Between Place & Memory

Two remembered landscapes I started during the studio time of last Saturday’s workshop.

Preparing for my current workshop — Painting Between Place & Memory, I listened to a wonderful podcast with the painter Susan Lichtman. In recounting her education, she mentioned advice she got ask an undergraduate — to paint by moving between the empirical and the synthetic. In a phrase, Lichtman gets to the heart of what this workshop is intending to do.

Painting is burdened by ideology and history. There are all the manifestos, there are all the critiques, and there are all the teachers who get us stuck on technique and never speak to the nature of content. We inherit these histories in fragmentary form, and sometimes take the fragments to be rules. But they’re not rules, they’re to often obstacles and red herrings — emphatic presumptions that very well may not serve us. And sometimes they’re lies. For example, when I was a student I was told that Impressionists, like Monet, always worked directly in the field. It’s not true. Monet moved between fieldwork and studio painting. What a relief.

I certainly spend a lot of time observing my environment — what Lichtman refers to as ‘the empirical.’ But my best works emerge when I allow past experience to filter through my body — that is when I ‘synthesize’ an experience through my subjective point of view. That’s how I say something particular and avoid the perils of verisimilitude or the blandness that emerges from formulaic technique. 

Introducing my current workshop, I shared examples of three painters working in relation to place and memory. In her talk about the Bonnard exhibition she curated, The Met’s Associate Curator Dita Amory, speaks of Bonnard’s use of memory in his work — calling it ‘retrospectively experiential.’ Quoting Bonnard, she suggests a provocative (and counter normative) position for artists: “Working from life meant surrendering to the object.”

Similarly, Richard Mayhew, in an interview with Hyperallergic, said of his recent work, “What I do with landscapes is internalize my emotional interpretation of desire, hope, fear, and love. So, instead of a landscape, it’s a mindscape.” Importantly, I believe, Mayhew is speaking to the subjectivity of the artist — and the way that experience of place amplifies and shifts through the artist’s sensory memory.

In his wonderful talk at the Institute of Contemporary Art / Miami Hernan Bas recalls the mythologies of his childhood in Northern Florida — informed by Romanticism, Bigfoot, UFOs, ESP, and other paranormal phenomenon which all felt very normal to him. These images provide motifs and ideas to explore in his narrative paintings. Drawing on these youthful memories, Bas has developed a potent, coherent body of work over three decades.

None of these examples are meant to dismiss other ways of making work — such as working from observation (which may help in conjuring pictures from memory). But rather they’re meant to open us to the subjective power of memory and internal image making. We hold pictures of places and experience in our head and we can pull them forward to reveal something specific about our view of the world. And isn’t that the point?

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