Marc Dennis Paintings
The Gail Gibson Gallery in Seattle currently has an excellent exhibit of paintings by three artists: Mark Thompson, Maija Fiebig and Marc Dennis. For a gallery that has primarily exhibited photography, it is always a treat for me to see paintings exhibited at Gail’s gallery. The exhibit opened at the Gallery on October 16 and runs through November 15. This has to be the best exhibit of high quality craftsmanship in painting shown in Seattle this fall. I could write on all three artists involved in this exhibit, but the highlight of the show for me is Marc Dennis’s paintings involving hyper realist images of birds in nature, which have been masterfully executed and are a delight to view.
The exhibit includes ten paintings involving bird’s “thinking of clouds”, as the titles indicate. In art circles, there is often a taboo regarding represention of animals in art works, as such images can lapse into sentimentality or a cuteness that might undercut the primary communication in the work. A way to avoid such traps is to render the images as faithfully and accurately as possible, which Marc’s paintings appear to have accomplished. Rather than being cute, the images are strikingly bold in color and composition, and continue his focus on the power of presence of organisms in the natural world.
The paintings evidence an ornithologist’s eye, a youthful fascination with the natural world and an artist headlong immersed and in love with the material of paint. Despite the painting’s hyper realist quality, these paintings don’t seem objective or detached. Rather they’re of a subjective relationship to nature that’s seemingly very close to animals, insects and flora of the earth. This fidelity with nature is always a pleasant subject matter to return to in art. Something that I have always loved are Audubon Society drawings and natural history museum renderings of animals and plants. I’ve always loved images by scientists that categorize the natural world with illustrations in books and studies. But Marc’s images aren’t dry or technical like an Audubon Society image or biologist’s rendering. There isn’t a separation between the observer and the observed in these works. Although the subject in these paintings are birds, there’s something universal about life in these paintings. All of Marc’s works, either in his images of insects, or plants and flowers, or his other paintings containing birds held by human hands, evince a power of presence and/or personality that often jumps out of the canvas.
But let us not forget these are paintings, and succulent ones at that. The color used is incredibly vibrant, more vibrant than I might have the courage to employ for fear of being accused of pandering. The images are believable in evoking the natural world partly because of the appropriately localized, vivid colors used, i.e. they don’t seem exaggerated. The colors in the paintings are seductive, but it’s not just color that makes the work sing in an aesthetically beautiful manner. The form of the bird’s themselves are placed in the paintings causing sharp diagonals in the composition of the imagery. The birds boldly divide the surface of the picture causing visual tension. The flora represented in the paintings often hug the sides of the canvasses and contribute to the exceptional design, as well as decorate and soften. His blurring of the background the way a camera with a low aperture setting might, creates a contrast between a soft background and the sharp detailed outlines of the birds, plants and tree limbs in the foreground. (The tree limbs themselves are rendered so extraordinarily well that I could view a painting of just tree limbs with their foliage and be content with that.) These are tried and true tools used to create compelling visual images, which have been simply, yet firmly utilized in the paintings.
Looking at these paintings led me to write Marc and ask him a few questions about the work, to which he generously responded. Below is a transcript of some of the question and answer session we briefly had.
Why are birds one of your motifs in painting? Is it simply a personal delight in the appearance and behavior of birds for you, or is there a theoretical significance to representing bird’s in paintings?
It is a personal delight as well as a theoretical significance. In addition to a wide range of subject matter my main concentration as an artist has been on one level to subvert general aspects of beauty using flora and fauna as subject matter, with a particular focus on birds and insects. Birds are very interesting subjects visually, as well as contextually. The image of a bird is all at once beautiful and dependent on its context and also potentially loaded with meaning. I remember spending hours and hours drawing animals all through my childhood. I’ve been painting birds all my life. When I was 10 years old I wrote and illustrated a book about birds, specifically designed for young readers. It included a full page of feathers I had removed from one of the pillows on my bed and taped to the page and labeled them with the type of waterfowl I presumed the feather had come from. I remember vividly researching birds and making tons of little sketches in preparation for the final drawings. I was fascinated with birds. When living on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for a short time back in 1991 I read a lot of books on the mythologies of the Lakota, Kiowa and Cheyenne with respect to birds. I painted an entire series of images of birds, mainly hawks and eagles combing lore and legend of Eurocentric and Indian cultures. It seems I’ve always been interested in birds. To this day I still have the same intrigue and joy I had when I was a child when it comes to birds.
Why are the bird’s thinking in these works at Gail Gibson? It seems to me that much of your work is about the power of presence, either presence in life, or the vanishing of presence through death. Even in your paintings of plants and flowers, they seem to exude a personality and presence – sometimes the imagery seems chilling, even though you’re painting something quite beautiful. Is this why the bird’s are thinking, to help communicate this idea of presence? Not only are they thinking, but they’re thinking something abstract.
As a kid I often wondered if lizards daydreamed or had random thoughts like we did. I decided that they did. I wanted to believe all animals did. I thought of all animals as our relations and couldn’t imagine that they didn’t have random thoughts throughout a day. I found it comforting to conceive that a bird could just sit and think about beauty, say of the sky or for that matter pondering on nothingness. When we look up at clouds and imagine them as being something other than clouds because of their shapes, for a moment we are transported. I am interested as a painter in enabling a viewer to be transported. As a kid I read lots of comic books and would draw animals with thought and speech balloons over their heads. It was just the kind of stuff creative kids do at age ten I guess. I hadn’t thought of it till thirty years later when I was in my Brooklyn studio and during a lunch break began flipping through one of my many books on birds. This particular book, which I had picked up at a flea market years back, had vivid hand-colored plates. I came across one particular picture of a songbird on a branch surrounded by a bright blue sky — and it just kind of hit me. I drew a thought balloon just off to the right above the bird’s head. I smiled at the fact that somehow in that decision there existed the potential for a new series of paintings. It all made sense to me in an abstract way and the rest is history.
Is there a general process you undergo to create your paintings?
I make lots of sketches and a few preparatory drawings before I arrive at a final image. I mainly work from photographs and therefore need to go through lots of images prior to selecting those that I feel would make for good paintings. Once I decide on photographs to work from I mess with them on the computer in Photoshop trying out a variety of compositions, colors, lighting, etc. In other words depending on my particular intentions, sometimes I create composites or work directly from a given image.
Do you take your own photographs from which your paintings are derived?
I take my own photographs as well as those of others with whom I’ve worked out arrangements to use their images.
To answer your question regarding the nature of working from photographs as opposed to simply taking photos, it is ciritcal to understand that my intentions are to rethink the relation between everyday reality and artistic representation – to make images that border on believability. Making paintings from a photographic standpoint is how the eyes see and I play with this in terms of arriving at a fresher sense of believing in what we are looking at. Paintings that come off as siblings of photographs carry us outside the restrictions of photography giving us something fresh to behold. I make up enough stuff in my translation from photograph to painting that there is always the element of artifice in my work. And there is always the paint – my images speak more of the language of paint than photography.
If I may explain a bit further — I love working from photographs because it involves a unique exploration of the type of information that is not found when I work from life nor is it the kind of information in my head. The information a photograph offers is right there – in my face; and then as I continue to work new information steadily emerges offering me new challenges and directions, albeit not obvious when the piece is completed. It is the process of working from a photograph that really holds the magic for an artist. I enjoy that relationship. You ask me why don’t I just take photographs and the answer is simple – I’m not interested in photography per se but rather painting from a photograph. I’m a painter. I’m also interested in the notion of mimicry, representing and recontextualiing an image and its subsequent meanings. Working from photography suits my intentions very well. It is the perfect balance of being in a comfort zone as well as always being on the edge of a new artistic and intellectual challenge.
To stoke the fire a bit about working from photographs since this is a critical issue with my students and I’m sure countless others, to me working from a photograph is, in an abstract sense a sort of sideways view of working from life. After all, the photograph is an object and it sits directly in front of me as I work. I’m working from my observation of “it” which in and of itself is an observation from “life.” I’m not a purist in the sense that it’s necessary to be working from life because it’s not helpful for my brain to process the required information that comes from having an actual living breathing form in front of me. There are simply too many changes that occur which inhibit or interfere with my decision making. Throughout history artists have found newer and fresher ways of challenging themselves by virtue of technological advancements in their craft, such as the uses of lenses, etc. Working from photographs is merely one of those advancements. Advancement is good. It is inevitable. And embraceable.