Freese

Blog featuring artwork of Wes Freese

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A Positive Squandering of Energy

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Video from the fantastic video blog Gorky’s Granddaughter, talking with artist and teacher Megan Craig.  The discussion touches on a wealth of issues concerning contemporary painting, and many thoughts occuring to me as I try to maintain a painting practice and operate the world’s suckiest blog.  Wonderful paintings by Megan!  I’ve linked to Megan’s website to the right of this page, which you should also check out.

Written by Wes Freese

January 30, 2013 at 9:34 pm

Artist Watch: Josephine Halvorson

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I have been an enthusiastic fan of Josephine Halvorson’s paintings for a couple of years.  There’s a link to her website on the right side of this blog (see “Artists”) if you’d like to view some of her work.  Below is a short video of Josephine describing her approach to painting as being one in which she doesn’t try to illustrate things in her paintings, but rather she’s trying to make the things with paint that she observes over extended periods of time.  That’s a delightful way of understanding.  I’ve always found her choice of subject matter fascinatingly odd, and her orderly, yet unfussy paint handling is uniquely attractive. 

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Written by Wes Freese

December 28, 2012 at 5:18 pm

Economics of Art

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William Powhida, “A Guide to the Market Oligopoly System”, 2010

Reuters’ Felix Salmon has an interesting article on William Powhida’s “A Guide to the Market Oligopoly System”.  One of the most interesting points of the article regards the value of artworks:

“Most people who buy art will, to a first approximation, ‘lose’ all their money: like most other consumer products, it won’t or can’t be resold after being bought. Many of those people kid themselves that their work is ‘worth’ roughly what it would cost them to replace it; they’re only disillusioned when they actually try to sell the thing and find no willing buyers. And even the clear-eyed often think of their art as a lottery ticket: it might be worthless today, but maybe, in the future, if the artist becomes hugely successful, it could be worth a fortune.”

It’s surprising to me that the value of art purchased from artists in the tiers “Submerged Artists (Yearning Masses)”, the “Emerging Artists (Commercial Galleries)” and even the “Primary Market (Blue Chip Galleries)” effectively drops to zero once it is purchased.  Most people, including me, mistakenly believe that the art product they purchase retains some financial value even after purchase.  I was taught in art school that art always appreciates in value, and I think most people tend to believe this too.  However, it does seem sensible that re-sale of the product becomes mostly impossible unless the artist progresses up the pyramid (of Powhida’s chart).  

Let’s exclude buyers who purchase art solely for the purpose of decorating their home, buyers who derive aesthetic pleasure from viewing art, and those who never intend to re-sell the product in the market.  The subject of art’s value more aptly concerns active participants investing in art as a commodity.  For the serious investor, works purchased from artists in the top two tiers will offer only marginal returns (0.55%).  Thus, the only real prospect for a return on an art investment is to buy works from the bottom three tiers of the pyramid, which might be re-sold once the artist ascends in status to the upper tiers of the pyramid.  

Since the risk is so high concerning purchases from the first three tiers, the investor is also buying a valued interest in the artist’s career.  The buyer has a vested interest in the artist’s well-being and future success, and thus buying more than one piece of artwork from an artist, and encouraging others to purchase an artist’s work is acting in an investor’s own self-interest.  You often hear investors say that collecting is almost like an addiction, and that they can’t just buy one piece of work.

Future returns on the re-sale of art for the most part go to the investor and not the artist.  The only opportunity for artists to make significant wages is if they sell their products within the higher tiers of the pyramid.  While the bottom tiers of the pyramid are buyer’s markets, the upper tiers favor sellers.  However, the number of buyers diminish in the upper tiers, but the risk and rewards diminish for buyers of high end art commodities.  It’s important to note that Powhida’s illustration is a guide to an oligopoly market system, meaning a system of sellers, and as such, this is a guide for artists to make their way in selling their work.

The value of an artwork is the most quixotic aspect to the commodification of art.  Similar to the valuation of property, the value of artwork is dependent on what a willing buyer-willing seller will agree to.  In the real estate market, there are three primary methodologies to appraising a property’s value: the cost approach, the market approach (comparable sales) and the income approach.  These approaches inform willing buyers and sellers.  The appraisal of artworks also have standardized methodologies for valuing artistic property, however those methodologies become less relied upon the further up the pyramid an artist travels.  Wild speculation about a piece’s cultural value is what informs buyers and sellers of artworks at the top of the pyramid.  The physical condition, age, originality and other physical aspects of the work will still influence value to a certain degree, but  aspects such as the cost to make the artwork, or what kind of income the commodity might generate are not factored into the value of art being sold in the auction houses.

An artwork’s value is appraised differently depending on where an artist is within the pyramid.  Knowing how the different works are valued in the different tiers is not so well known.  For the “Yearning Masses”, artworks are primarily valued depending on the cost of materials, the time to create the works, the condition of the object, the size, and various other physical properties, but only to a certain point.  As Powhida’s illustration shows, there is far greater supply than demand for artworks in the “Yearning Masses”, which drives prices down.  The cost of production, specifically the amount of labor that went into the creation of the work, most often far exceeds sale prices of artworks.  

With little or no hope of future return for most of these works, and considering an excess of supply, the market cannot bear the true costs of production of artworks.  Comparable sales of other artwork is a greater indicator of value for these works, however the set of data (comparable sales) informing the value is mostly opaque and highly unreliable.  Unlike real estate sales that are by law public knowledge and can be easily obtained, sales of artworks are not public knowledge, as commercial galleries actively work to maintain the information on sales of artwork as privileged.  In the long run I think this is more of a detriment than a benefit to sellers, buyers and artists.

Artists that want to scuttle up the next tier in the pyramid must begin to determine what context they want their artwork to exist in.  Artists who seek to create artworks that illustrate their individual life or the whims of their artistic story will rarely go beyond the Commercial Galleries (Primary Market First Tier).  An artwork’s content must begin to orient itself into a branch of art history for the artist to progress to the Second Tier of the Primary Market.  As Powhida’s diagram states, an artwork’s value “is determined by [its] symbolic content, rather than [its] physical characteristics”, but “this might not be true.”  There are many very talented artists exhibiting and selling in commercial galleries across the country.  However artworks that seek to place themselves within the stream of art history are the only ones with the possibility for an increase in value later on.

As art history, particularly painting, is the signifier of a cultural history of ideas, what is New is what moves history forward.  But newness alone does not progress an artist’s work from Emerging status to Established status.  Artwork must be relatively new and intellectually compelling relative to artworks of the past.  The accomplishment of placing the artwork within the stream of art history is orchestrated by art critics, intellectuals, publishers, advertisers and historians.  These are the outfits that pull and push the market levers that begin the process of commodifying artworks.

An artist’s escalation to “Established Artist” status is also dependent on how well the work’s subject matter adheres to the increasingly focussed brand that is taking shape.  The context of the work becomes crystalized at this point.  While an artist can partly define and tweak the context of the work being created during this phase, there is a short window in which the work will have optimal value.  The works created after this tier will mostly digress from the perceived brand.  Most artists abhor repeating themselves and the necessity of perceived progression in their art literally compels them to separate themselves from the success they previously achieved.  Rarely does an artist strike gold twice.

Only artists who stick to works that fit into what are now well defined specifications of their brand, and who also develop a tightly organized means of production to churn out like-minded works will reach the Museum tier.  It may be highly profitable for the artist, but market forces are already at work as investors become increasingly wary of the value of individual works of art because of the increasing number of similar works which dilute the value of the works previously purchased.

The quality of the work becomes mostly irrelevant when dealing with “Art Stars”.  These artists are enshrined in the history of art and have been placed in a culture’s collective consciousness.  The re-sale of such works may still only bring negligible profit to previous buyers, but possession of such works pay indirect dividends more in terms of power in society.  Usually the artist has deceased by the time he or she reaches “Art Star” status, but increasingly artists are living out a good portion of their lives as “Art Stars”.  This is an effect of the art market.  The quality of their work has long since depleted but an artist’s brand name product has achieved a mostly stabilized common understanding of value among investors.

The common denominator in an artist’s travels on the pyramid highway is sales of artwork.  Sales codify both value of the work and an artist’s standing in culture.

Written by Wes Freese

January 10, 2011 at 2:21 pm

Provisional Painting

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Wesley Freese, “Practicing”, Oil on Linen, 24″ X 24″

One of my favorite writers on art, and painting in particular, is Raphael Rubinstein.  His 2006 essay “A Quiet Crisis” was one of the most relevant contemporary articles on art and painting for me personally.  What has always seemed apparent in his writing is an impression that he truly does understand the process of painting, and that he’s not just interpreting the products of  visual (painting) culture from the outside in.  Earlier this month, Rubinstein published an essay in the May edition of Art in America on what he has coined “Provisional Painting“, trying to illuminate an as yet unclassified thematic approach in contemporary painting.  His essay moves the ball forward a bit in discussions concerning contemporary painting.

Rubinstein writes of his increasing awareness of provisionality in the practice of painting that “deliberately turn[s] away from ‘strong’ painting for something that seems to constantly risk inconsequence or collapse.”  The deliberate turning away might be due to a foundational skepticism inherent in the genealogy of modern art, which he says began with Cezanne.  This foundational skepticism is born of the modern struggle with the medium of painting, and in the case of younger artists, an attempt to “spurn the blandishments” of the art market.

Christopher Wool, Untitled, 2007

Christopher Wool, “Untitled”, 2007

Five contemporary painters are cited that illustrate Rubinstein’s provisionality.  Raoul De Keyser, “constantly asserts the impossibility of painting free of touch ups, mistakes, accidents, set on laying bare the seams, the second tries, the failures” (quoted from Jean-Claude Vergne); Albert Oehlen, whose “work, which manages to be at once antiseptic and messy, continues to draw great pictorial force from its abject awkwardness.”  Christopher Wool‘s “paradoxical pictures in which the artist seems to have obliterated a painting-in-progress and then presented this sum of erasures as the finished work.”  Mary Heilmann, whose paintings “[suggest] that treating painting as if it were ceramics, that is, as a medium free of weighty cultural expectations, is key to Heilmann’s art.”  Michael Krebber “appears to say, painting is what I do but let’s not get sentimental about it or waste unnecessary time or materials; this is all you’re getting for your money.  And yet Krebber’s disdain for painting could equally be interpreted as a sign of overvaluation of the medium”.

Rubinstein calls up reference to three other painters with recent exhibits as historical context for the five contemporary artists above.  Joan Miro, Martin Barre and Kimber Smith.  Miro’s work from 1927-1937 and “lack of finish, aggressively crude figuration, and extensive doodling and cancellation marks suggest a painter at war with his medium.”  Barre’s work “could well appear as anti-painting, whereas what [he] wanted to show, through the traces or points of impact in a clear surface, was what painting could be if disencumbered of object, color and form.”  Smith, as a second generation Abstract Expressionist in the most hostile decade to painting (1970’s), “splashed Matissean insouciance over the serious minded legacy of Abstract Expressionism” yet “does not fight at the fore, but neither does he fight at the rear; indeed, he fights not at all.” (Hal Foster, Artforum 1979)

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Raoul de Keyser, “Untitled”, 2002

Rubinstein co-ops the argument of the “impossibility” of painting, explaining it as “a conviction that an earlier generation of artist has left only a few scraps to be cleaned up” or that “nothing could seem more presumptuous or inappropriate … than to set out to create a masterpiece.”  The entertainment of the impossibility has led many contemporary artists “to reject a sense of finish in their work, or to rely on acts of negation.”  Provisional painting is “the finished product disguised as preliminary stage” or “major painting masquerading as minor painting.”  Rubinstein concludes with a suggestion that the provisionality of contemporary painters’ works “is an index of the impossibility of painting and the equally persistent impossibility of not painting.”

Is painting impossible?  This idea seems prescient only to a painter that is concerned with making a name for him or herself within the history of painting.  This is a big art market concern.  There are enumerable painters making traditional landscape, still life or other abstract paintings who either ignore or don’t know about the alleged “impossibility” of painting.  Painting is not impossible to them, it has consequence to them personally, and to his or her audience.  But the idea of impossibility in painting does reflect painting’s limited role in societies and culture.

In the 1970’s painting was “dead”, only to be reinvigorated by the post-modernists.  Painting was “pure” in the 1950’s which led to the celebration of monochromatic, dull and lifeless paintings by many artists in New York, and which I believe history will not be kind to in the long run.  Painting is not going to have the influence on society that television or photography or digital media has had and will continue to have, but it never did.  Show me the era, or the example, when the genre of painting cast such a big shadow on society.  It never existed!  Even before the inventions of other media in the 19th and 20th century, painting always had a limited role in society.  This ideology of “failure” and “impossibility” is more marketing pablum, and less about the practice of painting.  Nevertheless, fifty years from now you can bet that college art history books will have a section on painting after the millennium, perhaps entitled something like “Provisional Painting: The Impossibility of a Dead Medium” followed by the next chapter “The Resurrection of Painting”.

The thing I often object to are critic’s claims that traditional forms of painting are somehow obsolete, boring and/or not culturally relevant.  It makes me wonder if critics know what actually goes into creating a painting, or if they have the faculties to view a masterfully constructed painting.  I appreciate Rubinstein’s essay a great deal, and even though the concept of the impossibility in painting is widely accepted among critics, it certainly hasn’t infiltrated many painter’s actual practice of painting.  As I’ve written before, a painter whose work is excessively conceptual, like most of the artists listed in Rubenstein article, is usually masking an underlying lack of knowledge and skill as to how to paint.  It leads me to question: is provisionality really a euphemism for lack of skill or ability?

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Albert Oehlen, “Gericht”, 2006

Written by Wes Freese

June 2, 2009 at 6:28 am

Andrew Piedilato Paintings

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English Kills Art Gallery in Brooklyn has some fantastic paintings by Andrew Piedilato on exhibit until February 15.  Two Coats of Paint gave a brief glimpse of the works earlier in  January.  In the midst of the art world’s economic downturn, it’s exciting to see a fresh painter exhibited.  Unique, new paintings make the world seem exuberant.  Memo to Seattle art galleries, please get this guy an exhibit in town.

The most obvious aspect to his paintings is their exceptionally large size, often seven or eight feet square. Piedilato’s paintings contain quirky, amusing imagery along with a painterly abstraction.  In the midst of our time when painting is frequently considered dead, or if not dead then at least a failure at communicating anything of importance to society, works like Andy’s remind everyone about the vitality painting can have in the service of an individualistic vision.  The works seem like an accumulation of various marks made in prior art movements, although they’re certainly his own.  They’re not quite post-modern; they’re whatever has come after post-modernism.  Allusions to Philip Guston, Julian Schnabel, Tony Scherman, and perhaps others as well seems to form a subtext to the paintings.   The various marks and painted motifs make for some fun and at times nonsensical paintings with a bit of a kick to them.  I asked Andy a few things about his work, and here’s what he said:

I saw on your bio that you are originally from Georgia. How did you decide to move to New York?

I am originally from Athens, its about and hour drive east of Atlanta.  I came to NY to paint with a friend of mine, Carter Davis.  He was at Pratt, and I moved there to continue hanging out with him, paint, and try to help each other get a show, gallery, whatever.  Additionally I was ready to get the hell out of Athens.
It’s probably a rudimentary question, but why are your paintings so big?
The paintings are big because to me, they look better big. I really love working on a painting bigger than me, it literally gives me room to move and I am more creative in motion.  I talk better when I’m walking, I like to draw standing up, I like running around the canvas trying to keep it all together like controlling a mob, or entertaining a crowd.  The big canvas is big, I like its presence, the scale gives me ideas for paintings.  Conversly….I have a ton of 7 x 7 inch watercolors, actually thousands.  I spent the entire summer before coming to Pratt working on these tiny watercolors, running through hundreds of ideas, some were okay.  A gallery in Atlanta sold some of them and stole the rest….but who cares, I kept busy and had a lot of ideas for painting when I got to Brooklyn.  So, I like painting around 8 feet sq or bigger.  Really small is good, medium size paintings are impossible (for me).  Scale is important, but thinking about “why” has never helped my work.
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Your paintings appear to incorporate painted marks from other artists, like say Phillip Guston, or Julian Schnabel or Tony Scherman drips.  I’m sure there are others as well. I don’t mean to suggest there’s copying being done on your part, you’re paintings don’t read that way.  I say that because it seems that your paintings seem to suggest a commentary on the act of painting today in relation to a history of painting in the 20th century. Is this your intent, or am I dreaming all this up?
I’m naturally a painter, I like painting, and I like the paintings of many other artists.  My first favorite artist as a child was my dad, we drew together and I drew like him…and all through my life since then there has always been the influence of other artists on me, but the similarities are not a statement.  I think Philip Guston is a genius, I also think my studio mate James Herbert is a genius, and sometimes my friend Carter is a genius, I have stolen from all of them and more.  But, I hope I have put enough of my own stuff in the paintings to not worry to much about that.
Why do you often employ iconography of bricks and walls, along with animals?  I should say that you evoke the idea of animals in the titles of your paintings (i.e. Snake and Wolf Eating Grass), but for the most part animals are not readily apparent in your painted imagery.  There seems to be this dual confrontation between some semblance of nature up against industrialized settings. Did you grow up in a city, or in a rural setting?
I grew up in a very rural town outside of Athens….Madison County, GA.   You know its rural when you give the county name instead of the town.  The animals and the walls came about pretty naturally.  I used to ignore the white ground of the canvas and paint my painting right in the middle of the canvas, the corners left blank.  I just saw the blank canvas as oblivion and my subject sitting on top of it.  So, now I have been doing this tape thing (I know its lame) masking and painting in bricks so that I can then do my painting in front of the wall, its really just a way to have the monster, animal, brushmark, whatever in front of some kind of naturalistic-like space.  Obviously there a million different ways I could this, but the tape is fast, and it’s nice to have this sort of movie set you painted, and now where do you want to put the horrific thing? or the weird thing?  Or what the hell, more walls….
Snake and Wolf eating grass came from a chimney I saw in Baltimore….I remembered it, painted it, and then added some hills, and then I purposely came up with something ridiculous: a snake and a wolf eating grass at the foot of a random chimney in a field.  
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Your paintings suggest a sense of fun in the creation of the paintings. But at the same time there appears to be a violence to them as well. Your “Horse Going Under A Fence” appears to be a depiction of a horse getting absolutely slaughtered. Can you offer any comment on this perceived duality in the painting?
Horse going under a fence was from a little drawing I did trying to come up with an idea for a painting.  I have some other fence paintings, and thought doing one with a horse crawling underneath instead of jumping over would be a good start.  I didn’t intend for it to be painted with that violent look but I liked it.  The little trees in the background were from an old early Americana painting I saw on a plate in a museum.  It was a painting where space was not defined by overlapping shapes, everything had some space around it….I just liked that I had the idea to paint the little trees for the landscape.
How do you know when a painting is done?
I don’t know what to say when you ask: how do you know when a painting is done?  I can only tell you when I stopped painting on a painting and maybe why, sometimes you don’t know when to stop. I have finished a painting only to paint on it again, that doesn’t mean all the paintings can be painted on, it just means welcome to the contradictory world of art. Sometimes you run of steam and stop, come back the next day with every intention to finish your idea but somehow can’t touch it.   When you are in the making mode, it’s not a good time to be passing judgement.  Even though (while painting) I am in a  hyper state of decision making, the judgement as to whether I should keep going or not is beyond me.  Lately I have been making little thumbnail drawings and sticking to them for the most part, that makes deciding it’s done a little easier.  There will undoubtedly come a time when the little thumbnails don’t work for me, but for now I love being their slave.
I’m fascinated by the fact that you have exhibited at OK Harris Gallery, one of my favorite galleries that I visit whenever I’m in New York, which also exhibits a fair amount of works by photo realist painters as well. How did you come to get into a relationship with OK Harris Gallery?
Ivan Karp owner of O.K. Harris was the only one who would give me a show right away, so i took it.  He shows a number of photo realistic painters, i don’t know why he gave me shows.  Other than that he genuinely loved the work, imagine that, he owns two paintings of mine.
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Andy, thank you for providing some thoughts on your work.

Written by Wes Freese

February 1, 2009 at 7:40 am

Kristine Moran Paintings

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"Chloris Into Flora", 2008

In my blog post titled “On Painting” from last summer, I mentioned the painter Kristine Moran and spoke fondly of her work.  I’ve recently come back to reviewing her work and musing on what it is she’s painting about.

Her paintings often depict interior spaces such as night club dressing rooms, show rooms and private parlors that cast a dark, seedy pall on the tenor of the imagery.  Her fictionalized settings house semblences of female human figures embroiled in a weird recombination of the organic / biological and the architectural.   Cocophanous clouds of flesh, boat oars, wooden bannisters, wolves, chairs and rope lines collide in an unusual frenzy of violent activity.  But as opposed to her earlier student paintings that illustrated total destruction, here the frenzied collisions result in a chrysalis of something apparently new.  Moran hints at a generated result both grotesque and glorious, although the viewer can’t quite be sure exactly what that result will be.  This interior calamity seems to represent a psychological place within the human mind, of identity and a metamorphosis of some sort.  I can’t help but think that Moran is coming to identify with the human Id in her work, and either consciously or unconsciously trying to draw from that realm and take chances in her work.   Not all of Kristine’s paintings represent interiors, as some illustrate spaces that seem to allude to a natural world with snow and forests.  Others are set on public sidewalks next to buildings.  Yet the violent events of some sort of disaster / rebirth remains central in those exterior environments as well.   

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"You Used To Be Alright, What Happened?", 2008

Moran’s early student work imaged car crashes and other such catstrophic events, of objects at a high rate of speed coming to a rapid stop via collisions with other objects in motion.  From there she developed paintings representing environments, cities and urban dwellings reorganized and reconstituted by Moran to reflect an idea of urban failure bouyed by humanity’s hunger for a utopian society.  Moran’s latest work, created mostly while completing her MFA at Hunter College in New York, appears to represent the evolution of an analytical thought process on her part, combining her previous painting themes together with a newfound emphasis on the human figure resulting in a new, as of yet unspecified whole.  Along with the uniqueness of subject matter there also appears to be incremental steps in her painting technique away from a traditional formalism towards a non-representational impulse in gestural painting and a more robust, juicy color palette.  See “Leda and the Swan” and “The Gift”.  While her current transmographic narrative seems darker and signifies mankind after the Fall (tragedy), there exists an excitement about it all.  See “You Used To Be Alright, What Happened”, “Unravelling of Self”, “Collapse of Will”.  The paintings exemplify a joy in the process and craft of painting, which for me comes through in an exhuberant manner.

"The Gift", 2008

"The Gift", 2008

Originally from Canada, Kristine now lives and works in New York, and is represented by www.nicellebeauchene.com.  The Nicelle Beauchene Gallery was included in the recent NADA Art Fair in Miami this month, and Kristine’s work was apparently shown there.  Best of luck to a relatively new and intriguing painter.  Moran’s website here.

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"The Garden", 2008

Written by Wes Freese

December 9, 2008 at 2:41 am

Marc Dennis Paintings

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"Bird Thinking of a Cloud, #15"

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. 

"Bird Thinking of a Cloud, #11"

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.

"Bird Thinking of a Cloud, #20"

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.

Why paint these images?  Since your work is often photo realist, why not just photograph these images and exhibit photographs?
These are loaded questions. First off I think my work is more hyper-realism than photo realism; I just happen to use photos as information and in some sense as inspiration. You ask me why I paint these images. Well first and foremost I take pleasure in images that best embody our curiosities and passions. I also paint these images because I enjoy looking at them and they hold potential meaning for me and are a part of my history. I also know that these images hopefully are able to reverberate with a wider audience as opposed to a more narrow audience.

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.

"Bird Thinking of a Cloud, #13"

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.

"Bird Thinking of a Cloud, #18"

Written by Wes Freese

October 22, 2008 at 2:15 am

Posted in Artists, Contemporary Art, New York, Painting

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