterns of bark and trunks. The painted patterns help anchor and integrate the frozen flow patterns in the painting. At the same time, the experimental frozen flow patterns create a depth and complexity of pattern and texture that extends the abstract ideas in the painting down to minute, almost invisible length scales.
The paintings in that first Tree of Life Series, Series 1, are almost all gone now. They’ve found their way into the homes of collectors in Taiwan, Dubai, New York, and other places around the great wide world including a few right here in New England. I’ve started work on a second series, Tree of Life Series 2, that explores a few of the media experiments and ideas from the first series a bit more deeply. This second series also focuses more on the significance of trees to human societies and psyches.
One of the media ideas that I’ve wanted to build upon is the use of stiffened fiber in a painting. Stiffened fabric, string and paper can be used to create complex three dimensional textures and patterns that are also weightless. The gaps and loops provided by string, paper strips and similar fiber media create an airiness, a palpable lightness that is reflected in the actual weight and physicality of the finished painting. Knotted entwined textures can represent different types of bark and branches, while folded pieces of paper transform into patterns of leaves that almost rustle on the canvas.
I have now completes a small series of these string and paper trees. I’m not finished with them yet, but there are enough of them to share with you. On first approach, these string and paper trees are clearly more realistic and representational than the highly abstracted series of forest paintgs that preceded them. For example in “The Sentries”, shown below, the viewer does not have to imagine very hard to see the outlines of a tree, foliage, and the regions of the landscape in the background.
There is always a trade-off between depiction and abstraction in my trees and landscape paintings. As an abstract painter at my core, the abstract elements are always more central and important to me than any semblance of “realism”. In a highly abstracted depiction like “Foliage Melody” (Scroll up to see it) the viewer is immediately invited to peruse the abstract forms in the painting and to piece together the subject of the painting. The abstract elements are very prominent, but the level of abstraction may be daunting for someone more familiar and comfortable with more representational art – with pictures of things.
In contrast a piece like “Herald”, shown above, features an easy to decode depiction of a tree in a landscape. The clear subject and easy to see representation can help a viewer develop a comfort level with the piece. In a best case scenario that comfort with the depiction might lead a viewer to note and appreciate some of the details of how the piece is built, and how the abstract elements add up to create a picture of something. Of course the downside is that the viewer might simply see a tree, note “pretty” and “texture” and simply stop there.
This delicate balancing act between depiction and abstraction, construction and effect can make working in the genre of “Abstracted Realism” very challenging. With greater challenges come greater rewards. The visual dialog and the engagement that these Tree of Life Series 2 string and paper trees create with their audience is the reward for negotiating the challenges of abstraction combined with realistic and recognizable depiction.
In this new series of trees, string and strips of paper form three dimensional linear elements, while shorter paper shapes and folds create planes. An objective of these pieces is to use the media to build a depiction of a tree without losing the essential properties and identity of each medium. For example, in a traditional painting, paint is used to make marks on a surface. Paint is a complex pigmented colloid with unique rheological properties. In a traditional painting the nature and properties of the paint and type of paint are subsumed to the processes of mark making. The properties and details of each individual painted mark are in turn occluded as they are used to create masses, illusions of depth and shadow, and illusions of texture. The lines of the marks are lost because they are simply tools to create forms. As a traditional painting strives for greater realism in it’s depiction, more of the identity of the paint, individual lines, and the materials used are subsumed as the realistic illusion is prioritized and dominates.
Abstract painting, especially Abstract Expressionism and related styles, take an approach that is diametrically opposed to the traditional style. In abstract Expressionism the painting is its own subject. The properties and dimensionality of paint and media are thus emphasized. My mixed media paintings follow a third path. The media and their properties form an intrinsic part of each painting’s subject. However these media properties are matched to a small set of key properties of the subject matter. In this tree series, the fluid lines of string and crunchy foldable layering properties of paper are mapped onto the layered patterns of bark and the fluid lines of branches.
In my reinvented Seascapes, the transparency of glass is mapped onto the transparency of water. Light manipulating media create moving reflections – and are mapped onto optical properties of sand and water. This somewhat novel approach to abstraction and representation has provided many opportunities to create works that are both very unique and very approachable, while also challenging how we think about painting as a practice.